Stuart McLean was a national treasure

When Canadians are asked to show what one thing embodies their country, they might point you to a ice rink, a plate of donair poutine, or just flash their health care card.

I would say they tune in to CBC Radio One at noon on Sunday, and spend some time with Stuart McLean.

From his Ontario lilt, to the laughter of the live audience, to the sheer comic brilliance of his writing, McLean was a national treasure. Beginning his career as a news journalist, McLean published his first book of Vinyl Cafe stories in 1995. Following a family from Toronto as they moved through equal parts hilarity and heartfelt emotion, every one of the hundreds of stories McLean wrote about the Canadian every-family — as well as stand-alone tales — touched his audience.

For me, McLean was the voice of childhood road trips, with my dad bouncing the car on and off the rumble strips with each outburst of laughter. This summer, his “Vinyl Café Stories” podcast was the soundtrack to my commute; starting the day with McLean made 7:30 punch-ins a bit more bearable. He pushed Canadian artists on the podcast, green-lighting a whole album based on his stories, and insisting that a month’s worth of episodes were soundtracked by the music of indigenous artists. He also emphasized communication with his audience, reading anecdotes sent in on air each week. In short, McLean was everything you could want in a radio host.

After a battle with cancer, McLean died yesterday. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Greed came first; I didn’t want “The Vinyl Café” to die. Despite this, doing some reading for this piece brought me some solace. I had never seen a complete list of his stories before, and realizing how many there were, how much had been written and spoken about his slice of Canada, a sense of relief came over me. There’s still sections of his oeuvre that I haven’t touched, and I’m not sure that I’ll seek them out. It seems wrong to close the book permanently on McLean’s way of seeing things.

That viewpoint is only one bit of a legacy that will stay with me, but the crux of McLean, for me, is his ability as a storyteller. In an interview following his passing, McLean’s longtime producer Jess Milton said that “he told us our story.” I think that’s exactly right. McLean was a conduit through which innumerable tales passed, and I’ll remember him as someone who filtered and concentrated those stories into a form that was meaningful to anyone who heard them. Isn’t that what writing is all about?

I hope he rests with the knowledge that he made us laugh, at, with, in spite of ourselves. If nothing else, he’s taught us all how not to cook a turkey.

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