As my retirement from CBC News approached, I was asked if I would write about the changes I have noticed during nearly 40 years of reporting from London – and quickly realized I was spoiled for choice.
Should I write about the end of the Cold War? Conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan? The rise and fall of the world economy? The fall and rise of the British Royal Family? Or how each world war anniversary attracts larger crowds?
Or how about the technological revolution in news-gathering that I've witnessed? When I started in this business at Global TV News in Toronto in 1973, cameras used film. There were no computers, iPads or cellphones. Satellites were a very rare luxury. When CTV News moved me to London in 1976, I used to take cans of film out to Heathrow Airport and ask Air Canada passengers if they'd mind hand-carrying my news story back to Toronto. It's hard to believe but back then, very few people said no.
Today we feed pictures between continents on our phones and book interviews using Facebook and Twitter. Should I write about the daunting new world of TV news?
In the end, I opted for something that feels very personal and of which I am very proud: changing British attitudes toward Canada and Canadians. When I first came to London, I could not get over how little coverage Canada got in the British media. Journalists used expressions like "as dull as a Sunday in Canada" or "as improbable as a funny Canadian."
Very few people had heard of writers like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies. I remember a snooty book reviewer saying, "Canadian literature? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?" Nobody would dare say that these days.
Even though Canadians like Gen. John de Chastelain and Judge William Hoyt dedicated years of their lives to ending the violence in Northern Ireland, their efforts remained low profile.
How things have changed. Canadian investment in the U.K. has soared. Canadian pension funds now own a chunk of everything from the new high-speed British rail line to the headquarters of the London Stock Exchange and the company that runs the U.K.'s lottery. Canadians are in charge of major British institutions and businesses like the Bank of England, Royal Mail, Heathrow Airport and the Lawn Tennis Association, which has close links to Wimbledon.
I turned to four other prominent Canadians to find out why so many top British jobs have gone to Canadians and what makes us work well in the U.K.
Historian Margaret MacMillan, who just happens to be my sister, is the first Canadian female head of an Oxford college. Warden of St. Anthony's College, she says when Canadians first came to prominence in the United Kingdom, "they saw themselves as part of the Empire. Newspaper proprietors like Lord Beaverbrook in the 1920s, the Thomsons who owned the London Times and even Conrad Black simply blended in. What's different is that now we're noticed as Canadians."
As the professor points out, it helps that our institutions are British: "Our parliament, our legal system, even our sense of humour owes a lot to the Brits." She credits "our strong work ethic" as another reason Canadians succeed in Britain.
Tyler Brûlé agrees. The Winnipeg-born Brûlé first soared to international fame when he launched Wallpaper, one of the most influential design and culture magazines of the 1990s. He now owns Monocle Magazine and Winkcreative, a branding company.
In his words, "Canadians just get on with it. They roll up their sleeves and there is a sense of really putting in a day's work but not talking about it, not overdoing it."
He would brand Canadians in the U.K. as "a very silent, determined force – diplomatic but persuasive." He describes Mark Carney's elevation to governor of the Bank of England as "a game changer. He is Canada's best soft power ambassador. In financial/political terms, he's our Ryan Gosling."
Choosing Carney to be the first non-English head of the Bank of England since it was founded in 1694 also "shone a light on Canada's fiscal responsibility over the last decade," Brûlé said.
Canada's expert handling of the economy makes it an example to the world, according to Gordon Campbell, former Vancouver mayor and premier of British Columbia and now High Commissioner in London.
"We clearly came through the economic downturn much better than many G8 countries. People recognized that, looked for the talent that made that happen and discovered those talented people happened to be Canadian."
Campbell says Canadians work well in the U.K. because "we accept people, don't need the limelight and just get the job done. We are part of the family in the United Kingdom and sometimes that means you get overlooked but, suddenly, there's an awareness of Canada that didn't exist before."
Leading London fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu, creator of the blue lace dress that the Duchess of Cambridge wore in Canada, believes his transition to life in the U.K. was helped by the fact his parents were immigrants. Erdem was born in Montreal, but his father was from Turkey, his mother from England. "My rootlessness allows me to be open to different situations and experiences, to listen, to adjust, to easily fit in."
Canada has close historical ties to the U.K. Our military contributions in both the world wars is remembered and honoured but what's happening today is a new departure. The old image of Canada as a dull dominion has been replaced by the vision of a vibrant country full of talented people. We may not boast about our accomplishments but we deliver the goods.
As Gordon Campbell says, "We're taking over quietly but Canadians are here."