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A People’s History of the Hoser, Canada’s Blue-Collar Icon

From Bob and Doug McKenzie to the Trailer Park Boys, the Canadian hoser is an integral part of the country’s cultural landscape. The hoser is also a working-class emblem, whose uncertain fortune in the face of economic downturns reflects the wider experience of Canadian workers.

The term hoser was first introduced by the sketch-comedy show SCTV and its characters Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas).

Northrop Frye once defined a Canadian as “an American who rejects the revolution.” America’s revolutionary war famously birthed the Declaration of Independence, with its demand for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Canada settled for the decidedly meeker “peace, order and good government,” contained in section 91 of the British North America Act.

Canadians remained British subjects until 1947. The country lacked its own flag until 1967. It was only in 1982 that Canada gained the right to amend its constitution without approval from Britain.

There are two attributes to note about the character of the “hoser,” who inhabits some of the most popular television shows, films, and songs to emerge from this country. Firstly, the hoser is, above all, a non-American. Secondly, regardless of geography, time period, and exact living circumstances, the hoser demonstrates a rugged and spirited commitment to the status quo.

But we must not confuse the hoser with a reactionary. He — the hoser is typically a male — is not actively resistant to change. Rather, he can only be bothered to rouse himself from the couch in search of the pocket change needed for his next purchase of Molson Canadian or Crown Royal.

He can also, it’s fair to say, be prompted to action if local or external dangers threaten him and his friends. For the hoser, as with Canadian society generally, profound power shifts or political realignments only happen incrementally and tend to catch their subjects unawares.

What Is a Hoser?

The hoser was officially born in 1981, when the Toronto Star published the word for the first time in reference to the TV show SCTV. The sketch-comedy program introduced the now iconic characters of the McKenzie brothers, Bob and Doug, and their overuse of the phrase “Take off, you hoser!”

The colloquial use of the word dates back much further. The losers of a game of shinny (nonprofessional) hockey were traditionally required to hose down the ice to make it smooth for the next game. Cash-strapped Depression-era farmers sometimes hosed (siphoned) gasoline out of tractors that weren’t their own. To get hosed also means to get drunk.

Traditionally, people used the term “hoser” as a pejorative, referring to a drunk roughneck from the working class. The modern hoser combines many essential elements of the stereotype — laziness, irreverence, and perennial naivete — but plays up the unpretentious charisma of the hoser’s class position.

When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked the creators of SCTV to add at least two minutes of identifiably Canadian content to satisfy broadcast regulations, comedians Rick Moranis (Bob) and Dave Thomas (Doug) responded grudgingly with as little effort as possible. They invented a fake show called The Great White North and riffed on obvious topics such as beer, donuts, and the differences between Canadians and Americans.

Fubar 2 (Alliance Films)

Moranis and Thomas did not expect their lo-fi schtick to be a hit that would propel them to cross-border fame, an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, and their own feature film, Strange Brew. Successors to Bob and Doug include FUBAR, FUBAR 2, Trailer Park Boys (recently celebrating its twenty-year anniversary), The Red Green Show, LetterKenny, and the viral rap video “Out For a Rip.” Edmonton erected a statue of Bob and Doug in March 2020.

Hosers are men with limited financial means. They are typically unemployed, underemployed, temporarily employed, or engaged in criminal schemes. Any legally remunerated work they get requires them to use their hands. Before embarking on a stint of precarious labor in Canada’s tar sands, FUBAR 2’s joint lead character Dean declares proudly, “I got two skills,” and then points to his biceps: “this one and this one.”

In Trailer Park Boys, the character of Julian admits nonchalantly:

I’m a criminal . . . I can’t change now. I take what I learned in jail and I go home and, you know, I just try to survive.

Wayne and Katy, the siblings at the heart of LetterKenny, own a small farm but are seldom, if ever, working. The eponymous character of Red Green is a handyman in rural Ontario (famous catchphrase: “If you can’t be handsome, you should at least be handy”) who has a particular fondness for duct tape.

Hosers, Real and Imagined

Hoser representation in popular culture mimics stereotypical Canadian mannerisms and amplifies them, further entrenching those mannerisms in the process. Bob and Doug helped make the verbal tic “eh” a key ingredient of Canadian national identity. The popularity of Red Green resulted in the phrase “just use duct tape” becoming the prescribed solution for everything from a wounded arm to a broken fan belt.

As hoser culture has spilled over into mainstream entertainment, beyond its white, working-class roots, its rougher edges have become apparent. The CANADALAND podcast explored this disjunct between hoser as real-life working-class subject and televisual avatar in 2017. The hoser’s popularity comes from an everyman image. But being white and male, the hoser is not actually representative of Canada’s diverse population.

