Proud mediocrity

“Those Canadians really know how to build great hardware, I tell you.”

These were the words of American astronaut Susan Helm, spoken minutes after using Canadarm2 to attach a US-made airlock to a port on the International Space Station earlier this week. One could call it a proud moment in Canadian aeronautical history–or perhaps it’s just another in a series of mediocre Canadian space accomplishments.

A look around supports the latter theory. Canadian media sources and the Canadian Space Agency ensure the culture wheels continually spin away by portraying the arm as critical to any particular mission’s success. Both modestly hope Canadians will come to know the quantity of its space achievements, however miniscule. Unfortunately, space exploration has that awful penchant of being used to demonstrate the potential of humankind. Canada would naturally want to be a part of this–in its own, nice little way. Enter the latest incarnation: Canadarm2. Regarding the arm’s performance, most Canadians will smugly sit back and think about Canada as their Nation Too Good To Lose.

Americans are contributing over $35 billion US to the space station effort, whose price tag is somewhere in the neighbourhood of $100 billion US. Over the 20 years of the ISS’s existence, Canada will contribute a measly $1.4 billion Cdn in the form of Canadarm2–a mere one per cent of the cost. Canadians will smile glibly, content in knowing we did the best we could. The reality, however, is saddening. Had we not built it, Americarm2 would have taken its place. The best we did with Canadarm2 is actually nothing.

If you’re not convinced, consider the following events celebrated by the CSA as some of "Canada’s Historical Milestones in Space."

On July 20, 1969, Canada celebrated being the first nation to "step" onto the moon. The landing gear of the Apollo 11 module was made by Canadians.

How typically Canadian is this? While the Americans rightfully celebrated being the first country to send humans to the moon, we take pride in manufacturing the landing gear that first touched the moon before the Americans did. This isn’t an achievement. This, my friend, is Canadian.

On Nov. 13, 1981, the first Canadarm was deployed on the space shuttle Columbia. Of its performance, Columbia astronauts said: "Okay, the arm is out for the first time. Working great. It’s a remarkable flying machine and it’s doing exactly as we hoped and expected."

Canadians, hanging on the words of American astronauts who say the arm is doing "exactly what they expected". Another unsurprising comment towards Canadianism–following expectations, never doing anything too loudly (that would be too American), and most of all, playing out our inferiority complex.

Overall, this speaks to the reality of the Canadian mindset. We know our place in the world: the multicultural culture (founded on colonialism and celebrated in the Stampede), the country with more bronze medals than gold and silver (and damn proud of it), the "nicest" people in the world (don’t forget your backpack flag), and the aeronautic heavyweights who gave the world the Canadarm2.

What then, do we really expect of ourselves? If we celebrate Canadarm2 as the fulfilment of our expectations, then a foreigner would comment that we, as a country, expect very, very little. But what is truly awful about Canadians is that we’re proud of that very little. We hold to it as tightly as we hold to the idea of Canada–a Canada that is actually beyond definition.

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