Canada 1986: Blowing The Lid Off “The Canadian Conspiracy”

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The “nice Canadians” stereotype has frequently made its way into pop culture over the years, both here at home and around the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the concept of going to war with such a “friendly” place has launched so many comedic and satirical productions, from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Green Day parody “Canadian Idiot” to full-length movies such as Michael Moore’s 1995 flop Canadian Bacon (featuring Alan Alda as a U.S. President declaring, “Surrender pronto, or we level Toronto!”) or the 1999 hit South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, which even scored a Best Song Oscar nomination for the cheeky “Blame Canada.”

But what if the tables were turned? What if the Canadian government launched a decades-long campaign to send its best and brightest entertainers southward to infiltrate the American entertainment system, weaken the United States’ mental and emotional state, and eventually launch a full-scale takeover of our neighbours to the south?

That’s the premise of The Canadian Conspiracy, an ambitious 90-minute collaboration between the CBC, Telefilm Canada, and a gaggle of Canadian entertainers, TV personalities, and comedy writers already living and working in the States by the mid-’80s. Not satisfied to simply trumpet the achievements of Canadians in the U.S. film, TV and music industries, the writers, producers and stars concocted a staggering storyline stretching over six decades, mirroring the real-life presence of our homegrown stars within American entertainment with a fanciful tale of successive Canadian governments training their talent to infiltrate U.S. society in the run-up to an eventual annexation.

Designed as a spoof of the in-your-face “the threat is real” documentaries already made popular by CBS’ 60 Minutes, CNN (the obvious inspiration for the show’s supposed original broadcaster, the American News Network aka. “ANN”) and Geraldo Rivera in the ’80s, The Canadian Conspiracy didn’t wash with everybody. One reviewer from the Canadian edition of TV Guide sniffed that the production “captures the serious CBC documentary style so well that it just isn’t funny.” 

Not only does this assertion miss the point of the special’s intent and tone, it also does a great disservice to a classic piece of Canadiana that, over three decades later, still enlightens as often as it entertains and, from where I sit, is crying out for a sequel.

(What? You haven’t seen The Canadian Conspiracy? Well, at some point you should really take an hour and ten minutes to go to this YouTube link. Go ahead. I’ll wait. I’ll even wait for you to finish this more recent, much more positive YouTube review of the production.)

 

 

For starters, The Canadian Conspiracy is remarkable for the sheer number of 1980s Canadian A-listers it brought on board to play along with the various stages of denial and/or confirmation of the government plot. To wit: Four SCTV alumni – Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, John Candy and Martin Short (whose brother Mike Short, himself an SCTV bit player and writer, is one of the special’s three credited co-writers); Lorne Greene, Leslie Nielsen, William Shatner, Margot Kidder, Tommy Chong, Howie Mandel, Alan Thicke, Monty Hall, Susan Clark, Morley Safer, and the only featured representative of Canada’s music community, Anne Murray (who, late in the special, becomes the only participant to confirm – amid a backdrop of suitably dark-and-threatening-music – that “if America were to go to war with Canada, I would have to go with Canada”).

 

Along with the fresh content, The Canadian Conspiracy also makes great use of interview footage from Lorne Michaels (billed as the kingpin of “Operation: Manhattan” for his integration of Canadian performers and writers into Saturday Night Live and their subsequent success in other TV series and movies), Ivan Reitman, Donald Sutherland, Doug Henning and Rich Little. The latter’s quote that “Canada knows what’s going on in the United States politically, but Americans don’t know what’s going on Canada – maybe that’s just as well” is used to great effect in The Canadian Conspiracy’s late stages, when Little’s post-quote laughter is slowed down, drawn out and stretched over the eerie pre-commercial-break theme music, in a moment that would have made Hard Copy proud.

 

The biggest roles in The Canadian Conspiracy, however, come courtesy of Lorne Greene, cast as “The Kingpin” of the operation’s U.S.-based activities, and Eugene Levy – alleged to have played stool-pigeon to the fake American news network in exchange for, among other things, “full amnesty from prosecution and a five-picture deal with a major Hollywood studio.” Holed up in a tawdry California motel (with the name blacked out) for “three days and three nights” with the ANN crew, Levy goes full-tilt into his confession – sweaty, unshaven, even terrified to utter Greene’s name while the latter’s mid-’80s Alpo dog food commercials play on a TV in the background.

