Canada's subtle invasion


First came all the newsmen. Then the comedians and the best hockey player ever. And now, the football players, eh?

Will the last Canadian leaving Canada please turn off the lights?

The Canadian Football League is expanding southward into the United States, giving Baltimore what our own National Football League would deny us and crossing the border much as Peter Jennings, Phil Hartman, Wayne Gretzky and a surprisingly long list of countrymen and -women have before them.

In fact, you wouldn't have such American icons as "Jeopardy" (Alex Trebec), "Saturday Night Live" (Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, etc.), "Wayne's World" (Mike Myers), Alex P. Keaton of "Family Ties" (Michael J. Fox), the Chrysler minivan (made in Windsor, Ontario) or even the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell, if you count his part-time residency in Ontario) if it weren't for Canadians.

The list of seemingly American figures who are actually Canadian -- even "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford was Canadian -- is endless. Which perhaps is more a testament to the inoffensiveness of the Canadian character than, say, an innate greatness. Canadians tend to bland in -- excuse us, we meant: blend in. They are the ultimate Zeligs, with a national identity so unobjectionable, so indefinable, that they're everywhere without seeming to be.

"We're the Rodney Dangerfield of the United Nations," says Allan Fotheringham, a syndicated columnist who jokingly says he's the Russell Baker-slash-Art Buchwald of Canada. "When you step on a Canadian's foot, he says, 'Excuse me.' We're bland. When we were stillborn 126 years ago, we were the only country in the world that wasn't conceived through a revolution. You threw tea bags in the harbor; Canadians just muddled through."

The other hope for football in Maryland, ironically enough, comes from another Canadian, Jack Kent Cooke. The advent of any kind of Canadian football coming to Baltimore, though, shouldn't fill us with fear that Moosehead will replace Natty Boh at Memorial Stadium, or that we'll start ending our sentences with "eh?" instead of "hon!" Canadians like the United States the way it is.

"Americans are not very interested in what's going on in Canada, while Canadians are fascinated by what goes on in the U.S. It's rather pathetic, really," says Eric Nicol, a Vancouver-based author of 30 books on subjects ranging from American-Canadian relations to football. "The sheer passion of Americans rather alarms us. We tend to be a more phlegmatic nation."

That underdog, outsider quality is what makes so many Canadians such wonderful observers of "the Excited States of America," Mr. Fotheringham says. And, indeed, among the best conveyors of American culture are Canadians.

They're giving us the news: Morley Safer, Robert MacNeil and, of course, Mr. Jennings. (Not to mention NBC's one-time "Scud Stud" Arthur Kent, who has since retreated to Canada.)

They make "our" movies: Norman Jewison ("Moonstruck," "In the Heat of the Night"), Ivan Reitman ("Dave," "Ghostbusters"), David Cronenberg ("The Fly" and "Naked Lunch"). They play our characters: Lorne Greene ("Bonanza") and William Shatner ("Star Trek").

They're playing our songs: Celine Dion, k. d. lang, The Band, Leonard Cohen, Paul Shaffer, Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies.

And, perhaps most of all, they're making us laugh: Just about all of SCTV flown south -- John Candy, Catherine O'Hara (the "Home Alone" mom), Andrea Martin, Martin Short and, of course, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, who created the quintessential Canadian characters, the MacKenzie brothers, two flannel-shirted good-ol'-boys with not more than a case of Moosehead to protect them from their country's brutal winters. The ongoing skit was SCTV's way of fulfilling the Canadian Broadcasting Company's rule that 40 percent of programming contain indigenous subject matter.

That, of course, is Canada's ultimate fear: that it will be swallowed by its southern neighbor. That fear is growing: A 1992 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Canadians believed that they would eventually be merged with the United States, up from 25 percent in 1988. And 67 percent said that the United States had too much influence over them, up from 58 percent in 1985.

And, now, football.

"TV and the NFL have destroyed the Canadian Football League," Mr. Fotheringham declares. "Our three biggest cities, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, lust to get into the NFL, and the smaller ones -- Hamilton, Regina -- don't have enough of a TV market to get into the NFL, so they have CFL teams."

The CFL mandates that each team can have no more than 17 American players -- but that only applies in Canada, and not to the new U.S. teams. Foiled again!

The American cities that the CFL is expanding into are hardly the Torontos and Montreals of the United States: Sacramento, Las Vegas, the as-yet-unannounced Shreveport, La., and, of course, Baltimore.

"Canada is to the U.S.," Mr. Fotheringham says slyly, "as Baltimore is to Washington."

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