Mark Reid wanted to start a critical public discussion of Canadian history. What he got was national exposure for a previously unknown punk rocker and a junk-news story spread round the world, implying that Pierre Trudeau is considered the "worst Canadian" of all time by his countrymen.
Reid is the editor of the Beaver, the Winnipeg-based history magazine that this week published what it oversold in a press release as the results of an online "survey" of the "public" to "determine" the "worst Canadian" of all time.
The implication was that the survey was scientific and, like the polls on other subjects that are routinely reported in the media, representative of public opinion in general.
The results contradicted previous surveys showing the enduring popularity of Trudeau, who left active politics in 1984 and died in 2000.
Barely a month ago, for example, Angus Reid Strategies reported that 42 per cent of Canadians chose Trudeau as the country's best prime minister since 1968, more than the other seven combined.
Last November, Decima Research reported for the Globe and Mail that Trudeau was among the celebrities, living or dead, whom Canadians would most like to invite to a dinner party.
And in Maclean's magazine's 2004 year-end national poll, Trudeau was first choice as the greatest Canadian ever.
These were all scientific surveys, representing Canadian opinion public at large.
The Beaver's survey, however, represented nothing more than the "just under 15,000" anonymous write-in votes the magazine collected on its website.
That's the equivalent of one-twentieth of one per cent of the Canadian population. And it's slightly more than one per cent of the 1.2 million votes in the CBC's 2004 Greatest Canadian popularity contest, in which Trudeau finished third. So as a reflection of Canadian public opinion, the Beaver's survey results are worthless.
The magazine itself seemed almost apologetic about reporting the results, in which the punk rocker finished second after campaigning for votes and Trudeau ranked above three notorious convicted murderers.
Such genuine historic villains as Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the 18th-century British officer who pioneered biological warfare by giving smallpox-infected blankets to Indians, failed to make the Top 10.
But I guess after heavily promoting the "survey," the magazine felt it had to release the results while offering a half-hearted explanation for them.
Reid told me yesterday "from memory" that Trudeau received "about 2,400 votes, plus or minus 200." So, assuming that nobody voted more than once, Trudeau is considered the worst Canadian by at most 2,600 surfers of the World Wide Web, compared to a Canadian population of 33 million. So what?
Of more real interest were the informed opinions of a panel of historians assembled by the Beaver.
For example, the country's founding prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was chosen by Winona Wheeler of Athabasca University, an Alberta-based distance-education and online institution, for waging an "unofficial war" against native peoples in the West.
But that was buried in the news stories about the "survey" results, because we in the media are suckers for anything that even sort of looks like a poll.
Lobby groups know this, which is why they commission polls using questionnaires calculated to produce the results they want, then release them to us.
So this junk-news story was dutifully reported in most of the Canadian media, including The Gazette. And such is the mystique lingering about the Trudeau name that it was picked up by international news agencies and, a Google search yesterday indicated, published as far abroad as South Africa.
Whether this gets Canadians talking about history in the dog days of summer, as the magazine's editor hopes, is doubtful. But it can't hurt the magazine's circulation of about 50,000.
The results of the survey are published in the August-September edition of the Beaver, which as of yesterday was not yet on sale in Montreal.
Trudeau Canada's worst? Hardly
The media's appetite for anything that looks like a poll lifted this dud onto the front pages of the nation