“Grit” is a concept we will be returning to when we discuss the place of sport in Canadian culture, but for now it serves as a way to distinguish between ethereals like Christopher Plummer and Mary Pickford and Donald Sutherland, the legitimately cool, relatable rogue.

“Grit” is also not uniquely Canadian. Harrison Ford exudes grit. Nick Nolte has it in spades. Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston… I could go on. But Sutherland is no hardened cowboy, no scruffy nerf-herder. He may have been one of the Dirty Dozen, but his role in that infamous operation was to “stay out in the drive” and impersonate enemy soldiers. In M*A*S*H* (the film) he was Hawkeye Pierce,  a well-known lover but no fighter. When he ends up body snatched in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, pointing and shrieking in that memorable scene near the end, the woman opposite him reacts with sorrow as well as fear.

That’s because Sutherland has a sweetness, a sort of vulnerability that draws you to him. It is on full display in this 1970 CBC interview, where he discusses his upbringing in the forests of New Brunswick, a province known – sadly – for grinding poverty and for effectively being ruled by a single family, the secretive Irving dynasty. Already a star by this point, he seems ill at ease in front of the camera. Is he embarrassed at his humble origins, which included bouts of serious sickness and long periods of drifting? Are there hard choices he had to make that he’s not proud of?

Politically, Sutherland is an avowed progressive, a contemporary of Jane Fonda, and was an avid supporter of Barack Obama – but he took the time to call out Hillary Clinton’s mendaciousness. He also married Shirley Douglas, the daughter of Canada’s most famous progressive politician, the Bible-thumping social reformer Tommy Douglas. I tell you this to show that life in what amounts to Canada’s version of the Appalachians does not translate into hard-edged Republicanism, but an earnest, honest liberalism.

With his signature long hippie hair and scruffy beard, his penetrating, often sad eyes and quiet, intelligent voice, Sutherland is obviously someone who’s known pain and loss yet continues to smile. He’s no innocent – he’ll play a morally compromised figure like President Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games or a mysterious spy in Oliver Stone’s JFK, or Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard in The Hunley. As President Snow, he’ll threaten Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen before coughing up blood into a handkerchief. Toughness tempered with gentleness: that’s Canadian Grit. It’s a quality he’s passed onto his son Kiefer, who you know as the tormented Jack Bauer from 24.

But I also want to stress that Canadian Grit doesn’t always manifest the same way. Sometimes, this mixture of humble origins and wide-eyed idealism produces- accidentally- one of the greatest deadpan comedians of all time. Next week, we’ll begin to answer the question of what makes Canadians so funny when we review the career of the comically serious Leslie Nielsen.


See the previous installments in the series:

Part 1 on Heroes: ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’ Vs Terrance Denby and ‘Sidequest’

Part 2 on “Humour”: The Libertarian Fantasy of ‘Letterkenny’

Part 3 on Graphic Novel Nihilism: The Harsh Truths of ‘Essex County’

Part 4 on Spawn and Wolverine: Banished From The Promised Land: A Tale of Two Canadian Anti-Heroes

Part 5 on Science Fiction Dystopias: Inside Quebec’s – and Canada’s – Replicant Culture

Part 6 on Animation: The Garrison Mentality: More Than Meets The Eye

Part 7 on Pop Music: How To Build A Successful Canadian Musical Act

Part 8 on Anne of Green Gables and The Traumatized Artist: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Treacherous Alpine Path

Part 9 on Avoiding the Serious: Mordecai Richler, Montreal, And Gritty Realism

Part 10 on Southern Ontario Gothic: The Marriage of the Mundane and the Fantastic

Part 11 on Margaret Atwood’s Reign of Terror: Literary Tyranny and The Handmaid’s Tale

Part 12 on the First Nations Fraud: Whitewashing Genocide: Truth, Lies, and Joseph Boyden

Part 13 on the inventive Esi Edugyan: A Novel I Cannot Recommend Enough

Part 14 on Generation X Origins: Douglas Coupland And The Hopeful (?) Future Of Canadian (?) Culture

Part 15 on Jordan Peterson Rising: Canadian Culture Creators And The Intellectual Dark Web

Part 16 on The Awkward Quiet: David Cronenberg’s Silent Hell

Part 17 on The Saddest Music In The WorldGuy Maddin’s Surrealist Madness

Part 18 on Ararat: Atom Egoyan’s Stammering Grief

Part 19 on Paul Haggis’ Superficial Gloss: Promising More Than He Delivers

Part 20 on the Reitman Family’s Blissful Ignorance: Space to Laugh an Easy Laugh

Part 21 on Mark Pickford: The Archetypal (Canadian) Actress

Part 22 on the Modern Prospero Christopher Plummer: As Blue-Blooded and Upper Canadian as They Come


Photo by John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com