I expect most of you reading this have already heard of my most successful blog post ever, “In a Mass Knife Fight to the Death Between Every American President, Who Would Win and Why?”
One afternoon’s puttering around Wikipedia almost five years ago has now gone viral twice and taken on a life of its own, evolving into a Vice Media animated short that recently aired on HBO, as well as a mention in the New York Times. This Monday I am looking forward to being interviewed for Wisconsin Public Radio’s/Public Radio International’s Peabody Award-winning program, TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE. The show will air on more than 200 public radio stations across the United States. In anticipation of that interview, I thought I would write something new.
While discussing that fun hypothetical knife fight with people, I have been asked several times how I thought Canada’s prime ministers might do in the same situation.
I confess, I just cannot image any of Canada’s PMs in a knife fight. Where America’s pantheon of presidents is stocked with many soldiers, sailors, airmen, farmers, captains of industry, actors, and other exciting figures to add spice to the more typical lawyers and career politicians, that is not really Canada’s strong suit. We tend to enjoy our lawyers and our career politicians. Sometimes we find a doctor or a publisher and persuade them to become a career politician, but that is about as far as we go.
While researching this piece, I cannot say categorically that any of Canada’s prime ministers have ever fired a shot in anger, despite several of them serving during the world wars. They just don’t seem to be a violent bunch. Even assuming you could gather all of Canada’s prime ministers together and give them knives, I doubt even one of them would do anything with it. No, if I was ever going to write a Canadian equivalent to my most popular piece, I would need to find a Canadian way to do it.
Last week as I was explaining my line of reasoning to the New York Times reporter, she said, “You mean like a hockey fight?”
Yes. Like a hockey fight. That will do nicely! In a fit of enthusiasm I started firing off brainstorming ideas. She stopped me, asking, “Sorry, what’s ‘jerseying?’ ” As an American, she was unfamiliar with the term, but she promised to run everything I was saying by her Canadian editor later. That is when I knew I could have a lot of fun with this.
I began the American knife fight with an explanation of the ground rules. I suppose I should do the same here:
- Every Canadian prime minister will be assigned to either the Liberal team –The Grits– or the Conservative team –The Tories– based on their politics. Players will not be allowed to fight with their own teammates, even if they really, really want to. (I’m thinking of Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien as I say that.)
- For the purposes of this mental exercise we shall imagine the two teams clearing their benches and fighting on the ice in an otherwise empty regulation-sized rink. The stands will be empty. The fight is happening whether the participants want it to happen or not, but how they act in the brawl is still very much up to them.
- For the sake of including the NDP even though they have never formed a government, the two most famous NDP leaders, Jack Layton and Ed Broadbent, will act as referees.
- As the vast majority of readers are going to be more familiar with the most recent prime ministers, I shall walk through the characters in reverse chronological order.
- On that note, I do not expect readers to know much at all about many of these figures, so I expect each prime minister will end up getting a lengthier write up than was the case with the American presidents. When I wrote about JFK, people did not need to be brought up to speed. Lester B. Pearson might need some context, even thought they were contemporaries.
With all that said, let’s go!
Canada’s current Prime Minister is the perfect person to start off a conversation about fisticuffs. We literally have video footage of him winning a boxing match against a larger Tory opponent narrated by an arch-conservative pundit who grows less and less enthralled as the match goes on. The younger Trudeau is a trained pugilist, a natural athlete, one of the youngest men on this hypothetical sheet of ice, and his father will be there to have his back. I expect he will cut a path through the Tories until Stephen Harper explains to some of his Tory teammates just what the Trudeau boys are all about. Hockey fights tend to be one-on-one, but in bench-clearing brawls, four or five guys might join forces to mess up our PM’s pretty face. It would be quite a sight to see, though!
Canada’s most recent conservative prime minister is an unapologetic hockey nerd. While governing Canada with a firm hand for almost a decade, he still managed to carve out enough time to write a deep and dense academic tome on the history of hockey in Toronto from 1906 to 1911. Stephen Harper is going to love playing some old-timey hockey with some old-timey Conservatives. He’s going to be pissed that the game is being interrupted for a bench-clearing brawl, and he’s going to be super-pissed that Young Justin is doing better than people thought he would. Stephen hates when that happens.
Now some say Stephen Harper isn’t a scrapper, but that man ruled his party with an iron fist for so long they are still trying to pick up the pieces now that he’s gone. The man is used to getting what he wants, and he wants to win! On the ice, he’s going to drop his gloves, square off with at least one of the Trudeaus, and I have no doubt he will do The West proud. The question is, will the rest of the Tories be able to help him?
# 21 Liberal
The fact that I cannot easily find a picture of former prime minister Paul Martin wearing a hockey jersey for a Canadian team does not bode well for him in this blog post. Another thing that isn’t going to go well for him? I distinctly remember when he was prime minister, the yard signs during the federal election read, “Team Martin” in huge letters with “Liberal Party of Canada” in itty-bitty print down in the bottom right-hand corner. When Paul Martin was in charge, he purged his party of all of his predecessor’s people and tried to remake the Big Red Machine in his own image. The Big Red Machine then proceeded to break down spectacularly.
I somehow expect playing on a team made up of the pistons and cogs of the Big Red Machine is not going to work out well for Martin.
Now I have already said in the rules of this hypothetical exercise that Paul Martin is not allowed to sucker punch Jean Chrétien when he is not looking, but that is not to say he isn’t going to skate up behind him with his fist cocked until he is intercepted by Jack Layton and Ed Broadbent. On the whole sheet of ice, that will be the only fight they break up before even a blow is swung.
Martin will demand, “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Jack will politely point out he very nearly became prime minister because the Liberals spent ten years in the wilderness recovering from Martin’s tenure as party leader. Shaken, Martin will spend the rest of the brawl on the bench trying to scribble out legacy-saving memoirs on the coach’s white board while staring daggers at his former boss and muttering, “It’s all his fault!” Who am I talking about? A man named…
The man. The legend. The inventor of the “Shawinigan Handshake” where you grab your opponent by the throat and shake him like a rag doll until he blacks out or apologizes for invading your personal space.
I really like Chrétien’s chances in a hockey brawl. I really do.
A quick pass through his Wikipedia page offers still more promises of on-ice mayhem: As a young man, Chrétien was renowned for his love of violence. He was the neighbourhood bully, known to be quick with a punch and possessing a, quote, “Atrocious temper.”
When asked by a journalist what he was best at when he was in school, he replied, “Street fighting.”
Well, Jean grew up to be a big boy indeed. Six feet tall may not seem that exceptional, but he is also strong as an ox: When I was a student, I had a picture taped up on my dorm room wall of him carrying three two-fours of beer by himself up a flight of stairs in the West Block of Parliament in Ottawa. It was a very Canadian picture. On the ice, I expect him to be a natural two-fisted fighter without a lot of patience for sizing up his opponents or thinking about his footwork. When he does go down, he will go down swinging. Hopefully he will have his deaf ear turned towards Martin cheering from the Grits’ bench.