The silence of the Canadian lambs

Maybe we have trouble telling our own stories because so many we try to tell are false

The silence of the Canadian lambsIf you missed the CRTC hearings the other week, don’t worry. The exciting plans to annex the Internet to the cheerless wasteland of CanCon enforcement were justified under the usual refrain of Trudeaupian boosterism: we have to create space for Canadians to tell their own stories.

Personally, whenever I hear that line, the only plot twist I’m in the mood for is: “And then I woke up, and it had all been a bad dream.” But, assuming you’re of a more indulgent bent, the question then arises: why do Canadians have such difficulty telling their own stories?

Well, here’s a thought: maybe because most of the ones we’re trying to tell are false.

I don’t use that word lightly. But I’m still digging myself out from the blizzard of reaction to what I wrote in this space two weeks ago about Polytechnique, the film of the Montreal massacre. You can get a more or less representative sampling of reader complaints from the Maclean’s website, but let’s start with the National Post’s objections:

“Mark Steyn uses the occasion of Denis Villeneuve’s new film,” wrote the Post’s Chris Selley, “to renew his complaints about Canadian manhood, as represented by the male students who ‘abandoned their female classmates to their fate’ on orders from Marc Lépine. Ten years ago we considered this line of argument usefully contrarian; now it’s just tired. The point, such as it is, has been made.”

Oh, dear. I’m sorry it’s “tired.” Actually, the point, such as it is, was that even M Villeneuve, no right-wing pro-American yahoo but an impeccably Québécois progressive trying to tell one of those quintessentially Canadian (okay, Quebec) stories, had been unable to avoid placing the men’s fatal passivity at the heart of the film. Unfortunately, the official narrative of the event—the feminist narrative, the dark-underbelly-of-Canadian-male-violence-lurking-within-every-somnolent-hoser narrative—remains in place, even though it’s utter twaddle. And, as long as Canada’s establishment keeps forcing a fraud on me, I’m going to object.

By the way, since Mr. Selley tires so easily, I wonder whether he’s as weary of other “complaints about Canadian manhood.” To mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Cheri DiNovo, MPP, told the Ontario parliament that one in every two women in the province is abused or assaulted—including, as she noted, half the female members listening to her. The only difference between your Sudanese machete-wielder and your Ontarian abuser is that the latter’s more furtive about it: “We can look at the Congo, we can look at Darfur, we can look at the horrors of the world; here, it’s more guerrilla warfare; here it’s one man against one woman in the quiet of their own home . . . ” Does Chris Selley not occasionally find this sort of thing also just a wee bit tired, albeit statistically imaginative?

Here’s another Canadian story. The day Mr. Selley issued his magisterial yawn, the Court of Queen’s Bench in Manitoba passed sentence on Vincent Li for stabbing, beheading and partially consuming Tim McLean, his fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus ride last summer. The “agreed statement” between the Crown and the defence was full of interesting details. The Winnipeg Sun’s Tom Brodbeck published the fullest version:

“When Greyhound bus 1170 was approximately 18 kilometres west of Portage la Prairie on the TransCanada Highway, Mr. Li began to repeatedly stab Tim McLean, for no apparent reason.

“Tim McLean struggled and tried to escape, as evidenced by a number of defensive wounds. He was unsuccessful and eventually either fell or was thrown to the floor of the bus. Due to his location at the back of the bus and adjacent to a window, the seats ahead of him were a barrier to escape.

“Mr. Li was preoccupied with Tim McLean, and continued to stab him as he lay on the floor. He did not pay any attention to the other passengers as the bus was vacated. He appeared oblivious to the demands of bus driver Bruce Martin that he stop what he was doing. Several persons indicate that after everyone had vacated the bus, Mr. Li came to the front of the bus and tried to exit. The bus driver was able to close the door on Mr. Li’s arm, with the bloody knife extended outside of the bus.

“Mr. Li was able to pull his arm back into the bus, and returned to the rear of the bus, where he defiled the body of Tim McLean.”