The creators of hoser culture have responded to this obvious problem in two ways. One approach, taken by Trailer Park Boys, is to idealize the hoser as a sort of post-racial fugitive hero, and to imagine him building common cause with people of color.

In TPB, the character of Cory reassures audiences that people of color can be bona fide members of the hoser class. The same-sex relationship between Lahey and Randy was another gesture by the show to go beyond straight white male identity. Here we have the hoser as an aspirational tile piece within Canada’s broader cultural mosaic.

LetterKenny (Wildbrain)

FUBAR, however, took a rather different approach. The film’s dual hoser heroes gave their characters sharper edges, acknowledging the truth that family-friendly Bob and Doug left unsaid: actual hosers are often racist. In the first of the two films, Dean tells a racist joke with a straight face. FUBAR also portrays a level of violence that is genuinely unsettling — during a fight, Terry slashes Dean with a knife, creating a bloody injury.

FUBAR depicts the darker nihilistic forces at play in the Canadian male psyche, as illustrated by Dean’s descent into crack dependency and suicidal ideation. In FUBAR 2, the tar sands are a zanier version of Mordor, where the promise of quick money in exchange for brutal work can all too often lead to the abrupt termination of contracts, interpersonal conflict, horrific injuries, and death.

The Low-Tech Hoser

While hosers can employ devious schemes in pursuit of beer, marijuana, money, and other accoutrements of the hoser lifestyle, they are proudly undevious when it comes to technology. They have never been members of the knowledge economy or information society or whatever it is currently being called. Bob and Doug made the hoser’s relatively low-tech identity apparent early on, poking fun at one of Canada’s rare innovations, the Canadarm (Canada’s improbably named space arm), and wondering if it could open a bottle of beer in space.

When FUBAR moved to television, it named its one and only season Age of Computer. That was in 2017. Terry and Dean were discovering the internet for the first time. Remarkably, this is only a slight exaggeration of the actually existing state of affairs across Canada.

Canada ranks second from bottom of the G7 countries on the Global Innovation Index. Commodities and communication theorist Harold Innis famously cited the biblical line about “hewers of wood and drawers of water” when referring to his compatriots in the 1930s. Canada’s anemic innovation capacity has made it vulnerable to swings in commodity prices, not to mention climate change, as one of the most carbon-intensive countries in the world.

Sparsely populated and vast, it is the Australia of North America, dependent on the export of resource commodities. A report from the Bank of Canada noted that the recession of 2008–9 caused a long-term loss of $30 billion in Canadian export capacity. The subsequent drop in resource prices from 2016 onward reduced national income by as much as $60 billion.

The hoser is never immune from the global forces that threaten his livelihood. Red Green may have lived a bucolic hoser fairytale, but the name of his nearest town was surely not chosen by accident: Port Asbestos. The inhabitants of Trailer Park Boys’ Sunnyvale are living with the consequences of the rapid decline of industry in the Maritimes. This is why almost none of them work.

FUBAR 2 tackles the hoser’s economic vulnerability most directly: a significant drop in oil prices costs Terry his job in the tar sands. At that moment, he also discovers the limits of Canada’s overpraised and insufficient welfare state, finding that he is ineligible for employment insurance benefits. In Alberta, oil production rose 113.7 percent from 2007 to 2020, yet the mining and energy sector shed 17,200 jobs. Hosers, like many working-class Canadians, are losing even when they are told they are winning.

Compounding this larger problem is the near unanimity of political opinion on what should power the Canadian economy. The Canadian federal government under the Liberals helped spur investment in the Alberta tar sands during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Their successors, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, pursued an almost identical strategy.

When the Liberals returned to power in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s commitment to oil was so strong that his government eventually purchased the money-losing, highly contested Trans Mountain Pipeline for $4.5 billion. The Canada Energy Regulator forecasts that crude oil production will increase by 20 percent between 2019 and 2040. Alberta’s provincial governments of all complexions have evinced the same loyalty to fossil fuels.

If the figure of the hoser offers any positive lessons for socialists, we can find it in the reflexive sense of solidarity in the face of danger and the egalitarian style of communication. For hosers, as for Canadians generally, snobbery and elitism are cardinal sins. The hoser is also particularly vulnerable to the caprices of the market, like most working Canadians. If bountiful access to beer, donuts, and weed can motivate the hoser, maybe the task of building a more secure, fair, and peaceable Canada — for the hoser as much as for everyone else — can be another reason to get off the couch.