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Canadian Identity – It’s a Fact, Eh?

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This is the latest installment in my occasional series I call “It’s a Fact.” This series deals with peculiarities of Canada and its people. Previously I’ve discussed eh?, that little word that is so tiny but so integral to what it means to be Canadian. I’ve also looked at our two national anthems, other Canadian vocabulary and Canadian Thanksgiving. Today I want to discuss Canadian identity and what it means to be Canadian.

This is a difficult subject, actually, since Canada’s identity is changing. There was a time, and it probably ended shortly after the Second World War, when Canadians had quite a distinct identity. We have always struggled with distinguishing ourselves from our rather large and boisterous neighbors to the south. Until the last great war we were widely considered more British and less American. But as time has gone on and the world has shrunk, more people tend to lump us in with the United States. Most Canadians are less than thrilled with this development. Today the Canadian identity can probably be best expressed as “multicultural and not American.”

We are a nation of diversity. The city of Toronto is considered to be a portal to the rest of the world. Recent surveys suggest that fully fifty percent of the city’s residents were born outside of Canada. There are entire areas of the city that are dominated by a single culture (as anyone can attest who has ventured into China Town). Even small churches like the one I attend tend to have ten, fifteen or twenty different nationalities represented, not by children or grandchildren of those who immigrated to Canada, but by first generation immigrants. When I was part of a Southern Baptist Church in the Toronto area we would often receive mission teams from the Southern states and these men and women were always amazed at the diversity. It is shocking and surprising to those who are unaccustomed to it.

While diversity is, in many ways, a wonderful thing, it is not rightly an identity. Truthfully, Canadians tend to identify themselves these days by their lack of identity. We are diverse and multicultural and bilingual. Anyone can come to Canada and feel no pressure to conform to whatever culture we offer here. Rather, people can immigrate here and continue to build their own culture with others from their native land.

While we identity ourselves by our lack of identity, we also identify ourselves by what we are not–and what we are not is American. While we listen to American music, watch American television and movies and eat at American restaurant chains (and can even withdraw American money from many of our bank machines) we refuse to be too closely associated with the United States. This was probably best reflected in a famous Canadian beer commercial which was really little more than a rant by a man named Joe. He took a stage in front of a giant screen and said this:

Hey, I’m not a lumberjack, or a fur trader… I don’t live in an igloo or eat blubber, or own a dogsled… and I don’t know Jimmy, Sally or Suzy from Canada, although I’m certain they’re really really nice.

I have a Prime Minister, not a president.
I speak English and French, not American.
And I pronounce it ‘about’, not ‘a boot’.

I can proudly sew my country’s flag on my backpack.
I believe in peace keeping, not policing,
diversity, not assimilation,
and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal.
A toque is a hat, a chesterfield is a couch,
and it is pronounced ‘zed’ not ‘zee’, ‘zed’!

Canada is the second largest landmass!
The first nation of hockey!
and the best part of North America

My name is Joe!
And I am Canadian!

If you want to see it (and you really should as it’s surprisingly important to understanding the Canadian identity) you can do so here. You’ll notice that in this rant Joe says more about what he is not than about what he is. And this is so typically Canadian. We may not be entirely sure of what we are and what our place in the world is, but we do know for certain that we aren’t American. Mike Myers, a Canadian import to the States once said of his nation that “Canada is the essence of not being. Not English, not American, it is the mathematic of not being. And a subtle flavour – we’re more like celery as a flavour.”

And I guess that is about it. Canada is the world’s celery. It is interesting to consider what will become of this country. It would seem that it will be difficult to maintain a nation that has no identity. Sooner or later a nation that is defined only by its lack of definition is sure to run into some kind of crisis of identity. But by then we will have so much diversity that it would seemingly be impossible to settle on just what we are and how we are to fulfill a role in this world. The times are changing here in Canada and I don’t know that anyone can really forecast what this nation will be ten, twenty or fifty years in the future.


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