In all the hoo-ha about Elian we have forgotten the Smalls!

Who could forget those darling fugitives from Canadian cultural protectionism?

Published January 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Now that the saga of Cuban "boat boy" Elian Gonzalez is dominating the headlines, we all seem to have forgotten, rather conveniently I might add, an incident (was it last year?) that is eerily similar to the matter at hand.

That case involved a pair of 12-year-old Canadian twins, Blair and Ethan Small (certainly you remember the adorable Smalls!), who became unwitting pawns in a politically motivated tug of war between certain ex-patriot Canucks living in the U.S. (mostly employed in the entertainment field, mostly comedians), and the twins' totally uncool mother back home in the Great White North.

The media dubbed them the "HBO boys" because it was their gentle father's somewhat reckless dash over the border to acquire an American satellite dish that set off the international scandal.

It all began one bitter winter morning when John D. Small, an insurance salesman with an almost spiritual obsession with home entertainment, decided that enough was enough and headed for the border crossing at Rouse's Point, N.Y., in his rusty 10-year-old Toyota Corolla, with his resplendently blond identical twins strapped safely into the back seat.

Small was on a mission. Desperate to escape the tyranny of the CRTC (that's the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission, the government agency that decides what Canadians can and cannot watch on television), he planned to venture abroad to bag a Home Box Office for his suburban Montreal castle.

Never again would he miss out on all those critically acclaimed TV movies and edgy sitcoms. Wasn't this the right of every plugged in North American? Why should he be denied HBO access just because of an accident of geography?

His plan was noble though not very original. He would visit his niece and nephew in the States, purchase an American satellite dish while there and sign up for American cable service using his relatives' American address. He would then return home triumphant and free of any government interference in his fantasy life.

John D. Small would be able to watch anything he wanted, all due to a technicality, a grey area, so to speak, in the law. It isn't illegal to bring a dish to Canada; in fact, a person can declare said American dish at Canadian customs and pay the duty on it. It is just illegal to use the thing to pull in illicit American signals from the Canadian heavens.

"What an idiotic country," Small was reported to have said to his wife, Jane, before departing. "It lets you import a satellite dish you aren't allowed to use!"

"You are rationalizing," replied Jane, a patriot brainwashed to feel no passion for hip popular culture.

Small didn't care. He would get to see "The Sopranos" -- even if he perished in the attempt.

At first, Everything unfolded smoothly. Small made it to the States, right to his niece and nephew's front stoop. But events soon took an unanticipated turn. Small got sick, very sick. Perhaps thinking that the sun always shines south of the 49th parallel, or that the right to bear arms was the right to bare arms, this simple modern man with simple modern needs forgot to dress for the stinging hibernal weather. He got the flu (or, more likely, imported an exotic bug from his country of origin) and had to be hospitalized.

His sons, who never dressed for the winter weather anyway, were merely invigorated by the chill. Haler than ever, they found themselves stuck in the U.S., invited by well-meaning relatives to gorge on Cheetos, Pepsi and copious quantities of American satellite TV fare.

Jane was contacted by the adults in charge. The boys would be staying, they reported, not moving from the couch at all in fact, for some time to come.

"They love it here," the Small relatives announced in a press conference. "They can get HBO and MTV and Nickelodeon -- the basic cable fare of every American boy in his wonder years. They saw 'The Larry Sanders Show' for the very first time last night, and they just love the salty dialogue!"

Jane despaired. She would have jumped in the car right that moment to bring her kids back, were it not for a small matter of some long unpaid parking tickets in upstate New York.. Instead, she pleaded with her kids over the phone: "Don't you want to come home? Children belong with their parents, right?"

"We can't," answered Ethan. "We're going to a hockey game. We've got seats right behind the bench, not crappy seats in the nosebleeds like Daddy sometimes manages to scrounge up for us in Montreal."

"Plus," Blair leaped in, "we've got an audition with 'Party of Five' tomorrow. They might make it 'Party of Seven,' just for us."

Jane smelled a rat. Hockey is the quickest way to a Canadian boy's heart. Everyone knows that. And a sitcom? She couldn't compete with Neve Campbell and $20,000 American a week.

"Two little Canadian boys who came to America in the hope of getting a Home Box Office for their humble bungalow, are going to get much more than that -- a chance to live the American dream," a spokesnephew told the press. "Suddenly they have it all -- an agent, a shot at a sitcom.

"The sad thing is, back in Canada, other young kids with a dream won't be able to see the Smalls on TV: The protectionist Canadian government has banned HBO from the Canadian airwaves."

Jane petitioned the INS to have her sons returned to her, but she was denied. It seemed that the lawyers hired by her relatives had to meet with government lawyers before they could meet with her lawyers and come to any decision. And then there was the possibility that the boys would soon be tied up in a contract with Fox.

Said the Canadian politician: "It's time they came back to Canada. By all accounts their mother is a caring person who has provided her sons with many edifying entertainment options over the years."

Said the American politician (an expat Canadian and former "Not Ready For Prime Time" player): "We must only decide after carefully analyzing what's in the best interests of the children. Censorship in any form is anti-democratic and that includes 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' And, besides, they can get tutoring on the set."

A judge postponed a hearing until the boys would be on hiatus from the sitcom, providing they didn't pick up any film work for the break. It was rumored that Shania's people were meeting with Celine's people in hopes of producing a duet in support of the HBO boys. Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Keanu Reeves were in line to sing backup. Wayne Gretzky was a maybe.

Jane began to contemplate kidnapping, but in the end, it wasn't necessary. Mr. Small was discharged from the hospital, along with a bill for $44,394. His sons failed their auditions due to crippling Canadian accents. They would be back, they told reporters chasing their Toyota out of town. They would attend a reasonably priced university at home and then hotfoot it for the States to obtain gainful employment, "just like all our friends."

By Dorothy Nixon

Dorothy Nixon lives in Montreal with her two sons, Andrew and Mark, and her news editor husband, Blair. She writes frequently on issues relating to family and culture for various venues in Canada and the U.S.

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