Everyone else questioned for the production denies knowing Levy (SCTV castmate and fellow MacMaster University alumnus Dave Thomas repeatedly mispronounces his name); in one of the funniest segments, Leslie Nielsen vehemently rebukes Levy’s insistence that the former called the latter and begged him not to leave Hollywood and flee back to Canada. This leads to one of The Canadian Conspiracy’s great truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments, as this segment from Airplane! – featuring the special’s narrator intoning, “What is Leslie Nielsen trying to hide from the American public?” – gives way to actual footage of Nielsen’s brother Erik Nielsen, the Canadian Defence Minister of the day, fumbling his way through a House of Commons address.

In an astonishing twist, The Canadian Conspiracy aired in early June 1986, days before Erik Nielsen and fellow Tory cabinet minister Sinclair Stevens were dumped from Brian Mulroney’s inner circle for their involvement in a conflict-of-interest scandal – all of which adds another dimension to Leslie Nielsen’s stuttered insistence that his powerful brother (below, left) had no influence on his Hollywood success.

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Another curious parallel between the mockumentary and the real world: Greene is depicted as launching the “Lorne Greene School of Broadcasting” to educate prospective subversives, er, budding Canadian actors in 1950. That didn’t happen, but Greene did indeed found the Toronto-based Academy For Radio Arts in 1945. Among the institution’s actual students: Leslie Nielsen (who spends roughly a minute’s worth of The Canadian Conspiracy desperately trying to remember the names of his classmates); Star Trek stalwart James “Scotty” Doohan; and Hee Haw actor-writer Gordie Tapp. 

Along with Nielsen, Doohan and Tapp are also involved in other aspects of The Canadian Conspiracy’s deft blurring of the line between fact and fiction. Doohan and William Shatner are each featured in a Star Trek-oriented segment showcasing CBC’s role as a training ground for future American TV stars; we see Shatner playing Marc Anthony in a filmed production of Julius Caesar, while Doohan stars in the early CBC-TV series Space Command (whose cast also included Shatner).

The same sequence includes an early game-show hosting stint for Monty Hall, well before his Let’s Make A Deal debut in the States, as well as footage of Rich Little launching a lifetime of celebrity impressions. (It’s a somewhat self-congratulatory segment for CBC, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary at the time; Alan Thicke and Dave Thomas non-ironically praise the network for its work with young actors, writers and producers; Susan Clark refers to the corporation as “Mother CBC”; Martin Short simply calls the network “Papa.”)

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The Canadian Conspiracy’s most delicate balancing act, however, arguably occurs in a segment zeroing in on Canadian involvement in such ground-breaking counterculture ’60s hits as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and, in particular, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Winnipeg-born comedian David Steinberg (above right, with Tom Smothers) is spotlighted for the controversial “sermons” he concocted for the Smothers show, which did indeed generate thousands of angry letters and played a key role in CBS’ cancelling the series in 1969. (The Steinberg “sermon” featured in The Canadian Conspiracy was part of an un-aired Smothers Brothers episode; you can see it at the 26:35 mark of this YouTube link.)

However, The Canadian Conspiracy goes a step further and suggests that the Smothers cancellation enraged the Prime Minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, who is described as having made the conspiracy “his Number One priority” since taking office in 1968. Trudeau’s infamous “Just watch me” quote, made in response to a reporter’s question about his invocation of the War Measures Act to combat the 1970 October Crisis, becomes the answer to an off-screen, fictional reporter asking the PM how he’s “going to get back at CBS” for dumping Tom, Dick and Steinberg. The solution: Infiltrating the CBS variety series that debuted a mere three weeks later – Hee Haw – with a wealth of Canadian talent, including Don Harron as Charlie Farquharson (below), Gordie Tapp (putting his “Lorne Greene School of Broadcasting” training to good use), and – although not mentioned directly by The Canadian Conspiracy – real-life Hee Haw co-creators and writers John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt. 

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For me, that was the real beauty of The Canadian Conspiracy as a teenager watching it in 1986 – the idea that an obviously-comedic effort went to such trouble to do its homework and wound up educating me, and likely millions of others, in the process. For example, I had no idea that the Warner Brothers behind the studio of the same name – president Jack and siblings Harry, Albert and Sam – came to Hollywood from London, Ontario. Nor did I have any clue that Margot Kidder was from Yellowknife or that ’60s sitcom stars Alan Young (aka. “Mister Ed‘s human stooge”) or Yvonne deCarlo (aka. Lily Munster) were from the Great White North.

