With the Stanley Cup playoffs in full heat, Justin Bieber dominating the music charts all over the world and Canadian paintings being auctioned for more than most people's houses, here's a question we're tossing about the Huffpost newsroom: Which is more essential to our Canadian identity? Is it the black puck being whacked about the ice? Or is it the quill of Mordecai Richler and the paint-dipped brush of Jean-Paul Lemieux? When the world speaks of Canada and its identity, do they think about the arts first? Or the sport we claimed the gold for in the 2010 Olympics?
Doug Knight, president of the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards Foundation, and Ryan Doyle, host of the popular daily radio show Friendly Fire on Newstalk 1010, go head to head on this decidedly Canadian topic. You decide who wins.
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You clap for what you like, you cheer for what you love.
As a Canadian, I politely clapped when Christopher Plummer won an Oscar this past year. I also felt a small amount of patriotic pride when Drake and Justin Bieber hit number one on the Billboard charts.
But if the merit of Canadian art is measured through success in the American markets, that is a sad testament.
And here at home, by the numbers, the public's appetite for more traditional forms of art, the so-called "National Pastime," is waning.
Canada's largest museum, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, had to drastically cut admission prices last year as attendance dipped below average.
The Art Gallery of Ontario had just under 602,000 visitors in the past fiscal year, also dipping in popularity. Not to mention the National Gallery of Canada, which received a parliamentary appropriation of more than $45 million last year, recorded 346,890 visitors for the past fiscal year. While representing an increase in attendance, the NGC was anticipating a bigger boost.
Not exactly a breakaway performance. Maybe would-be art fans had something else on their mind. Perhaps a case of playoff fever? It's a well-documented condition in this country.
While museums and art galleries were struggling to captivate the attention of everyday Canadians, CBC's Hockey Night in Canada broke its own NHL playoff viewership record during Game One of last year's Stanley Cup Final between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins, with an average audience of 5.6 million and a peak of 7.8 million.
It was the highest-rated NHL broadcast ever on the CBC. The runner-up was way back in 1994.
And while this year's Stanley Cup Final won't feature any Canadian-based teams, there are plenty of Canucks on the ice that we can cheer for. The Phoenix Coyotes have 15 Canadian players in their lineup, the L.A. Kings have 13, and of course there is the story of Montreal-native Martin Brodeur; the Devils' goalie is in search of his fourth Stanley Cup at the age of 40, and has captivated even the casual spectator.
Brodeur is the perfect example as to why Canadians flock to hockey, and why hockey itself has taken its rightful place as Canada's national pastime.
Brodeur represents the unknown and, put quite simply, the Canadian heroics that we are generally too modest and humble to embrace.
Can a man at the ripe old age of 40 repeat something he first did 17 years ago?
In Dispatches from the Sporting Life, beloved Canadian author Mordecai Richler summed up exactly why the unknown element is so key to our love affair with the sport:
"Once that first puck is dropped, I'm married to my TV set. Come game time, if one of my daughters is foolish enough to protest that Hamlet, with Olivier, is playing on another channel, I will point out, justifiably, that I know how Hamlet comes out but not how the Montreal Canadiens will fare tonight against the fabled New Jersey Devils."
Our nation sat on tender hooks in 2010 as Team Canada was less than a minute away from celebrating the gold medal. Zach Parise -- the son of a player who figured in Canada's finest hockey moment -- tied the game for the United States.
You could feel the tension from coast to coast. The unpredictably of what was about to happen united all of us.
When Sidney Crosby scored the game-winning goal at 7:40 into overtime, to lead Canada to the 3-2 win, the nation roared.
Not exactly the same kind of collective reaction that you would get at the National Ballet.
True, Canadian hockey teams are not the best, but we celebrate the smallest victories, and agonize over each and every defeat. It's masochist, it's remarkable, and it springs from something firmly entrenched in our psyche and culture. All you have to do is bear witness to playoff countdown in Toronto to see the visceral passion they have for their teams. The fact that they never win cups, and Torontonians still come back for more Leaf Nation is proof positive. Canadians certainly don't vocally lament the Emmy defeat of a fellow countryman, or continue to show up to bad Canadian movies or plays out of blind loyalty. Hockey just runs deeper.
Hockey is so inspirational, in fact, that sometimes the arts can't help but imitate it. Just last week The Hockey Sweater, the cherished children's book by Roch Carrier, was adapted for the symphony. There have also been several movies (Goon, Score! A Hockey Musical, Breakaway) created because that is who we are, what we care about. The arts can reflect what makes us unique as Canadians, but hockey actually defines it.
Don't get me wrong, I still feel the arts community has a vital role in our country.
