Drake and Other Canadian Ambassadors
by Jim Slotek
(July 1, 2019 – Toronto, ON) It’s no surprise that much of the chatter around an event like the Toronto Raptors’ NBA Championship has nothing to do with sports. On that note, in the spirit of Canada Day, allow me to defend Drake.
A Canadian kid who was a breakout star from TV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation and basically bleeds maple syrup, Drake is the top-selling male artist of all time in America (more than Elvis and Michael Jackson). And his hyper-excited antics at every rung of the championship ladder played a large part in turning the Finals from an expected U.S. ratings disaster to an unexpected hit.
(Seriously, it is a fact of life that any permutation of a Canadian team in the finals of any U.S. sport is normally unthinkable for bean-counters, reason enough to jump out a window).
He was, in short, an unbelievable entertainment ambassador for Canada throughout, even though people groused about his chumminess with the team, his administration of a shoulder rub to coach Nick Nurse during a timeout, and other tall-poppy complaints. He was a fan, whose passion mirrored the mood in Canada Square’s Jurassic Park (where he also entertained and cheer-led when the team played away games).
Even “bad” publicity – like the NBA complaining about the encroachment of a fan onto the playing floor – was good publicity in that people were talking about it on both sides of the border.
Drake is not paid by the team. He doesn’t have to be its globally famous cheerleader, any more than he had to put the CN Tower on his album From the 6 (when it won a Grammy, they lit the Tower gold).
This puts him in an elite of de facto Canadian ambassadors from the entertainment world, whose influence hits you when you travel, often in surprising ways.
I was in Rome covering the launch of the movie Angels and Demons when I met a journalist from Singapore who, on learning I was Canadian, asked, “Do you know Russell Peters?”
What are the odds? I do personally know Russell Peters. But the Indo-Canadian comedian is known all over the world because his humour aims squarely and lovingly at different ethnicities, their relationships and peculiarities, and his bits have been traded via the ‘Net around the world to cousins, aunts and uncles. The lone Canadian on Forbes’ top-10 list of comedians, he is used to being recognized on the street wherever he plays.
One of my earliest experiences of this “Canadian ambassador” phenomenon occurred on my first trip to the U.K. in 1987. A friend and I were in our hotel bar, a Russell Square establishment whose clientele were from around the U.K. and Europe. And we ended up sitting next to a group of young Finns who were in London doing a recording session for their band (the Finnish name never took, but I remember that it translated into English as “the Decent Boys.”
Again, we identified ourselves as Canadian, and one dropped his jaw and said, “You are from the country of the great Neil Young!” His enthusiasm turned to awe when I told him I’d seen “the great Neil Young” in concert, at that point, five times.
We ended up hanging with The Decent Boys all night, drinking beers in their room and trading a guitar to strum and pick Neil songs (back then, I could play a passable version of After the Gold Rush, among other tunes).
It may be insecurity in our DNA to see ourselves as others see us, and we have a special place in our hearts for heroes who are ours alone (Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Great Big Sea, Spirit of the West).
But it’s worth considering on Canada Day that our country’s place on the world stage is more clearly defined by our artists’ works than by the utterings of our politicians. These include:
-Vancouver kid Ryan Reynolds, who touts his hometown with almost Drake-like pride, and whose 14 million Twitter followers know him as @VancityReynolds
-To some extent, growing up in Winnipeg in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, having The Guess Who represent us internationally with hit after hit (and prairie-conscious albums like Wheatfield Soul and Canned Wheat), hanging with The Doors (and still be spotted around town) had to be like being a Liverpudlian back then.
–Mike Myers’ hometown hockey fetish saw him put Canadian “Easter eggs” in Wayne’s World, like Stan Mikita’s Donuts, frequented by “Officer Koharski” (Google Don Koharski and Jim Schoenfeld if you want to know what that’s about). He even had the Leafs win the Cup in The Love Guru (though that may have been a Leaf curse of its own). It’s not hard to imagine, if the Leafs ever have that Dream Run, that Mike could be the team’s own Drake.
And even Drake’s TV mentor, Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler represents Canada. Degrassi was such a cult hit in the U.S. that director Kevin Smith campaigned to be allowed to direct a Next Generation episode. In the ‘80s, during a Hollywood writer’s strike, then NBC President Brandon Tartikoff reportedly offered her big money to air it as replacement programming (It aired on PBS at the time). She said no, retaining creative control over its unabashed Canadian-ness.
So, Happy Canada Day to all our ambassadors. Beer in hand at the lake, we salute you!
Jim Slotek is a longtime Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter who has interviewed thousands of celebrities. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special. His writing also appears in Cineplex, Movie Entertainment magazines and in the blog Original-Cin.