This quirky ode to a quirky land is a humorous nostalgia trip and a fun Canadian history lesson couched in a hipster quiz book.
If you’ve ever wondered
- Why is the inuksuk more revered than Wheelchair Jimmy?
- Does the iconic beaver really represent us better than The Littlest Hobo?
- Is everyone going canoeing without me or is canoeing way less of a thing than it’s made out to be?
then this book is for you.
Is Canada even real? It’s a question that’s being asked more and more, thanks to our waterproof, see-through, supposedly maple-scented currency and our improbably hot prime minister’s assertion that Santa lives here.
In the age of Google Maps and #factcheck, how could the existence of Canada be questioned? And yet how could a nation that’s the home of toboggans, Drake, and KD exist in the same realm as, say, Belgium or Niger?
Is Canada Even Real? examines the cultural factors behind the twenty-first-century monolithic myth of Canada, a nation that is lovable and real — if only in your imagination.
About the author
J.C. Villamere, who knew how to drive a Ski-Doo by age eight, reminds you that your country is wise and weird and you’re in charge of keeping it that way.
- Unknown, A Dewey Divas and Dudes Summer 2017 pick
Excerpt: Is Canada Even Real?: How a Nation Built on Hobos, Beavers, Weirdos, and Hip Hop Convinced the World to Beliebe (by (author) J.C. Villamere)
The Littlest Hobo: Our German Shepherd Guardian Angel TV Star
The year is 1979. Margaret Thatcher dramatically wins the British general election, becoming the first female prime minister of Britain. Skylab, NASA’s first orbiting space station, returns triumphantly to Earth after soaring through the stars for more than six miraculous years. Pope John Paul II’s trip to his homeland of Poland sparks a revolution of conscience that transforms a nation.
Meanwhile, in Canada, television executives in Toronto launch a program that stars a German shepherd that travels from town to town befriending clowns, rescuing ballerinas, and foiling gold robbers.
On Thursday, October 11, 1979, The Littlest Hobo (French title: Le Vagabond) premieres on CTV. The pilot episode begins, as each episode will, with Terry Bush’s urban hymn “Maybe Tomorrow.” While most other dramas and comedies are shot on film, The Littlest Hobo is recorded on hard, cheap, bright videotape, a medium reserved for ephemeral (read: disposable) programming.
The opening credits are comprised of a modular montage that shows us, variously, Hobo trotting down a suburban street, Hobo running out of the woods, Hobo in the passenger seat of a convertible. He does not look glamorous, even in a convertible. He is all business. But he is not a business dog. We know this because he wears no tie, no glasses, has no briefcase. “Just grab a hat, we’ll travel light, that’s hobo style,” sings Bush, a wistful smile in his voice. But Hobo wears no hat. Not even a collar. Potentially the least anthropomorphized animal to ever capture the imaginations of both young and old, this dog never wears clothes and is known only as “Hobo,” or by nicknames bestowed by his short-term human companions.
The show’s title appears in yellow brush-stroke font: The LITTLEST HOBO. Say “the”; Yell the rest.
We see Hobo leading a cow, Hobo placing a call, Hobo carrying a rifle. He swims in a lake, his ears smoothed against his nape. He is always moving, always onward. Hobo runs out of the woods, tongue out, panting as he surveys the scene. The next title card reads: Starring LONDON. (Yell it!)
A rainbow-bright hot-air balloon sits in the air. Is Hobo aboard? Wait, Hobo is swimming across a stream now; he emerges onto a rocky outcrop and shakes the water from his coat. Droplets of water arc out in all directions. It is a dramatic visual. It is the most dramatic visual you will see for the duration of the program. A dog shaking water off himself. Hold on to that. Hold dearly to that sense of wonder, that action.
Hobo’s origins, motivation, and ultimate destination are never explained over the course of the series. In this capacity, he is the perfect metaphor for Canada.
In the opening scene of the pilot episode of The Littlest Hobo, our altruistic Alsatian befriends forest ranger Ray Caldwell and rescues a pair of wildcat cubs from a forest fire. But the scene is soft, slow, halting. There are no subtle nuances. There are broad actions and sharp transitions. There is no budget for suspense.
