Trudeau? Gretzky? Pamela Anderson? Canada seeks its No. 1

They discovered insulin, created basketball, and invented the zipper.

They're Canadians.

Now the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is asking the public: "Who is the greatest Canadian?"

A favorite is the late Pierre Trudeau, the country's charismatic prime minister. Perhaps it will be "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, history's best hockey player. Or maybe Canadians will show their renowned sense of humor, opting for Saturday Night Live alumnus Dan Aykroyd.

For a country that often characterizes itself as "not America," this marks a significant effort to get Canadians to do some soul-searching about what - and who - defines them. The quest to determine Canada's greatest is seen by observers as an attempt to cultivate nationalism among a people who find it hard to wear patriotism on their sleeve.

"The operative word is 'greatest,' because we rarely think of ourselves as great," says Richard Cavell, director of the International Canadian Studies Institute at Vancouver's University of British Columbia.

Historically, Canadians have been uncomfortable putting their own on a pedestal. But that's changing. So far more than 82,000 Canadians have answered the CBC's nationwide appeal - broadcast on TV, the Internet, and radio since April 5 - and nominated their favorite Canuck.

The CBC will create a television series this fall called "The Greatest Canadian," which pits the top 10 nominated Canadians against each other. Viewers can vote for one of the 10 after each episode, with the greatest Canadian revealed at the end.

So far, the choices have been as diverse as Canada itself.

"Trudeau," says Don White, a Vancouver retiree.

It's a popular choice. Mr. Trudeau gave Canadians their Constitution, Charter of Rights, and official bilingualism.

Engineer Michael Rand looks to science. "I'd say it would be Frederick Banting or Charles Best," he says, referring to the pair who discovered insulin. "That was such an important discovery."

The CBC's idea originated with the British Broadcasting Corporation, which aired its "Great Britons" TV series in 2002.

"We thought that the whole notion of engaging a country and talking about greatness is just the kind of the thing that CBC Television is all about," says Julie Dossett, manager of voting and communications at CBC Television.

The timing is right, too.

"We really have sensed that Canadians are quite ready to talk about heroes and legends and myths, more so than they ever have been in the past," she says. "Five or 10 years ago, if you had proposed that the nation talk about choosing the greatest Canadian there would have been laughter: We don't have heroes, we don't celebrate heroes, we're not about being the greatest."

Ms. Dossett says Canadians are bolstered by what she sees as a nationwide maturity following the death of Trudeau in 2000, which "fed the sense of nation and community and identity in a way that until that point" did not exist; and patriotic marketing such as Molson brewery's "I am Canadian!" ads, which debunk Canadian stereotypes.

Professor Cavell sees a trend toward nationalism in a country that isn't nationalistic by nature. Canada favors multiculturalism over "melting pot." It's a place where people describe themselves by ethnicity with hyphens - French-Canadian, Indo-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian.

"We are now trying to invent a need to cultivate nationalism," he says.

Where does "The Greatest Canadian" fit in to all this?

"It's best seen as one of the many attempts for us to understand who we are," Cavell says. "We're constantly coming up with lists like this because we don't always know who we are."

In 1980, journalist George Woodcock published "100 Great Canadians," although his book didn't rank his choices. Seventeen years later, historian Jack Granatstein and researcher H. Graham Rawlinson ranked influential Canadians in "The Canadian 100."

"It's a striking fact that Canadians tend to have trouble naming 'the greatest living Canadian,' " they wrote. "In a 1942 public opinion survey, some 40 percent could not name anyone; in 1995, in another poll, a staggering 76 percent failed to name a single great Canadian."

The authors chose an unknown as Canada's most influential: Charles Saunders, who developed a wheat variety that helped prairie farmers prosper.

The CBC's public contest will probably be far different. The CBC has harnessed the Internet (www.cbc.ca/greatest/) and radio call-in shows, prompting people to pick their favorite Canadian by May 16.

Louanne Corriveau, a corporate saleswoman in Toronto, chose Marguerite Bourgeouys, who founded several schools and Canada's first religious order in the 17th century. "She's someone I've always respected, always looked up to," explains this French-Canadian, noting her next choices were French explorers Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain.

Sabine Schoener, an Austrian-born mom, chose Bryan Adams, only because she isn't too familiar with Canadian history. "That's the biggest Canadian problem of all time - we're too humble," she said. "There are a lot of great Canadians the world doesn't even know about."

Basketball, for example, was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith. Superman, the all-American hero, was co-created by Canada's Joe Shuster. And Gideon Sundback invented the zipper in 1913.

Letting the public decide raises the possibility of "The Greatest Canadian" becoming a popularity contest in which today's celebrities - Pamela Anderson, Shania Twain, or even Jesse Palmer of "The Bachelor" - get the nod over forgotten historical figures. "Whoever the public nominates, that's the show we're doing," Dossett says.

The results should offer intriguing insight into Canadians, although some hold little hope for the results.

"Canadians live in the present, they don't know much history, and the standards for judging greatness are probably pretty shallow," Mr. Granatstein says. "I hope to be proven wrong."

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