Polar bear, eh?


The polar bear, Canada’s new national symbol? Um, no. Polar bears are majestic, powerful, free and noble. Whereas our society seems, increasingly, timorous, tepid, whinny and incredibly precious.

Take, for instance, the recent controversy in the nation’s capital over bus drivers. It’s Ottawa’s own Dreyfus Affair. Gerda Munsinger, Watergate, the Profumo Affair; none of these hold a candle to the fuss over bus (es), precipitated by one driver’s apparent lapse into road rage at 2 a.m., as he faced a young passenger who just wouldn’t shut up, and another driver who, cruelly, has been ordered not to sing on the job.

I heard about the first incident, on an endlessly repeating spool, on my drive into Ottawa earlier this week. A humble scriptwriting student, 20-year-old Matthew Taronno, was quietly minding his own business – well, actually he wasn’t minding his own business, he was reading aloud from one of his scripts – when the bus driver blew his stack. In a moment captured on cell-phone video and posted to YouTube, the anonymous driver cusses the young man out in exceptionally vigorous, colourful terms. He threatens, in fact, to punch him in the nose.

Taronno later claimed to be “mildly autistic”: The CBC loved that angle. A bus driver, threatening a handicapped student? Marvelous. This brute may as well have dumped a sweet little old lady out of her wheelchair onto the cold pavement. In fact, he probably has, in the past. Let’s assume so. Never mind this very simple but rather glaring omission in the story: What was Taronno reading? He himself acknowledges it wasn’t “appropriate.” But what was it? And were there prior incidents of impromptu soliloquies on the bus?

More to the point, why does anyone care? This young man was subjected to harsh language. Perhaps he shouldn’t be so delicate?

Then there’s the case of the singing bus driver, Yves Roy. He’s been ordered, the Ottawa Citizen reports, to stop warbling while driving, because of numerous public complaints. The City of Ottawa, it is implied, is a big, hard-hearted meanie, with no sense of humour whatsoever. Roy has been singing on the bus for nearly a decade. Some of his passengers love it. Where is the humanity?

My question: Where is the humanity in allowing a bus driver, who may or may not be a decent singer, to subject bleary-eyed commuters to his artistic impulses? With great respect, has Roy not heard of Garage Band? It’s user-friendly software for amateur singers. With a copy of Garage Band any amateur can make himself sound like Bing Crosby. Knock yourself out. Or sing in the shower. But don’t assume that, in a public place, you can subject other people to your tastes.

Next, consider a couple of recent stories about two hoary dinosaurs of the politically incorrect right, John Crosbie and Don Cherry. Last week Crosbie ran afoul of the thought police because of a joke, terribly inappropriate, about Pakistani suicide bombers. Here’s the joke: A depressed American called a suicide helpline and got routed to a call-centre in Pakistan. When he told them he was depressed, Crosbie recounted, they “got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.”

Did you laugh? Be honest. Various people were offended, including representatives of a Pakistani student organization and diplomatic types. But here’s the thing: The joke is funny. It plays to an unfair stereotype, to be sure: But so do very many funny jokes. And, the best humour always has at its heart some painful truth. Here’s one: Pakistan’s intelligence service is known to collude with the Taliban, which is trying to kill Canadian soldiers. Perhaps we should be talking about that, rather than Crosbie’s joke. When did we become so very delicate?

Don Cherry, for his part, is learning to take the high road – likely because he’s been told by the CBC to rein it in, or hang up his spurs. Nominated for an honourary doctorate by the Royal Military College of Canada in recognition of his strong support for Canadian soldiers, Cherry turned it down. Not because he didn’t want the degree, but because some RCM professors complained.

Don Cherry, let’s be blunt, is a self-created clown. His support for fighting in hockey, his over-the-top grumpy-old-man populism, have made him a caricature of himself. But if RMC wants to highlight and reward his patriotism, why should they not? Reasonable people are free to disagree and hopefully will, in language at least as colourful as Cherry’s, though hopefully wearing more tasteful suits. Isn’t that democracy? Or, it would have been, had he felt able to accept, without bringing another pox of negative publicity down around his ears.

What’s truly curious about all this is the breathless tone of the reportage: It’s as though it really matters. Clearly, we in Canada have no earthquakes, floods, famines, wars or epidemics; Otherwise we wouldn’t be fretting about singing (or swearing) bus drivers, or the wisecracks of irascible old men.

Polar bear, indeed. Tree squirrel, maybe? Or, how about this: The beaver.

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1 Comment

Filed under National

One response to “Polar bear, eh?

  1. Guy

    Wow! I do indeed like your style of writing this time Michael. I somehow thought that I was the only writer who went off on a multi-topic tangent like that. My tangents aren’t planned they just end up that way. Why could our symbol not be a bull because, let’s face it, they pile it pretty high and keep things a little too politically correct here in Canada. We dare not fight for our rights or protest. Wait a minute… we didn’t have a reason for the 99% protest, oops.

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