I was also unaware that Canada was responsible for several stars of the silent-film era and the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Keystone Kops creator Mack Sennett (central to an early sequence involving Canadians taking offence to lame jokes about their weather), Marie Dressler, Raymond Massey, Glenn Ford, Mary Pickford, Walter Pidgeon, and most astonishingly, King Kong paramour Fay Wray. (Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame gets a daily spray of cleanser from Howie Mandel, fresh from his third season on St. Elsewhere and doing his bit for the conspiracy by keeping Canadians’ Walk of Fame stars nice and shiny.)

 

Another major reason The Canadian Conspiracy works is the participants’ commitment to play fun-house-mirror versions of themselves to drive home the original premise. This even includes Anne Murray, who punctuates one of the production’s most memorable segments – the insistence that American green cards owe their existence to the influence of Lorne Greene – with the suggestion that “there HAS to be a connection…because everybody I know who has a green card knows Lorne Greene.” 

Questioned later about the true meaning of her breakout hit “Snowbird,” Murray gives an explanation just crazy enough to be true – that some American DJs have suggested it’s a thinly-disguised tribute to narcotics. And then, confronted with “research” that suggests Gene MacLellan’s “Snowbird” lyrics are a back-masking of the phrases, “The Canadians are coming… Surrender peacefully… You will not be harmed,” an incredulous Murray channels her inner super-villain and chides her off-screen American interviewers: “You get that when you play ‘Snowbird’ backwards? Well, I’ve never listened to ‘Snowbird’ backwards. I would think that would be a bit of a waste of time.” (Insert threatening theme music; end scene)

The willingness to play along also extends to The Canadian Conspiracy’s handful of invited American guests. NBC news veteran Edwin Newman provides a deadpan disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast (“You may hear language this evening that you may not like; you may see images that you might find upsetting – viewer discretion is strongly advised”) and closes the production by cautioning American viewers to “think about how Canadians may be affecting your life, and the life of this once-great nation.” Seven years before “bringing her own mic” to The Simpsons, Dr. Joyce Brothers lays late-’60s social unrest at the feet of “conspiracy”-controlled shows such as Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers, “and particularly Let’s Make A Deal,” stating: “In layman’s terms, these Canadians screwed us up good.”

Martin Mull also shows up several times, poolside, doing stream-of-consciousness bits about the surprising absence of “Lorne Greene chapels” and L.A.’s trendy new Canadian restaurants (“When’s the last time you had a really good glass of hot water and some oatmeal?”). And in the special’s piece de resistance, Steve Martin – billed as a “Concerned Citizen” – rags on 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer (who gamely takes haranguing from fictional American paparazzi as he walks to his car): “And what about Morley Safer? A Canadian. That’s right, a CANADIAN. Why is a Canadian doing a job that Americans can do just as well?…And if we were to go to war with Canada, whose side would he fight on – the Americans, or ‘THEM’?”

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Now, this might all seem like an extended SCTV or Saturday Night Live sketch – and in may ways, it is – but The Canadian Conspiracy was more than that in the mid-’80s, and remains much more than that today. For starters, it aired just as the Mulroney Tories were starting to launch serious free-trade negotiations with the United States. In many corners of the country, this sparked panicked reactions about whether we were about to sell – or had already sold – our cultural sovereignty to America, as opposed to our manufactured goods and natural resources. So it was remarkable, especially for me as a teenager still trying to figure out his own Canadian identity, to see anyone – even comedians and satirists – suggest that the opposite might be true. It was downright mind-blowing to see The Canadian Conspiracy’s montage of meetings between “our foolish leaders” (ie. American presidents) and Canadian Prime Ministers, culminating in the 1985 Shamrock Summit that saw Brian Mulroney crooning “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to Ronald Reagan. The fictional U.S. network’s now-panicked narrator implored: “Wake up, America – time is running out!” – the polar opposite of what many of us were feeling in Canada at the time.

