In the early morning light of April 27, 1813, 10-year-old Patrick Keenan spied a fleet of 14 ships sailing past the Gibraltor Point Lighthouse, headed west of the small town of ‘Muddy York’, making land near present-day Sunnyside Beach. The American invasion had begun.
This month many events will be held to commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of York (the name of Toronto between 1793 and 1834). On April 27 there will be a military parade as well as ceremonies, tours and re-enactments at Fort York. Tall ships will visit from June 20 to 23 as part of the Redpath Waterfront Festival.
The War of 1812 was a defining chapter in the story of Canada, helping to give Canadians an identity of our own (i.e. not American). Over the last two centuries, the “true north strong and free” has peacefully resisted American economic and cultural dominance. One way is through the healing power of laughter, exporting our own brand of self-deprecating humour (with a ‘u’ please).
Canada has had its own invasion of the USA, a Great White North comic invasion. An ‘eh’ team of Canuck performers have changed the face of American television and film comedy, including Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live), SCTV (filmed on Pharmacy Avenue), Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Leslie Nielsen, Catherine O’Hara, Dan Ackroyd, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy, Michael J. Fox and Martin Short. I must say there may be something in the water. Coming soon is a new documentary, Being Canadian (2013), which explores the history of Canadian humour.
With all our talented actors, it’s a shame so many have headed south and Toronto has never had that great comic movie with Toronto playing itself. Strange Brew (1983) was as Canuck as can be with Bob and Doug McKenzie, toques, hockey and memories of beers goneby, but it’s strictly for hosers, eh.
The most beloved of all our comic actors may be the late, great John Candy (1950-1994). The ‘Candys’ would be a dandy name for the new Canadian Screen Awards. Candy grew up in East York in a small bungalow on Woodville Avenue just down the street from the Donlands Theatre, where he learned to love the magic of movies. The Holly Cross altar boy stuck closely to his working class Catholic roots. Candy went out of his way to befriend ordinary workers. He is fondly remembered at Neil McNeil where the John Candy Visual Arts Studio is dedicated to his memory.
In Martin Knelman’s biography Laughing on the Outside: the Life of John Candy, Candy is quoted as saying, “I think I may have become an actor to hide from myself. You can escape into a character. You can get lost and take up another life.” John was only five when his dad died at age 35: “The loss of my father left a great emptiness in my heart. I didn’t have a role model.”
John Candy gave us so many memorable film characters. His last completed film was Canadian Bacon (1995), director Michael Moore’s only fictional feature, a tribute to Moore’s Canadian grandfather. The satirical spoof was a box-office flop, but it does have some funny moments. Candy plays a dim American sheriff intent on invading the “capital” of Canada … Toronto! “Ottawa? Do we look that stupid?” (Candy’s Bud Boomer pronounces Toronto like a local would.)
Toronto does get to appear as Toronto, instead of as a stand-in for New York or Chicago. The plot of Canadian Bacon revolves around the CN Tower. One scene was filmed at All-Star Bowl in Scarborough. The geographic goofs are amusing enough as the invaders take two days to drive from Niagara Falls, NY to arrive in Toronto by way of the Leslie St. Spit. Now there’s a trick! (Don’t try this without a boat.)
One funny line has the American President (Alan Alda) blurting out, “Surrender her pronto or we’ll level Toronto.” This reminds one of Thomas Jefferson in 1812 boasting, “the acquisition of Canada this year … will be a mere matter of marching!” Our red and white maple colours still wave. Disarming laughter is the best line of defence, not to mention our “threatening lead in Zamboni technology.”
The end credits of Canadian Bacon includes the disclaimer, “No Canadians were harmed during this production,” and close with a fitting tribute to SCTV and John Candy, “To Johnny LaRue – thanks to you we got our crane shot.”