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In eyes of the world's media, Canada has lost its innocence: Jeff Semple

11/07/2014 11:00 EST | Updated 01/07/2015 05:59 EST
Canada rarely makes the news outside of Canada. Here in the United Kingdom, it takes a crack-smoking Toronto mayor or a record-breaking "Snowmageddon" winter storm for the world's second-largest (geographically speaking) country to register a blip on the media's radar. And even when it does, the news is usually delivered with a smirk as an endearing Canadian "kicker" story with which to end the newscast. 

But over the past couple of weeks, that tone has changed. Two Canadian stories have been prominent in international headlines: the shootings at the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill in Ottawa and the allegations of abusive sexual violence against former CBC broadcaster JianGhomeshi.

Both stories raise completely different issues, but both have been told with a similar narrative: Canada loses its innocence. 

'Terrorist ends Canada's innocence'

Soon after the shots rang out on Parliament Hill, the phones in our CBC London office started ringing; British and international news organizations looking for Canadian reaction and insight. Each would inevitably ask the "innocence" question: "Did you ever imagine something like this could happen in Canada?!"

The question is a fair one, but the implication of much of the coverage was that Canada — in the global family — was a child suddenly faced with a very adult crisis. British broadcasters chuckled at the notion that yoga sessions were permitted and regularly held in front of Canada's Parliament buildings (In front of the British Parliament, there are large gates guarded by large men with large guns). 

The British newspaper The Telegraph described Canada like this: "Once a byword for international peace and prosperity, the 'other' Northern American nation is now suffering from attacks hitherto confined to Western nations known as being more active on the international stage." 

The headline on American news website The Daily Beast proclaimed: "Terrorist Ends Canada's Innocence."

Waking up

The Jian Ghomeshi story has received less international coverage, but the tack has been much the same: Canada is waking up to a problem already well-known to its allies. Communities in northern Britain are drowning in a seemingly endless wave of child and sex abuse allegations, some dating back decades.

Governments and police services have launched so many investigations, it can be difficult to keep them all straight. One such investigation earlier this year revealed ex-BBC DJ Jimmy Savile sexually assaulted hundreds of victims ages five to 75 in public hospitals. And in the midst of it all, there, in the British tabloids, is news of a Canadian radio host accused of abusing several women. 

Few in the U.K. had ever heard the name JianGhomeshi before now. 

The BBC noted that, at first, Canadians seemed largely sympathetic to Ghomeshi: "Green Party Leader Elizabeth May tweeted that his private life was 'none of our beeswax' — a statement that she later retracted. That initial wave of sympathy for Ghomeshi was quickly reversed as details of the allegations came out." 

London-based news weekly The Economist says the allegations have "unleashed an anguished national discussion" in Canada about violence against women.

Of course, Canadians have had these discussions before. Some have reacted angrily to the international coverage, and to implicit suggestions that Canada is somehow new to hardship. But the international surprise to these events happening "in Canada" also reminds us in these dark moments that Canadians have much to be thankful for. 

Our neighbours have grown accustomed to sex scandals and public shootings dominating their domestic headlines. The world’s fascination with these Canadian stories reflects a belief that these things are not supposed to happen in Canada. 

The morning after the shooting in Ottawa, an elderly British man, a complete stranger, came to our CBC London office to personally express his sadness and shock: "If it can happen in Canada," he said, "it can happen anywhere."

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