Back in Time for Dinner·ROUNDUP

In the 1990s Canadians (secretly) invaded America

We were all over America’s TV, radio and movie screens, and they didn’t even know it

We were all over America’s TV, radio and movie screens, and they didn’t even know it

Pamela Anderson and then-husband Tommy Lee, promoting Barb Wire in France. (Reuters)

Canada's national sense of self went through a lot of changes in the six decades covered by Back in Time for Dinner. In the 1940s and '50s, Canada shook off the last vestiges of Britishness and began looking to the United States for guidance. In the '60s, we tried to forge our own path. In the 1970s, Canadians just wanted to curl up somewhere safe and in the 1980s we revelled in a booming economy.

But in the 1990s, Canada quietly took over American popular culture. Toronto stood in for New York and Chicago in countless movies, The X-Files was being shot in Vancouver, and Americans couldn't turn on the radio, watch TV, or go to the movies without seeing one of us.

Here are a few of the Canucks who became household names in the 1990s:

The champ: Lennox Lewis

In the late 1990s, British-Canadian fighter Lennox Lewis dominated his sport. (Ed Betz/Associated Press)

The boxing scene in the early 1990s was chaotic. Mike Tyson, champ of the '80s, had fallen, and the heavyweight division was in disarray as fighters like Evander Hollyfield, Riddick Bowe, Donovan "Razor" Ruddock, and even a resurgent George Foreman tried to stay on top of the mountain. In the middle of the decade, though, a new face of boxing emerged. And that face was Canadian, even if his accent wasn't.

Lennox Lewis was born in London, England, but move to Kitchener, ON, when he was 12. In 1988, he won gold for Canada at the Seoul Olympics. The next year, he moved back to England to start his professional career. He won his first major world title in 1993, went on to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. By the time he retired, he had amassed a record of 41-2-1, with wins over superstars like Tyson, Hollyfied, Ruddock and Vitali Klitschko. Since retiring, Lewis has used his fame to help grow the sport in Canada.

The angst queen: Alanis Morrissette

In 1995, Alanis Morissette transitioned from bubblegum pop to grunge-inspired, angst-ridden rock, becoming a megastar in the process. (Reuters)

In the 1993, 19 year-old Canadian pop star Alanis Morissette — mononymously known as Alanis — was having a bit of a tough time. Her label, MCA, had declined to re-sign her after a disappointing sophomore album. She was also getting over a break-up with her older and more famous boyfriend, Full House actor Dave Coulier. (No, really.)

So she did what any artist would do: turned her pain into art. Paula Abdul-flavoured pop was out, a lighter version of furious grunge was in. She and new songwriting partner Glen Ballard made a raw, angry, emotional album, and it turned out a lot of people related. Jagged Little Pill became one of the best-selling albums of the decade.

The funny man: Mike Myers

Canadian funnyman Mike Myers, doing... something? (Sam Mircovich/Reuters)

Mike Myers spent most of the 1980s bumping around the minor leagues of Canadian television and performing at Toronto's Second City before heading to the States to join the Saturday Night Live cast in 1989. He quickly became one of the show's leading lights, creating iconic characters like Wayne Campbell and Dieter from Sprockets — both of whom originally made their debuts on Canadian TV, by the way. In 1992, Wayne's World would hit the big screen, becoming the eighth highest grossing film of the year, and the highest grossing Saturday Night Live-derived movie ever. With Wayne's World, Mike Myers established himself as a bankable star, and became one of the decade's top comedic actors. Party on.

The cinematic saviour: Keanu Reeves

Canadian and former standout high school hockey goalie Keanu Reeves, along with his Speed co-stars Dennis Hopper and Sandra Bullock. (Fred Prousser/REUTERS)

Triple citizen Keanu Reeves was born in Lebanon to an American dad and a British mother, but he was raised in Toronto — where he managed to get kicked out four different high schools — is a naturalized Canadian citizen, and still maintains his Canadian citizenship after years in L.A.

In the 1990s, Keanu Reeves had a weird knack for landing saviour roles. He played Prince Siddartha, the pre-enlightenment Buddha, in Little Buddha. He managed to save all of space and time in spite of being an idiot in the Bill and Ted movies. He saved Los Angeles from a maniacal Dennis Hopper in Speed. And of course, his best known role was the one in which he saved humanity by leading an uprising against our robot overlords in The Matrix.

The sex symbol: Pamela Anderson

In 1989, Pamela Anderson, a 22 year-old fitness instructor living in Vancouver, tossed on a cut-off Labatt Blue T-shirt and went to a B.C. Lions game with some friends. During a break in play, Anderson was put on the Jumbotron. She attracted enough positive attention that Labatt hired her as a spokesmodel. That kicked off a meteoric rise that would see her appear in Playboy by the end of the year, make her American TV debut in 1990, and, by 1992, be the star of Baywatch, the world's most watched TV show. In 1996 she starred in her first feature film, Barb Wire. It flopped.

By the end of the decade, Anderson would wind up being better known for her tumultuous personal life and dedication to animal rights activism than any of her acting roles. That said, she had, and still has, a remarkable gift for staying in the spotlight.

The comic book whiz: Todd McFarlane

Todd McFarlane and his best known character, Spawn. (Mike Fiala/The Associated Press)

In the 1990s, comics weren't just for nerds anymore, they were big business. Unfortunately, the writers and artists weren't reaping the benefits like they'd hoped. They didn't own the characters they were writing: the two big comic book studios did. Solution? Create your own characters and start your own studio.

One of the first artists to do this was Calgary-native Todd McFarlane. He walked away from his work on Spider-Man to co-found indie comics publisher Image and create Spawn, a demonic anti-hero would become one of the decade's most popular comic book characters, and the subject of a very bad movie with a pretty cool soundtrack.

Of course, none of these stars' Canadian-ness mattered at all to Americans. They probably didn't even know. Unless, of course, they were talking to a Canadian. Because we never, ever miss an opportunity to point out one of our own.

Watch one modern Canadian family live through six different decades on Back in Time for Dinner, Thursdays at 8 p.m. (8:30 NT)