Tim Hortons is a coffee-and-donut chain known across Canada, founded by the eponymous NHL hockey player in the 1960s. Today Tims or “Timmy’s ” is widely portrayed as a key component of the national character, along with Mounties, moose, and maple syrup – the company sponsors an annual Hockey Day, and has even established temporary outlets at Canadian sections of Olympic Villages and at the Canadian military base in Afghanistan. Steaming cups of Tims’ brew are ubiquitous at early morning hockey practices across the country; Tims has copyrighted its self-identification as “Canada’s Favorite Coffee.” “In so many ways the story of Tim Hortons is the essential Canadian story,” the popular Canadian historian Pierre Berton once summed up. “It is a story of success and tragedy, of big dreams and small towns, of old-fashioned values and tough-fisted business, of hard work and of hockey.” Like Molson’s beer and Laura Secord chocolates, Tim Hortons has attempted to turn patriotism into a sales pitch.
We’ve all seen the TV ads and billboards which link quintessential Canadian scenes of winter sports, summertime camping, and maple-leaf-displaying backpack travel to Tims’ coffee and pastries, with their insinuation that true Canadian-ness is inextricable from the food and beverages sold by this particular restaurant. The branding of Tim Hortons as the plainspoken, grassroots, “real” Canadian coffee shop parallels the promotion of social conservatism as the plainspoken, grassroots, “real” Canadian political outlook (bear with me here). Liberal elitists, runs the subtext, quaff lattes and nibble biscottis while tapping on their laptops in Vancouver and Toronto, but honest-to-goodness Canadians swig double-doubles while joking about the playoffs and listening to Top 40 Country in Moose Jaw, Moncton, and Sault Ste. Marie. The problem with this affectation – apart from the fact that Tim Hortons is a multi-million-dollar business empire that merged with an American company, Wendy’s, in 2005 – is that it reduces genuine values to a pose and valid traditions to a reflexive jingoism. Authenticity, of the kind Tim Horton’s supposedly represents, is like power: if you have to say you have it, you don’t.
The pretense that a mere coffee joint can stand for some fundamental Canadian sensibility is really a symptom of how culture and politics have become blurred together in the last twenty-odd years. Conservatism used to be typified by the highfalutin observations of William F. Buckley; now it’s more often heard in the cheap-shot cheerleading of Rush Limbaugh. Similarly, the ordinary folks of provincial Canada used to be depicted in the light-and-dark subtleties of Alice Munro, W.O. Mitchell, or even Gordon Lightfoot, but now they’re voiced by the phony, loudmouth populism of Don Cherry. What this means is that Tim Hortons has become the refuge of a self-consciously redneck-and-proud-of-it strain of Canadian yokel, for whom the privately owned coffee bar or the funky sandwich counter down the block, with their homemade flavors and weekend poetry readings, are suspiciously unconventional. What Tim Hortons advertising strategists celebrate as unpretentious small-town pride can easily shade over into ignorant, xenophobic chauvinism.
As with Molson’s “I Am Canadian” commercials, which explicitly connected the name of the beer with the supposed spirit of the country (“The beaver is a proud and noble animal…”), the Tim Hortons marketing campaign demonstrates an unseemly confluence of commerce and community, where the attractiveness of a specific product or service is piggybacked on a general sense of loyalty to a wider group of people with common interests or affiliations. To trademark and then exploit a soft-focus fantasy of Canadian life as a corporate shill is maybe not the worst thing in the world, but it is cheap, it is cynical, and it’s unhealthy in a pluralistic democracy. The bottom line is that Tims remains a decent spot for a coffee and a donut, but I think I’ll get my sense of national identity elsewhere.