As the episode continues, a local storekeeper aims to keep the forest’s fire-ravaged animals at bay by setting a trap of raw hamburger laced with rat poison outside his shop, but it’s eaten by a toddler. First of all, I hope viewers made note that CTV was the destination on Thursday evenings for watching wee ones eat raw meat, but secondly, and most importantly, Where were you on that one, Hobo?
In an attempt to save the child, Ranger Caldwell and Hobo set off by plane to fetch a doctor and the antidote, but a thunderstorm prevents Caldwell from landing the plane back home, leading to this tense exchange:
Caldwell: Of all the rough luck. I can’t even see the airstrip.
The doctor: What can we do?
Caldwell: The only other place is about ten miles out. We might make it there, but there wouldn’t be any kind of vehicle to go the rest of the way.
The doctor: The child needs an antidote in a hurry.
Caldwell: Doc, can you fly a plane?
The doctor: Goodness, no, no, I’ve only been up a few times in my life. Why?
Caldwell: There’s a parachute in the rear. You could land it and I could jump with the antidote.
The doctor: Sorry.
You’re likely now considering that scriptwriting might be a much, much easier venture than you’d previously imagined, and it may prove to be a generous source of income for you or anyone else capable of penning such prose — say, your nine-year-old tabby or your great aunt with the acquired brain injury. With characteristic Canadian humility, even those behind the scenes acknowledged that aspects of the show were lacking. “Sometimes the stories, quite honestly, may fall flat,” producer Barrie Diehl told StarWeek in 1985. “It could be considered unexciting.… The A-Team is exciting. They shoot guns.”
Returning to the show, we see that, naturally, Caldwell and the doctor take the only reasonable course of action under the circumstances: they strap a parachute to the stray and hurl it out of the plane in a storm.
“You know, I could swear you’ve done this before,” Caldwell says to the dog with a cure for poisoning attached to his collar and a parachute strapped to his back. Our four-legged hero hops out of the plane as the ranger whispers, “Good luck.”
The chute deploys and Hobo comes to a reasonably graceless landing in a field. He sprints through a forest and across a creek.
We see the toddler’s anxious parents waiting in a medical clinic. Then Hobo walks into the clinic and the attendant immediately goes for his neck pack. Obviously, this dog is here with the cure. A perfunctory “good dog” is issued. The toddler is saved. Now, Hobo rests.
Only one question remains: How is this even a real show? Oh, and also, all these other questions:
1. Which of these Canadian celebrities guest-starred on The Littlest Hobo?
a) Super Dave Osborne
b) Mike Myers
c) David Suzuki
d) Leslie Nielsen
2. How many episodes of The Littlest Hobo were produced by CTV?
3. What happens in the final episode of the series?
a) Hobo finds an undetonated Second World War bomb
b) a gambler plans to sabotage a lumberjack contest
c) a criminal tries to sell a stolen secret laser
d) Hobo is mistaken for a sheep-killing wolf
4. Reruns of The Littlest Hobo ran on national networks until
a) the ’80s
b) the ’90s
c) the ’00s
d) the ’10s
5. The program is based on
a) a 1958 Hollywood movie about a stray dog that befriends a boy named Tommy and rescues his pet lamb from slaughter
b) Le Vagabond, a Quebecois fairy tale that also features a man who believes himself to be a horse
c) an acid-fuelled fever dream endured by television producer Dorrell McGowan
d) the 1978 TV series Incredible Hulk, which sees a widowed traveller help others in need despite his terrible secret
6. London, the dog who played Hobo, co-starred with Prince in which film?
a) Purple Rain
b) Under the Cherry Moon
c) Graffiti Bridge
d) The Sacrifice of Victor
With July 1st marking Canada’s celebration of 150 years as a country, there are a slew of new books that focus on some aspect of history or culture … one that stands out bears the unlikely title Is Canada Even Real?
“Quirky but real! Ours is a wise, weird, wonderful country. Let’s celebrate the fact!,”
Is Canada even real? As real as my arms and legs. As real as Don Cherry’s jackets. Or a Gordie Howe hat trick. I real-ly (get it?) enjoyed this book.
Bryan McFarlane, creator of Peter Puck speaking as Peter Puck
[A] quirky nostalgia trip for Canadians who value contributions to our national identity.
Globe and Mail