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A Timbit Nation?

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TIMBIT Nation? Say it ain't so, eh.

Surely Canada can come up with a better moniker than the leftover part of the donut not sold to someone else.

I've become obsessed with Tim Hortons. It's not their strangely satisfying coffee, or the sugar rush you get after biting into a double glazed chocolate donut that's triggered my Timmy's fixation. What has me enthralled, and more than a little perturbed, is the rapid and seemingly unquestioned rise of Tim Hortons as a defining Canadian cultural icon.

Forget our aging and kindly sovereign, the venerable castor canadensis or the country's bear claw cum national flag. These are national symbols of the pre-Timmy's era. Whether it's the media explaining the Conservative's federal election victory, the military orchestrating a public relations coup by bringing Timmy's to Kandahar, or academics using the "Timbit" as a metaphor to describe our social values, Tim Hortons, and its many products, have become the Rosetta Stone for interpreting all things Canadian.

On the surface, the country's largest fast-food chain embodies many of the aspirations of Canadian nationhood. There is the link to the hockey legend of the same name and his small town beginnings, storied NHL career and tragic end. Indeed, Tim Horton's has been masterful at playing up its "everyman" origins in the marketing of its restaurants. For a country that prides itself on its common sense and egalitarian outlook, Timmy's is the byword for unpretentiousness; a truly democratic culinary and social experiment.

(The phrase Timbit Nation is the title of a book by journalist John Stackhouse, who mused the country was loosing its sense of purpose and identity.)

My beef isn't with Tim Hortons and its American parent company Wendy's. The purveyors of the Timbit provide jobs for thousands of people and are great community boosters through their philanthropic work.

The speedy ascension, however, of a coffee and donut chain to the status of defining cultural icon is a worrying sign for Canadian nationalism. Doubly so when one considers the less than stellar aspects of our national character that Tim Hortons, as a national symbol, can just as easily represent.

Viewed as a dyspeptic metaphor for Canada, Tim Hortons represents a backlash against what Canadians' indicate, in poll after poll, is the country's best attribute: its diversity. From the standardized menu to the layout of each restaurant, right down to the bathroom fixtures, every Timmy's is pretty much identical. The uniformity of the Tim Hortons experience is evocative of the darker side of our egalitarian worldview; the Canadian tendency to embrace conformity, blandness and studied mediocrity.

Let's remember also that Tim Hortons is a chain restaurant. The Timbit Nation isn't a place where oddball family businesses thrive. Instead, the franchise model -- where the "franchisee" doesn't own the land or the building -- harkens back to the colonial company store and its semi-monopolistic practices designed to stifle competition and curtail choice.

With the Hudson Bay Company now owned by an American and the country on the verge of losing Inco and its Canadian held natural resources to Phelps Dodge, the U.S.-controlled Tim Hortons is alas an increasingly apt symbol for the country's dwindling control over its own economic future.

National symbols matter. They are representations of not only the positive and affirming values that a people share in common but also the direction of the culture of the nation itself. The emergence of Tim Hortons as an important Canadian cultural touchstone is as much an expression of what we aspire to be (egalitarian, unpretentious, etc.) as it is a reflection of what we risk becoming (e.g. a conformist, corporatist and less independent nation).

I would argue that our narcissistic celebration of the Tim Hortons everyman, the I am Canadian! TV ads and chest thumping about Olympic gold medals, are all part and parcel of the ascendancy of a vapid "feel good" nationalism; a dangerous distraction from the hard work of nation building.

The reality is that our knowledge and appreciation of what we share in common -- our history, political traditions and civic values (voting, volunteering, etc.) -- are in steady decline. Whether it's an ambitious vision for Canada's role in the world or saving our natural environment for future generations, we need serious national symbols and goals that speak to the reality of Canada and challenge us to join together in common cause.

Surely Canada can come up with a better moniker than the Timbit Nation -- the leftover part of the donut not sold to someone else. Or, maybe not...

Rudyard Griffiths is the director of

the Dominion Institute.

rudyard@dominion.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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