I like the ballet, the opera, and live theater.
I have Drake on my iPod (although Bieber is not my cup of tea).
The aforementioned Mordechai Richler should be required reading for every Canadian.
But to make the claim that the arts are more important to Canadian identity than hockey is to miss the puck, and the point.
The identity of so many in this country is formed early on. Over 500,000 kids wake up every weekend morning to head down to the local arena. Their parents sit bleary-eyed in the stands drinking their morning coffee. Those hopeful mornings, putting hockey moms on edge, hockey dads beaming with pride (the Tim Horton's commercial writes itself!), those are the opportunities that we get to really cheer, not clap. To put modesty and predictability aside, and just be proudly Canadian.
What could be more Canadian than hockey?
There's not much competition from the beaver, the world's second largest rodent, burdened with an unfortunate Google problem.
Maple syrup is Canadian alright but hardly the stuff to cheer on Saturday night. Mounties in red serge are a stirring sight at the right moment, but pegging the Canadian identity to our national police force is a bit too peace, order and good government to fire the passions of a great land.
No, the balletic speed and bone crushing brutality of our national winter sport scores every time. If you add up every kid and adult who actually straps on skates and picks up a stick sometime during the year (8% of all Canadians) or attends a pro hockey game (14%) or watches regular season games on TV (36%) or the Stanley Cup playoffs (46%), you will come to more than half the country (54%) whose DNA is imprinted with the opening strains of the original Hockey Night in Canada theme, who wear their jerseys with pride, who remember winter nights watching the game with dad, whose hearts swell when Canada brings home the gold. They are why Rogers and Bell will line up to take Hockey Night in Canada away from the CBC.
So what is there to debate? Well, perhaps the debate should have said, the arts are more important to Canadian identity than even hockey. Our artists are our storytellers; our writers, actors, musicians, directors, dancers, filmmakers, even our broadcasters. It is through our artists that our stories are told and retold, our passions laid bare.
Is there a kid in Quebec with a hockey stick who has not agonized over Roch Carrier's The Sweater, his memoir of a boyhood spent on frozen ponds? Ten kids all wearing the red uniform of the Montreal Canadiens with number nine on the back; through a mail-order goof his sweater arrives and it's...arrggghh...a Maple Leafs blue jersey.
There are more hockey songs than we can count; the Tragically Hip's "Fifty Mission Cap," Stompin Tom's "The Hockey Song," the Shuffle Demons' "Hockey Night in Canada," and even Jane Siberry's "Hockey." The connection between hockey and Canadian musicians is so strong that every year at the Juno's Canadian rockers go up against former NHL greats for the annual Juno Cup -- Jim Cuddy meet Brad Marsh.
And of course our hockey story would not have the power it does without our broadcasters.
The point is our passion for hockey is reflected in our stories and our stories are our Canadian identity.
But there's more. Our artists tell all of our stories, not just hockey: your sex life, your first kiss, your first divorce, your tragedies and triumphs, what makes us laugh and cry or just stop dead in our tracks with some blinding insight. Collectively our stories define who we are and what being Canadian is about in all its diversity.
As a result the arts touch everyone. The arts reach more people in Canada than even hockey. More people attend live theatre (22%) than attend professional hockey games (14%). Canadians spend more than twice as much each year attending a live performance than they spend attending all sporting events put together. If you listen to music, read a book, or watch a film, you are part of Arts Nation. Virtually every Canadian is reached by our artists.
And there's more. The best known Canadians around the world are our artists, our musicians, actors, writers, dancers, filmmakers. Most people around the world do not know our hockey players or even our hockey teams; they do not know our politicians or even our political parties.
We began the year with Canadian artists claiming four of the top five bestselling albums on the Billboard charts; the first Oscar of the year went to Christopher Plummer in a broadcast that featured Cirque du Soliel.
Our writers are known around the world from Yann Martel and Michael Ondaatje to Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Canadian actors seem to be everywhere in film and television from Rachel McAdams and Sandra Oh to Keifer Sutherland and his father Donald Sutherland. Canadians make the world laugh, and not just because we can't win a Stanley Cup. Lorne Michaels runs Saturday Night Live. We have seen an explosion of great comedic talent with the likes of Dan Ackroyd, Jim Carrey, Rick Moranis, Mike Myers and Rick Mercer. And in music, we rock the world, from Justin Bieber and Drake to Leonard Cohen and Neil Young.
It has been said that Canadian artists are our greatest export. It is certainly true that Canadian artists symbolize Canada to much of the world. To many, Canadian artists are the Canadian identity.
So, yes hockey is our passion, but it is our storytellers, our artists who forge our identity from our passion; all of our passions.
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