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Loan the Podium

The Olympics have the country hooked, with drama and disappointments. Whistler, home to alpine skiing events, could be auctioned due to financial trouble. The Brazilian navy rescues Halifax college students on a capsized tall ship. Pope Benedict will canonize a Canadian Holy Cross Brother. A junior minister makes a bold, unauthorized statement supporting Israel. Disgraced foreign minister Maxine Bernier calls the climate debate "alarmist". Canada's Internet is among the world's slowest and most expensive. Gordon Lightfoot hears his own eulogies. A Canadian baby has an average life expectancy of 81 years.

 Top News: One could be forgiven for believing that for the past two weeks, in Canada, nothing else has happened other than the Olympics.


For the past fortnight, Canadians have been glued to their TVs, radios and the Internet, and wringing their hands as the home teams were edged out repeatedly, usually by their American rivals. The first 11 days produced such a paltry outcome that it prompted Canadian Olympic Team officials on Monday to declare the federally funded Own The Podium, which had as its goal to have Canada dominate the medal count, program a limited success. Others less charitable called the $100-million US program an outright failure.  But no sooner had officials given up trying to win the overall medal count, Canadian athletes have been on an unprecedented tear and a rather uncharacteristic strut has begun to creep into the national gait. 

But while the Own the Podium program is now a punchline, and the Games themselves have struggled with wet weather and logistics problems, Canadians have nonetheless been riveted by one compelling Canadian story after another. 

After Canada’s darling, freestyle mogul skier Jennifer Heil missed what was hoped would be the country’s first-ever gold medal on home soil (none in either the 1976 games in Montreal or 1988 in Calgary) in the second day of the Games, taking a silver medal instead, Alexandre Bilodeau stole the gold from sullen Canadian-turned-Aussie Dale Begg-Smith. What made the story all the more wonderful is that Bilodeau’s 28-year-old brother, Frederic, severely disabled by cerebral palsy, was on the front row of the stands, cheering madly for his brother.

Whereas many ice dancing couples are strong individual skaters who are put together with partners to prepare for top-level competition, Canada’s gold-medal-winning pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have been skating together since they had baby teeth. The pair were expected to do well in the Olympics, but were not expected to challenge Russian hegemony over the sport, and weren’t given much chance of beating a field that included two strong American teams, the French and the Italians. But their ease and familiarity with one another shone through and, with a nearly flawless final dance Monday, they became Canada’s newest sports heroes. 

The news around another Canadian figure skater was even more compelling, though deeply tinged with sadness. But just as a lifetime of work was to culminate with her appearance in the Olympics, this time with a legitimate shot at a medal, Joannie Rochette received devastating news that her mother, who had just arrived in Vancouver for the big event, had died of a heart attack.  A grieving Rochette insisted her mother would want her to skate and so she did. With narry a dry eye in the house – nor likely through most of the nearly 6 million Canadian households that tuned in – she nailed one of her best-ever routines Tuesday and followed it up Thursday with a strong long program, securing a bronze medal. While gold medalist Kim Yu-Na (coached by Canadian Brian Orser) received a strong ovation for a near-flawless performance, Rochette received a thunderous ovation that went far beyond the norm for a Canadian winning bronze. 

And finally, Canada’s most decorated Olympian and flagbearer for the opening ceremonies, Clara Hughes, who has won multiple medals in both the summer (cycling) and winter (speedskating) Olympics dating back to Atlanta in 1996, capped her career with a bronze medal in speedskating’s 5,000-meter, prompting many aging Canadians to say it’s never too late.  

While athletes get to take home medals and memories, some wealthy businessman, or consortium, gets to take home Whistler Resort, home for all of the alpine events. The multi-billion dollar development ran into financial trouble last month in the lead up to the Games and could be put up for auction immediately following the Games. 

While all eyes were on Vancouver, a few other things happened across Canada and around the world that largely went unnoticed. 

The staff and students of Halifax’s West Island College, which offers students a chance to see the world while studying aboard a tall ship, were rescued by Brazilian naval vessels after theship was capsized by a sudden violent gust.  

Brother Andre, a mircale healer and Holy Cross Brother from Montreal who died in 1937, was last week was named a saint by Pope Benedict.  Brother Andre will be canonized in October. 

The fortnight was largely quiet on the political front, but it was not without it gaffs. Peter Kent, a junior minister for foreign affairs, said in an interview with Toronto-based Shalom Life magazine said that an attack on Isreal would be considered an attack on Canada.  The statement, while not out of step with the sentiments expressed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the past four years, goes well beyond Canada’s official foreign policy. Kent later tried to nuance the statement, but critics were already tearing at him, saying he cannot be trusted not to freelance in the future. 

Meanwhile, Harper’s former foreign minister, Maxime Bernier, disgraced and forced to resign two years ago in a sex scandal in which he left classified documents in the apartment of his girlfriend, added to Harper's indigestion by calling the climate change debate “alarmist.”  Again, the comments mirror Harper’s own statements from bygone years, but Harper’s recent vilification on the international stage as one of the key obstacles to progress on greenhouse gas mitigation, had prompted him to take a less strident position in his opposition.  There is much speculation that Bernier is positioning himself to run for the Conservative Party leadership whenever Harper steps down. 

While many of his ministers were swanning about the Olympics after they had prorogued Parliament, Harper was back at work for a two-day tour of Haiti. He slept aboard a Canadian frigate anchored off shore, and visited many of the most devastated areas, pledging that Canada would help Haiti restore its government systems as quickly as possible.

Money: Harper’s finance minister Jim Flaherty is expected to issue a hot-and-cold budget next week, full of populist spending and sprinkled with austerity measures aimed mainly at programs that are considered sacred cows to the Liberals. It is widely expected that this will be the last budget before the Conservatives try to force an election, now expected in late summer. 

The dissolution of the Canwest media empire is in full force these days. Last week, Calgary-based Shaw Cable bought a controlling stake in the broadcasting assets of the bankrupt conglomerate. In the meantime, Canwest’s newspapers are in the process of being auctioned, and there is a growing sense that the once mighty Southam chain, which was later bought by Conrad Black and, later, Canwest, will be broken up.

Canada’s internet is among the slowest and most expensive in the developed world, according to a recent Harvard study. The report found that Canada ranked 19th out of 30 OECD member countries. The news rekindled an age-old debate in Canada between those who want the government to further deregulate the telecom system and allow greater foreign investment, and economic nationalists who view the communications infrastructure as a critical national asset. 

Elsewhere: Venerable folk singer Gordon Lightfoot awoke last week to discover he had died the night before. Morning radio news reports blared that the 71-year-old had died in his sleep and offered glowing eulogies from his many friends and fans.  The story was printed in a number of western newspapers, but has since been expunged from their websites.  Lightfoot, who has had some health issues over the past decade, was lighthearted about it, saying only that he’d had to phone some people to find out if it was true. 

According to studies, a baby born in Canada this year can expect an average life span of 81 years, up more than three years in the past decade.