From 2003 to 2006, Fox Television carried a strange TV comedy called Arrested Development. It featured a story arc involving a failed actor named Tobias Fünke who auditions for the theatre troupe Blue Man Group because he thinks it’s a support group for depressed men. For several episodes, Fünke wears blue body paint, which comes in handy when he realizes he can blend in with the blue parts of outdoor billboards, allowing him to spy on the rest of his family.
For a while, on July 1, I wondered whether Kate Middleton was inspired by Tobias Fünke when she decided to show up at the big Canada Day celebration on Parliament Hill dressed as a Canadian flag.
In a release to the Ottawa press rabble, “the Press Secretary to TRH the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge” described Kate’s outfit as “a cream dress by Reiss, with The Queen’s Maple Leaf brooch and a hat by Sylvia Fletcher at Lock and Co.” From any distance, however, the most striking thing about Kate’s outfit was that it was red at both ends—hat and pumps—and whitish through the middle, except for the reddish purse where the maple leaf would be if she were flapping sideways from a mast, not that I would ever advocate such a course of action.
Getup aside, Kate looked, as she always does, happy and fascinated by all around her. Her husband William betrayed a few more hints of ennui. But together, for the most part, they looked smashing and delighted to be there. The royal couple’s charms, in Ottawa as on every stop of their Canadian tour, remain obvious.
The charms of the Canada Day noon show were more elusive, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In the New York Times, Sarah Lyall wrote that Will and Kate would visit Los Angeles “after they leave the cozy, somewhat small-potatoes confines of Canada.” The Ottawa show was designed to rebut every bit of that characterization. Nothing cozy here. Potatoes the size of bowling balls.
The stage on the Parliament Hill lawn grows larger every year until now, with undulating metal adornments in something approximating Frank Gehry’s style and jumbo video screens port and starboard, the stage is starting to rival the Centre Block in size.
The rhetoric was on a similar scale. By now, it is no longer a surprise that Stephen Harper is comfortable with patriotic themes. “When I look out across this vast, joyful sea of red and white, I see a country that’s just brimming with confidence,” the Prime Minister said. “Strong, united, peaceful, prosperous. A Canada that’s proud of its long history and secure in its present. A Canada rising. An optimistic Canada. A Canada that will accept no limits, no bounds, and no ceiling to its great future. That’s what I see.”
The event’s MCs, Olympians Alexandre Despatie and Jennifer Heil, explored similar themes. “We’re here today to celebrate each other,” Heil said, “for together, we are Canada!” And: “As we gather today on the ancestral land of the Iroquois people, we have much to celebrate.”
In case Sarah Lyall of the New York Times is reading, I want to assure her that this is absolutely the way Canadians talk. The night after the Canada Day show, I had dinner in an Italian restaurant, where the waitress suggested “an arugula salad worthy of our Haudenosaunee forebears.”
As for the live music at such events, the rules, going back as far as I can remember, are rigidly enforced. The Canadian federal state organizes public concerts the same way our prime ministers select their cabinets. Geographic and demographic diversity are key. Talent is optional. The afternoon’s loudest noise was the sound of boxes on a checklist being ticked.
Dan Mangan was here from Vancouver, and Corb Lund and his Hurtin’ Albertans, and little Maria Aragon from Manitoba. Jenn Grant from Halifax. A plethora of more or less persuasive franco-pop acts, not all from Quebec. Inuk singer Elisapie Isaac.
Heritage Minister James Moore, who’s a real fan of many of the latte-swilling elitists he is vocationally required to hang out with, was said to have played a personal role in selecting the talent. I thought I saw his hand in the choice of Grant and Mangan, who are both several cuts above the average indie singer-songwriter.
But the format made it hard for even real talent to shine, because the format—a song apiece from every corner of the ancestral land—prizes individual voices little. The apotheosis of this sort of thinking came early, with a terrifying mass assault from step dancers, Cirque du Soleil-ish acrobats, Aboriginal drummers, Celtic fiddlers and a string quartet. Somewhere near the geographic and conceptual bull’s eye of the whole mess was a band called Delhi 2 Dublin, whose website asks: “After all, where else are you going to see kick-ass fiddle players rocking out with a kilt-wearing Korean flanked by two bouncing Bhangra percussionists and a vocalist who looks like he would be at home in a Bollywood music video?”
Where else indeed. But you kind of knew you’d find it here. Will and Kate stared fixedly into the centre of the maelstrom, smiled appreciatively, clapped after every act. If Kate felt the urge to flap in the breeze until she faded from sight, she fought it.