A paean to Pablum and peacekeeping
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 October 2004)

They've already started to party at Maclean's, though their one hundredth birthday doesn't fall until 2005. This week they brought out an extra commemorative issue, Leaders and Dreamers, describing innovators in Canadian history -- an innovation apparently being anything from insulin to the zipper. We subscribers received it free. I hope I won't be considered ungrateful if I fail to send a note of thanks.

The editors and writers convey an unspoken but clear message: Rejoice, patriotic Canadians. Be proud of all our great achievements, like Pablum and peacekeeping. They make Canada the special place it is. Reflect once more on those creative Canadians we've been telling you about forever. Feel warm about Alexander Graham Bell and Norman Bethune and all the others, and rest assured that Canada's past remains just as it was when we (or somebody else) last published a history special. Don't worry about being upset by revisionism. Nobody has anything surprising or untoward to say about these people. Maclean's sings the old songs in the old way. And please ignore the fact that many ads look much like editorial copy (the advertisers like it that way).

In the world of Maclean's, James Naismith is still inventing basketball in a YMCA with nothing but peach baskets, Jacques Plante is pioneering the goaltender's mask and there's some other guy dreaming up the beer case with tuckaway handle. Wasn't it awful what the bean-counters did to the Avro Arrow? And how about the Canadarm? Well, you can't tell that story too often.

This 204-page slab of magazine is Maclean's squared. It is more Maclean's-ish than Maclean's has ever before managed to be. It resembles an anthology of Canadian Heritage Moments, except there's no music and no reassuring Patrick Watson voice in the background. And so far there are no plans to read it out in the movie theatres while we wait for the feature.

Many of the articles suggest that the writers are groping for something epic, something portentous, something profoundly Canadian. Occasionally the desperation becomes painful. The editor, Anthony Wilson-Smith, declares that "The ability to innovate isn't just one of the qualities that define what it is to be Canadian; rather it's an integral part of our collective soul."

That reads like nonsense to me, empty words to fill space. All modern countries furiously pursue innovation in the sciences, the arts, industry, even politics. There's nothing peculiarly Canadian about it. And is it part of our collective soul? Do we have a collective soul? I would say No to both questions, but maybe Wilson-Smith believes what he writes. Journalists have written crazier things.

Few, however, have produced work as boring as Leaders and Dreamers. It's a grab-bag of overly familiar stories written in mediocre prose, a plain-Jane survey of everything that might be remotely connected to Canada and innovation. It's all delivered in that inimitable Maclean's style -- slow-witted, juiceless, solemn, utterly predictable. The design can best be described as extremely cheap but not overly offensive; the most striking image in the entire issue is a publicity photo from Cirque du Soleil.

Readers encounter so many familiar facts and myths that they may suspect, unfairly, that Maclean's has put together a rewrite of the Canadian Encyclopedia. That's not true; some of the science writing, for instance, is fresh. But it's the kind of thought that runs through your mind as you hear once more that Marshall McLuhan played a bit part in a Woody Allen film, that Bombardier led the world in snow vehicles, that Canadian filmmakers are famous for their documentaries and yes, by golly, (as my favourite caption in the issue reads) "The North-West Mounted Police set out to tame the wild frontier."

In historic surveys it's hard to avoid cliches, but Maclean's -- so far as I can tell -- barely tries. There's a piece on Kim Rossmo, the former Vancouver policeman whose computer program, when it works, leads police to roughly where a serial murderer or rapist lives. Rossmo certainly counts as an innovator, as Canadian Geographic explained in 1996. Maclean's wrote about him that year, too, and carried an interview with him in 2003. Now the story in the centennial issue takes us through all the same material again, with no change in perspective and nothing in the way of a fresh fact. Is it possible that there is absolutely nothing new to say about this well-documented detective?

At the end we realize another powerful message comes through from the pages of Leaders and Dreamers: Maclean's passionately favours innovation in every field except journalism.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page