Canadians left guessing when identifying nation's top 10 cultural icons

TORONTO - Canadians are fumbling for answers when it comes to recognizing the country's most famous faces.

TORONTO - Canadians are fumbling for answers when it comes to recognizing the country's most famous faces.

An Ipsos-Reid poll conducted on behalf of the Dominion Institute suggests many Canadians have trouble identifying our most famous sons and daughters.

Only four in 10 Canadians recognized a picture of Sir John A. Macdonald even though his face is on the $10 bill, while Tommy Douglas, the father of universal health care, was identified by just 19 per cent of respondents.

"To a lot of Canadians these key figures in our past were strangers," said Marc Chalifoux, executive director of the Dominion Institute.

The online survey asked more than 1,000 Canadians to view pictures of ten iconic figures before identifying them unaided.

Only four faces were familiar to the majority of respondents.

Humanitarian Terry Fox and popular songstress Celine Dion were identified by almost 90 per cent of respondents, while hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was recognized by 77 per cent of those surveyed.

Seventy-three per cent of respondents were able to name a picture of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Fading furthest from memory was Sir Frederick Banting, winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin, who was recognized by fewer than one in ten Canadians.

Also scoring low was Metis leader Louis Riel, who was named by 27 per cent of those surveyed.

"We're not passing along this historical memory of some of the great figures of our past and if they're not recognized it shows we're doing a bad job of telling Canadian stories," Chalifoux said. "We can do better."

At the midway mark was Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, who was recognized by just half of those surveyed.

Given Jean's fairly high public profile since she ate raw seal heart, her low level of visual recognition was a surprise, said Chalifoux.

A breakdown by age group indicates icons like Trudeau and Douglas are better recognized by those 55 years and older.

"We put their faces on stamps or put statues up, but if the majority of Canadians don't recognize them, what good is it?" Chalifoux said.

Living alongside the United States might have also taken its toll on the collective Canadian memory.

Americans are full of national pride, while Canadians don't toot their historical horn to the same extent.

"Canadians are often too timid to talk about our past," said Chalifoux. "We have to do a better job of talking about our own history."

Famous figures who were actively kept in the public eye, like Dion and Fox, were clearly the most recognizable, but everyone has a shelf life, said Christopher Moore, a Toronto-based historian and author of several Canadian history books.

"Time matters," he said. "If you're not in the news all the time no one's going to recognize you."

The genre each icon falls into may have something to do with how much the public remembers them, said Mark Reid, editor of Canadian history magazine the Beaver.

"We have never had that history of making our prime ministers into rock stars," he said.



A breakdown of results by region suggested icons were best known in their home province. Rene Levesque was easily identified in Quebec, while Louis Riel was best known in Manitoba.

"Our country is so darn big that we don't learn the same history," said Reid.

The poll surveyed 1,013 adults aged 18 and older. The sample was balanced to reflect the country's adult population according to census data. It had an estimated margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The results of the survey provide a snapshot of the way history was taught years ago, said Reid.

"There's a history renaissance going on in schools," he said. "It would be interesting to see this survey 20 years from now."

 
 
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