And considering how many millions of Americans have climbed onto the broadcast bandwagons of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Alex Jones over the past 15 years, and how many others have delighted in seeing these efforts skewered by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver and SNL, it’s remarkable to look at The Canadian Conspiracy’s neo-propaganda-movie production values and the never-wavering commitment of its various participants. Every single outdoor depiction of Canada is accompanied with images of snow and howling winds (with the exception of a small amount of ordinary-Canadian-on-the-street interview footage purportedly shot in July); the word “Ottawa” is always mispronounced; a segment insisting that the government hired Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster to set up a series of comedy training schools in the ’60s is constructed entirely of archival footage (which is remarkable when you consider that they might have actually allowed themselves to do fresh interviews for the special); and narrator Damir Andrei fills in the gaps with a voiceover that veers from self-important smugness to sheer panic in the blink of an eye. (In the show’s dying minutes, he concludes a montage of Bob and Doug McKenzie hoser parades across Canada with the question: “Is this what our world of tomorrow will look like?”)

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Watching The Canadian Conspiracy at the age of 13 in 1986, I found myself veering back and forth towards laughter, enlightenment, the occasional bouts of confusion and a few moments of utter Canadian pride. This was especially the case in a segment entitled “The Western Front,” concerning the infiltration’s impact on Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s: Over a montage of clips from M*A*S*H (featuring Donald Sutherland as the original Hawkeye), Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke and Porky’s (featuring Susan Clark and, although I didn’t know it at the time, Kim Cattrall), the narration blares: “FACT: Four of the five top comedy films in history have been controlled by The Canadian Conspiracy. FACT: Each of these films is aimed at the youth of America. FACT: Each of these films weakens the moral fibre of our future leaders.”

I wasn’t necessarily cheering at that point; I hadn’t seen any of these three films, and still haven’t (although I really ought to watch the original M*A*S*H sometime). But then comes Ghostbusters – described (accurately, for the time) as “the most successful comedy film ever made – written, directed and performed by members of The Canadian Conspiracy.” (That’d be Dan Aykroyd, Rick Moranis, Ivan Reitman and Joe Medjuck, as I’ve discussed in this previous blog post.) Against the backdrop of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man wreaking havoc on New York City – with Elmer Bernstein’s accompanying, high-intensity music score – the narration blasts “Canadians who will stop at nothing to capture every American box-office dollar.”

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So I’ll close this tribute to The Canadian Conspiracy with the suggestion that we’re in desperate need of a sequel today. In the era of Fox News and “fake news,” an overblown pseudo-documentary of a fictitious foreign takeover of America seems a perfect fit. Besides, the timing and casting of the original surprisingly leaves out two obvious mid-’80s Canadian stars – Michael J. Fox and Alex Trebek – who continued to make an impact well after The Canadian Conspiracy aired. And hey, given the 1986 narrator’s fears at the idea of “America’s two biggest cities, controlled by two Lornes,” imagine the concept of Hollywood being at the beck and call of two Ryans (Reynolds and Gosling)!

And consider the supporting cast: Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Norm MacDonald, The Kids In The Hall (individually or together), Patrick Dempsey, Sandra Oh, Justin Bieber, Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne, Nickelback, Leslie Feist, Alessia Cara, Michael Buble, Barenaked Ladies, Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Sarah Polley, Rachel McAdams, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, Matthew Perry, Anna Paquin, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Priestley, The Property Brothers, Nathan Fillion, k.d. lang, Arcade Fire, Pamela Anderson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Eric McCormack – you can’t tell me that at least SOME of these proudly-Canadian rabble-rousers wouldn’t be down for a good old fashioned conspiracy, right?

Consider this, as well – we’ve lost Lorne Greene, Monty Hall, John Candy, Alan Thicke and Morley Safer over the past 32 years, but the rest of the “original conspirators” are still around (even William Shatner!) and I’m sure SOME of them could be up for a remake. And this might be an opportunity to bring in fellow SCTVers Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin, who were shamefully omitted from the original spoof.

Finally, remember two very important things about the current state of North American political leadership: (1) We’ve got another Trudeau in the Prime Minister’s Office, one who likely recalls hearing Dad’s stories about avenging The Smothers Brothers and David Steinberg; and (2) America is now under the control of The King of Fake News himself – an irrational hot-head prone to jumping on Twitter and unloading on anything he deems a conspiracy, especially when those evil foreigners are involved.

Let’s do it, folks. Bring back The Canadian Conspiracy – and Make America Quake Again.

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