Simply Canadian


Being Canadian is a lot more simple and substantial than our elites would have us believe. I've long been interested in what it means to be Canadian. I spent almost half my youth outside Canada and have a very mixed ancestry. I have also lived in Britain now for a number of years, which makes the issue even more pressing. But my interest mainly stems from the context of growing up in Vancouver. This is a city of large-scale immigration, ethnic mixing and a dizzying menu of American lifestyle options. These forces constantly undercut a secure sense of where we belong in place (land) and time (history). Things get even worse when Quebec separatism is added to the equation. All of which makes it vital to sort out the mess of Canadian identity.


First of all, 'Canadian' has two meanings. The first is anyone who is a citizen of the Canadian state. The identity promoted by successive Canadian governments is light and abstract, consisting of government symbols, institutions like the CBC and health care system, policies to the left of American ones and universal ideas like fair play, tolerance and multiculturalism. This political identity is part of us, but consists of dry, functional creations that do not answer to our needs for meaning and belonging. Government is also as likely to divide us as to unite us. Which in turn explains why many Canadian citizens remain attached to ethnic identities like Quebecois, Serbian, Jewish or Chinese which are much more romantic and meaningful than being a Canadian citizen. There is nothing surprising or wrong with this.


All of which brings us to the second, unofficial use of the term Canadian, which is a cultural and ethnic one. Here a 'Canadian' is someone who feels primarily attached to Canadian history, its culture and its landscape. These 'ethnic Canadians' see their cultural and historical destiny, and that of their children, with this country. One manifestation of this is the large number of Canadian citizens who state their ethnic identity as 'Canadian' on the census. In the 2001 census, 39 percent of Canadian citizens (rising to 55 percent of those with both parents born in Canada) reported their ethnic origin as 'Canadian'. If the origins question had instead been what is your ethnic identity, that figure would have plummeted in Quebec (even federalists identify first as Quebecois) but soared outside it. In other words, by far the largest ethnic group in Canada outside Quebec is 'Canadian'. Interestingly, most 'Canadians' had families with over three generations of residence in Canada, but nearly two hundred thousand 'Canadians' were immigrants, many born in Asia, Africa or the Caribbean.


This raises the obvious question: what does the deeper 'Canadian' ethnic identity consist of. Let's begin with an attachment to the homeland. Canada's northern landscape of boreal forest and harsh winters is central to our identity. It has shaped our art, sports, literature and much else, from the Group of Seven to hockey. The beaver, moose and maple syrup don't feature prominently in Canada's airport gift shops by accident. Prime Minister Mackenzie King once said Canada has "too much geography, too little history." Nothing could be further from the truth. Landscape is a key component of identity, and even those with a long history, like the English, cherish their landscapes. Think of the 'green and pleasant land' of the English immortalized by painters like John Constable or writers like Wordsworth. Big northern countries like Russia or Sweden do the same. In Russia, the birch trees, Volga and harsh winters have left their mark on the work of generations of writers and musicians like Tolstoy and Stravinsky. Yes, there are no trees in southern Saskatchewan and it rarely snows in Vancouver, but, like Russians, all Canadians can relate to some aspect of a northern landscape.


The second component of Canadian ethnic identity is cultural. I'm not talking about transitory phenomena like the Tragically Hip or Canadian Tire, however distinctive, but about language. Ethnic Canadians are an English-speaking people just as the Quebecois are a French-speaking people. The Canadian accent is similar but far from identical to American English. In much of Europe, half an hour's drive will bring you to a new dialect, but in Canada, you can travel for days from Ontario to B.C. and hear no differences in speech. The northern landscape and climate also shapes a distinctive Canadian lifestyle, especially in rural areas but also in the cities. Remember, the average American lives in Kansas City, Missouri, not Fairbanks, Alaska.


The final aspect of Canadian identity, its unique history, is the most important. Ethnic Canadians are defined by the blending of three sets of historical influences, Native Canadian, 'British American' and French Canadien. This French-British-Native métis process forms the core of Canadian identity to which numerous others, like myself, have assimilated. Native peoples of Canada gave us many of our placenames, folkways like the kayak and lacrosse, and some of the myths and legends which tie us to the land. The French Canadiens consist of two groups, one section which remained as habitants on the land in Quebec, and a second group of wanderers and pioneers who explored the rest of Canada. This second group laid the foundations of the fur trade and mixed with the Indians to form the Métis people of the West. These pioneers and settlers littered our landscape with French placenames like St. Albert and Lac La Hache and Canadian political history is very much about the interaction between the French and British. This brings us to the British Americans, whose influence on our ideology, institutions and habits is profound. The mostly English settlers in the United States in 1776 spoke differently and were more liberal-democratic than their cousins in England. After the American Revolution, some of these Americans (the Loyalists) moved to Canada where they brought their accent, folkways and values. If Canada had been settled directly from England, we would speak and act differently than we do. The American settlers forged links with the French and Natives and successfully fought the war of 1812 against the United States. The fact that Isaac Brock, a British American, and Joseph Brant, a Native Canadian, were heroes of the war, shows how the new links worked. Somewhat later, an enormous wave of mostly Celtic immigrants dwarfed the original American settlers. In contrast to the United States, most were from northern Britain: Scotland and northern parts of Ireland. Generally speaking, the culture of settlers prevails, but because the new immigrants outnumbered the natives, they were able to modify some aspects of our accent, politics and patterns of conviviality.


In the twentieth century, especially since 1945, immigrants from outside France and Britain, my grandparents among them, predominated. But when these people come to Canada, they do not enter a culturally-neutral territory. There is an important Canadian ethnic group which they have the option of joining. As generations pass, old world memories fade and intermarriage becomes more likely. Some of the descendants of immigrants will maintain or rediscover their links to the diaspora, but most will simply be Canadian-Canadians.