A snapshot of Canada in 2013

A snapshot of Canada in 2013
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Many were quick to dub 2013 Canada’s “year of the scandal” thanks to the two enormous political outrages that consumed the country’s headlines for more than eight unbroken months: the spectacular meltdown of Robert Ford, Toronto’s drunken, buffoonish, crack-smoking mayor, and the massive money-grubbing corruption of several members of Canada’s already absurd, unelected Senate. To this duo, I’d also add the chronic, embarrassing gaffes of new Liberal Party boss Justin Trudeau, whom, from sympathetically speculating about the motives of the Boston bombers to offering words of admiration for China’s Communist dictatorship to hosting a bizarrely tone-deaf ladies night” fundraiser, has rarely missed an opportunity to prove himself every bit the undisciplined intellectual lightweight many feared when he was first installedelected” back in April.

In a recent Huffington Post column, I speculated on what all this means for the future of Brand Canada:

While the damage done by Rob Ford — who I will remind the jury, is the democratically-elected mayor of Canada’s largest city — to our reputation as the Ned Flanders of nations can’t be understated, 2013 was also the year the Washington Post ran an editorial entitled “Think our Senate is horrible? Wait ’til you see Canada’s,” the New Yorker was sniggering about our “Trudeaux,” and the Economist declared us officially “uncool.”

It was a year Canada proved itself unable to unseat a municipal politician spectacularly unfit for office, spent eight months toiling under a scandal wrought by the predictable corruption of the First World’s worst-designed legislative body, and embraced the hereditary principle as a reasonable method for picking the country’s next ruler. And worst of all, everyone noticed.

2013 did produce at least one Canadian hero worth celebrating, Colonel Christopher Hadfield — the first Canadian to run the International Space Station, and an all-around decent guy — and the applause he received was rightly deserved. But what he personified in terms of the national psyche was ultimately not interesting or insightful enough to make him a celebrity with much staying power — despite an initial media blitz, his 15 minutes seem to have expired, and no outlet named him newsmaker of the year (the Canadian Press, Maclean’s magazine, and the Canadian edition of TIME, in contrast, all went with Mayor Ford).

Hadfield was a charming fellow, but his fame could not have arrived at a less opportune moment. 2013 was not a year in which Canada was destined to exceed the restraints of its smallness and prove itself a heroic nation capable of disproportionate greatness. It was instead one that exposed the sheer enormity of every mundane obstacle — political and cultural — we must overcome in pursuing that quest.


  1. Steve

    McCullough, I really like your thoughts and depictions
    But I feel like comparing the "gaffes" of Trudeau with Ford or the Senate is a bit unreasonable.
    I don't even think the gaffes are all that troublesome.
    Sure, I don't think Trudeau was correct in his assessment of China, but you seemed to take issue with his "offering words of admiration." Surely China, which has roughly a fifth of the world population, is doing at least one thing worthy of admiration.
    Or perhaps you mean that every admirable thing China may or may not be doing is negated by the fact that it is a dictatorship.
    Regardless, the fact that someone dared to offer admiration of China, is seen as a scandal, is troublesome of our ability to emphasize with others.
    It reminds me of the anti-Americanism you too rail against. America is not a paragon of good nor a persona of evil, and neither is China.

    In terms of the bombing comments, how wrong was it of Trudeau to try and understand the root causes of terrorism. Was it completely without legitimacy? To me, he seems to be acting more like an intellectual, than a politician concerned with the emotional impact of his words. I don't think he should have said what he said, but it is not worthy of being a scandal comparable to Rob Ford.

  2. @TheInvisibleDan

    What does having a fifth of the world population have to do with admiring the policies of its government?

  3. Steve

    It is harder to run heavily populated countries, I imagine, than lightly populated countries.
    The fact that China is relatively stable, prosperous, and with growing political clout, suggests that they must be doing something correctly.
    Having such a large population, a fifth of the world, comes with many hardships and trials. Some advantages too, but also trials.
    That is what I meant, although there are many asterisks attached to my statements because facts resist simplicity.