There were over three dozen passengers on the bus, including in the seats around Li and McLean. The attacker “did not pay any attention to the other passengers” and at one point was stabbing his victim “as he lay on the floor.” That’s difficult to do. You have to lean over. Yet there is no suggestion in the “agreed statement” that anyone attempted to disarm the “oblivious” Mr Li. I wonder if, in Tim McLean’s last conscious moments, he was aware that his fellow passengers had “vacated” the bus and barricaded him in with his murderer.

And then, of course, the Mounties show up in all the superbutch combat gear and, in some weird parody of the secure-the-perimeter strategy that helps run up the body count at so many sieges, sat outside the bus for 4½ hours even though Mr. Li was already waving Mr. McLean’s head around, and it was clear there was no one alive in the bus except the killer. Nevertheless, the RCMP passed the rest of the night watching Mr. Li slice up the body, and eat the bits that took his fancy, while Sgt. Brown, Cpl. Smith and the rest of the boys filed occasional progress reports on the evening’s dinner theatre:

“Okay, Badger’s at the back of the bus, hacking off pieces and eating it.”

“Badger” was the supercool top-secret code name they decided to give the killer. When this and other police communications turned up on YouTube, the RCMP issued a statement that it was “not meant for public consumption,” which isn’t the most felicitous phrasing under the circumstances. “These brave men in uniform had ringside seats,” wrote the blogger Sean Berry, “and did absolutely nothing to bring it to an end except sit on their macho asses and play sportscaster.” Had Mr. Li not got bored in the early hours of the morning and decided to leave the bus, they’d have sat there the rest of the week. Tim McLean’s parents are now suing the RCMP.

All the CRTC regulations and all the Cinedole Canada funding in the world can’t make that into a story Canadians want to tell themselves. But reporters are obliged to attempt it, and, when they do, you can’t help noticing a curious incuriosity—all the sly elisions, all the questions that go unasked in the rote calls for financial compensation and more nanny-state protection. In some furtive, unacknowledged way, they understand the hole at the heart of the narrative. Silence, lambs, and Hannibal Lecter. Another lone nut and dozens of bystanders. Another Canadian story with no hero. No villain, either: Mr. Li has been declared not responsible for his actions, and that’s the club pretty much everyone else wants to get into. The Greyhound driver is said to have gone into shock. The passengers are suing the bus company for the mental trauma they’ve suffered from having to stand around on the highway watching Mr. Li decapitate their fellow passenger. The politicians are agitating for airport-level security at rural halts on dusty highways in the middle of nowhere. And the experts are assuring us that “Accused Murderer As Much A Victim As Beheaded Passenger—Psychiatrist” (the Daily Gleaner of New Brunswick). I wouldn’t say so myself: at least, he’s higher up the food chain.

The question is whether these untypical Canadian stories are telling us something about typical Canadians—about what happens in the vacuum of abandoned social norms. Do you know the name Liviu Librescu? You should. He was a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor who was teaching a class at Virginia Tech one Monday morning in 2007 when gunshots were heard. He reacted immediately. He threw himself against the door and told his students to climb out the windows. He used his body as a barricade as long as he could, and was shot dead when the killer finally broke through.

Professor Librescu had lived under fascism and Communism, and perhaps was not so removed from the primal impulses as so many Westerners seem to be. But what about Lee Gordon-Brown, shot when the nut du jour stormed his classroom at Monash University in Melbourne with five loaded handguns? At the killer’s first pause, the wounded professor Gordon-Brown grabbed his hand. A student pitched in. Two other men charged into the room, and, as the professor collapsed of his wounds, helped hold down the crazy guy until the cops arrived. This story is the precise inversion of the École Polytechnique: Instead of fleeing the scene, the men run into it, and toward their fate.

The “Canadian story” Canadians have told themselves for 40 years is a self-aggrandizing narrative of pacifism and social solidarity. There’s a lot of the former, not so much of the latter.

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