December 28, 2012

Canada: the dominion of comedy


---- — This is my last column of the year 2012, and normally that would be the occasion to reflect on this past year in Canadian affairs and look ahead to the new one.

But then I picked up the January edition of Vanity Fair (Special All-Star Comedy Edition) and read a couple things that got my dander up — in a benign Canadian way — and I thought it was only fitting to start 2013 with a token defense of Canadian honor.

The first pea-shooter across the bow is in the editor’s letter outlining the content of the issue, devoted entirely to the apparent boom in comedy on TV and in the movies. Writes Canadian ex-patriot Graydon Carter: “I might warn you that there are a lot of Canadians in this issue. (Please, I beg of you, read on.)”

Now, if one were to substitute the word “Canadians” with any other racial, religious or national group, it might be seen as an ugly slur. But, no, I guess, as Carter suggests, Canadians are just too polite to be offended and hence would just laugh off such a slight, perhaps even feeling a burst of pride that such a prestigious, celebrity-driven publication would acknowledge the Canuck presence.

Anyhoo, Carter was cuing up a piece by fellow ex-pat Bruce McCall, who is given little more than a page to expound upon the theory that it is the influence of British and American humor that shapes Canadian comedy, since “Canadians may be too nice, too passionless to be funny.” Further: “The very word ‘Canada may seem to incarnate the Webster’s definition of ‘bland.’”

(McCall is probably referring to definition 2a in Webster’s, “dull and insipid”, not 1a, “smooth and soothing.”)

What really got my maple syrup boiling was McCall’s grievous tampering with true, not satirical Canadian history. In the second asterisk of three footnotes in the article, the author declares: “The Dominion of Canada was the original name (of Canada), about as mild a term for a nation as there is, and consciously chosen instead of the more assertive Republic of Canada or United States of Canada.”

He goes on to insult the beaver in the same asterisk, but the damage has already been done.

For starters, Dominion of Canada is still the official name of Canada, or at least it probably is. Let’s just say it’s complicated. The British North America Act, which created the country in 1867, makes it quite clear Canada is a dominion. No act since then, including the major constitutional reform package of 1982, has altered that.

The name may not be as fashionable as it once was — partly because it lacks a precise equivalent in French — but it has never been replaced.

How Canada came to be a dominion is somewhat apocryphal. The story goes that Scottish-born anglophile Sir John A. Macdonald, the main stick-handler of Canadian confederation, was pushing for the Kingdom of Canada. This was shouted down as possibly provocative to the United States, which was not feeling kindly to the Royal Kingdom, what with its meddling in the Civil War and all.

The person who gets the credit for coming up with the word “dominion” is New Brunswick’s Sir Leonard “Lennie” Tilley, son of American Loyalists, temperance advocate and faithful Bible-reader. The story goes that one morning during the Confederation negotiations Tilley had read Psalm 72, which reads in part, referring to you-know-who: “He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.”

The psalm goes on to say: “They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust,” but we don’t need to go there.

Anyway, “dominion” stuck with the Confederation delegates, and Canada has been stuck with it since — as have Australia and New Zealand, without attracting the ridicule of Vanity Fair.

So Happy New Year, from this country, where, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, comedy has dominion.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at