  4. Chris

    I'll say this much… I'll remember what Hadfield did long after I've forgotten Mayor Ford.

  5. Ryan Thompson

    JJ… Canada is being Americanized. Tone death intellectuals coupled with buffoonish populists.

  6. Dan

    Hopefully the Senate will be Americanized with some elections.

  7. Dryhad

    I don't know, it took the US 135 years to make their senate democratic. Don't hold your breath.

  8. Psudo

    Even before the USA's senate reform, senators were chosen by a vote from a separate body than the leadership of the lower house. Even though it was not an example of direct democratic elections, at least it served as a legitimate check on power and gave representation to a different set of interests (the state legislatures) than the lower house (the states' voters). Having a Senate that is appointed by the same office that is already in charge of everything is merely more bureaucracy, not better representation.

  9. Colin Minich

    I think you mean, "tone DEAF."

  10. Guest

    "Politician makes gaffe" is ephemeral national news at most, and hardly unique to Canada.

    Even financial corruption is unremarkable unless it's widespread enough that it might have wider implications, like helping bring down a government (e.g. Paul Martin's, Brian Cowen's). Politics is always going to attract people who want to fiddle with the purse string s until some coins roll out.

    Politician repeatedly and deliberately breaks the law in several ways and refuses to be kicked out – especially when it's in such a dramatic fashion – is what makes headlines elsewhere. And in the UK, it's Ford which you're more likely to have heard of.

  11. David

    a) We want to remain the "Ned Flanders of nations", yet we don't want to be "uncool"? Can't have it both ways.

    b) it's all the timing. I can guarantee you that if the latest Rob Ford headlines appeared in the spring, and Cmdr. Hadfield released his "Space Oddity" in mid-December, you *will* have seen a reversal in our nation's image (and who would be the Newsmaker of the Year). People nowadays (especially the media) have a *very* short attention span (as you alluded to with your "15 minutes of fame" comment), and because Hadfield's been out of our consciousness for a longer time than Rob Ford has, he gets the short end of the stick. (May I remind you that Rob Ford was still being Rob Ford in the springtime (that's when the crack smoking thing first broke, if I recall, and the running joke was that he was going to find the video – plus his St. Patrick's Day shenanigans were obviously right before the spring) and Hadfield easily pushed him out of the way to grab the Internet's attention.

  12. Taylor

    JJ, buddy, I love your work. I've followed you for years. I'll be the first to kick in for any project you ask for. You're a bright guy.

    All that being said, your view of Canada is pretty much as warped as Ralph Nader's view of America.

  13. Matthew Naylor

    Steve, I remember when JJ was defending the actions of Rob Ford, and belittling the Senate scandal, so perhaps it makes sense that he's trying to lump the major travails of the Conservative establishment in with 'one thing Justin Trudeau said one time'.

    Now, I think that there are pretty clear distinctions that one can draw between a goofy slip of the tongue and a cynical, well planned coverup of systematic corruption by Harper appointees, but it is fun to try and watch the desperation with which the defenders of the flagging Conservative cause try to find something (anything, please!) to distract from or minimize the major problems of their party.

    Indeed, two gaffes that couldn't even be called scandalettes (and were more misstatements or poor articulations of rational points than … rank and fetid corruption or incompetence) and the actions of some low-on-the-totem-pole fundraiser (contrast with the Chief of the PMO) were given the same amount of ink in the first paragraph as the aforementioned alleged racketeering and buffoonery. Also telling was the lack of any mention of Angry Tom. But he's trailing in the polls…

  14. JJ McCullough

    You guys are very much missing my point, which was not to make a big deal of Trudeau's gaffes per se, but rather what they represented — namely, that Justin Trudeau is sort of a ridiculous, silly character who has no real business being a candidate for prime minister of one of the world's largest economies. He is supremely unqualified for the job, and was elected to it for extremely superficial, emotional, desperate reasons. I do think his rise to the Liberal leadership was quite embarrassing for Canada, because it reflects very poorly on the sorts of people who we trust with power in this country.

  15. Guest

    Yeah, but so far only one riding has entrusted him with a single vote as an MP so he's hardly been entrusted with any power at all. Sure, he's an opposition leader (unopposed, wasn't it?), maybe he could be PM one day, and then, if they keep coming, his gaffes might sometimes be serious news. But it's not an election year, and even the few people who read the 'New Yorker' article you linked to are not suddenly decide Canada is a basket case on his account (they might, however, be wondering how Ford gets away with it).

    I don't think your point was missed, it was merely being argued that the way you contextualised it – "To this duo, I’d also add the chronic, embarrassing gaffes of new Liberal Party boss Justin Trudeau", suggested that Trudeau figures in the "The Face of Canada 2013" as far as the world sees it, when in fact he doesn't.

    I get that you'd like Canadians to be embarrassed by him and not vote for his party next election. And maybe your wish will come true. But Justin Trudeau being a bit of a muppet and anyone who doesn't routinely follow Canadian politics caring are two quite different things.

  16. Steve

    I think everyone got your point.
    Your point of Trudeau being elected as a party leader for his name rather than his experience is a valid and good point. It does mean that he could be unqualified.
    But in your comic, you suggest that these gaffes are proof of how he is an unqualified leader.
    The problem is that I don't view these as gaffes, and they seem positive to Trenacker (at least the Boston one).
    Rather then show that Trudeau was elected because of his family name, and is therefore unqualified, one could quite easily make the point that Trudeau is someone qualified who was also elected because of his family name.
    The gaffes you use as proofs just don't seem compelling for his not being qualified. On the other hand, your point of how Trudeau should not have been elected solely based on his name, remains a great point.

  17. Taylor

    He has a very similar resume to Harper's when the latter became Conservative leader.

  18. Trenacker

    Did Trudeau really miss the point about the Boston bombings, or did he merely gaffe by failing to inject his insightful comments about the root causes of violence with a sufficient quantity of the expected venom?

    Asking, "What causes young people to choose indiscriminate violence?" isn't an unreasonable question. Nor is it a question that we should avoid asking ourselves specifically in relation to the Boston bombings.

    Is youth radicalization fundamentally different from psychosis? Were the Boston bombers simply troubled youth "hardwired" to feel intense alienation? Do they share any similarities with young, educated people in other societies who self-actualize by picking up a gun and fighting on behalf of a political organization that has accepted violence as a means of protest (e.g., Hamas, the PLO)? Are they typical of a type of pre-radicalized person that we let into our country and then incubate unaware, or are they a "homegrown" byproduct of influences that we can control?

    These questions aren't about shifting blame or exonerating the guilty to "blame society." They are about thinking through the origins of mass violence, especially political violence, in an effort to identify the critical path junctions where policy and institutions can help "correct" for different outcomes.

    Especially now, as we come to grips with the dimensions of the so-called Surveillance State, it is imperative that we consider how malcontents predisposed toward violence can exploit the unique vulnerabilities inherent (actually, hard-wired into) the democratic systems of both the United States and Canada.

    We can think of it in terms of radicalization – the process by which any one individual makes an affirmative decision to commit violence for political reasons, and talk about the different trajectories of both immigrants and native-born citizens. We can also talk about what I call “organizational terrorism,” or the ability of like-minded malcontents to form groups distinguished by a legal (corporate) identity that effectively hide in plain site. The latter include the Rajneeshees and Aum Shinrikyo.

  19. Guest

    It seems a peculiar feature of some countries to agonise about their place in the world and how they are perceived internationally. I sometimes wonder if its related to the agony of adolescence, we are too big to sit at the kiddies table but worry if we'll be accepted at the grown-ups table.
    Yep, Canada has had its gaffes and goofs, but who hasn't?
    Stop worrying about it. Canada is just as well-liked as it ever was and has earned its place at the grown-ups table.

  20. Therese

    Great stuff, a really interesting read – added to favourites so will visit back for new content and to read other people’s comments. Thanks again.