I’m writing this on the morning of Canada Day, thinking about all the fascinating things I’ve read about and seen, and all the interesting people I’ve met. One thing I’ve come across over and over again is the question of what being Canadian even means-if you ask a dozen different people, you’ll get a dozen different answers. Some critics have claimed that we as Canadians mostly get by on declaring that we’re not Americans, without ever truly defining what that means.
That said, in all of my readings and studying the mysteries of our country, I’ve found several traits that I think could be seen as distinctly Canadian. Obviously not everyone will agree with what I’ve come up with, and I certainly wouldn’t claim that I’ve identified everything that marks us as a country…
-Centrism as a political trait: Many of the ordinary Canadians I’ve interacted with have shown themselves to not be particularly ideological. Certainly there are the commenters on places like the comment boards of Canadian newspapers and various other forums, but your ordinary person in the street seems, from everything I’ve seen, to be quite happy supporting ideas from different parts of the spectrum, without much regard as to whether it’s a left- or right-wing idea. Your average Tim Horton’s coffee drinker is just as likely to vote Liberal, Conservative, NDP or Green depending on any number of factors at the time.
Many of our governments and political parties reflect this, too. Canadian conservatives have consistently demonstrated attitudes and actions that would be abhorred by their American counterparts. In the early days of the Reform movement, for instance, Preston Manning specifically debunked the idea that the Reform party wanted to abolish the social safety net. Manning’s point was rather that we would lose these things if the government went bankrupt. Manning has also subsequently been involved with ‘green conservatism’, where he tries to emphasize how environmental protection can fit in well with conservative ideas. One can also see the way the Wildrose Alliance promised in Alberta to provide incentives for more bitumen drilling to be done here in Alberta, or intervening in the electricity market to reduce price spikes. At the federal level, Stephen Harper has arguably tried to project the image of a more moderate, middle-of-the-road conservatism with things such as the Economic Action Plan full of government intervention to support the economy, while not reviving hot-button issues associated with the right like gay marriage and abortion. Even the Edmonton Sun is making snarky comments at gay-bashers and supporting homosexual marriage.
One can see it on the other side of the aisle, too. The Liberals under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin restored Canada to fiscal health through a combination of cutting both taxes and spending alike. Prairie NDP governments like those of Gary Doer and Roy Romanow have made good use of tools like tax cuts and service reductions to balance their provincial books, while Tommy Douglas consistently presented balanced budgets. It exists even among the Quebec separatist movement-Lucien Bouchard was right there with the rest of us in cutting social spending and services. 15 years before that, René Lévesque was doing the exact same thing long before Mike Harris and Ralph Klein made it trendy, which undermined his popularity with his own base among civil servants and teachers.
-Federalism as a way of accommodating multiple peoples: Samuel LaSelva wrote about how the Americans originally developed a federal system to divide power between two levels of government and prevent any one of them from gaining too much power. Canada, on the other hand, did it to accommodate the differences among different cultural groups who lived in Canada but also wanted to maintain their own distinctiveness.
In the original Confederation debates, many of the Anglophone Fathers of Confederation wanted a plain union of all Britain’s North American colonies, fusing them all into one big entity with no internal borders. Resistance from some of the Atlantic colonies was a reason why the Fathers decided to go with a federal system, but the biggest reason was arguably because of the Francophones in Lower Canada, which would become Quebec. They were adamant that the provinces have specific powers, and the Anglophone Fathers agreed to this in exchange for having many of their own specific issues addressed.
Similarly, when the First Nations signed the Treaties with the Canadian Crown, they were meant to be ways in which the land could be shared with the new arrivals. The Natives would be provided help in adjusting to the new conditions of industrialization, but they would continue to have their own governments and societies within Canada.
It’s revealing to compare the Jim Crow laws in America and that country’s Civil Rights movement to the Native and Francophone activism we’ve seen up here in Canada. The Jim Crow laws forcibly made black Americans distinct and inferior, and the Civil Rights movement was about opposing these legislated differences so that blacks would be on the same playing field as whites. In Canada, it was the attempts to forcibly assimilate Natives and Francophones, erasing their distinctiveness, that led to a lot of the headaches we have today. Native and Francophone activism, on the other hand, has been to reinforce their cultural distinctiveness.
-A healthy balance between government intervention and individual action: Canada’s history is marked with efforts by various levels of government to tie together people who live across large distances. Government support for the CP and CN railways provided physical access to the country; the CBC provided links across Canada through shows like Hockey Night in Canada; the Trans-Canada Highway provides physical links to different parts of the country, and so on.
Governments continue to provide support in other ways, too, such as Alberta providing royalty rebate and relief programs to the oilpatch so smaller operators can become profitable; governments helping to provide Internet bandwidth to rural areas; government healthcare saving people from going broke because of unforeseen health expenses; film tax credits helping to create productions like The Red Green Show, Trailer Park Boys and Corner Gas; government support for linguistic minorities, including the Anglophone minority in Quebec, to advocate for their rights; and so on.
Obviously, there are limits to these government activities, and there are times when it needs to be reigned in, but when it’s done right it has been of enormous benefit.
In tandem with this, we have the hard work and effort of individual entrepreneurs, activists, and many other people who’ve all contributed their talents to make Canada a vibrant and prosperous place. Their scientific, cultural and business contributions have complemented government support and in many cases built on it. They’ve built communities, companies, organizations and other entities that have thrived on their efforts and in some cases will outlive them. They’ve been the source of some of Canada’s key contributions to the world.
-Canada’s contributing the world in many small ways: In his book Canadians: A Portrait Of A Country And Its People, Roy MacGregor noted that Canada has given the world the telephone, insulin, Pablum, the CanadArm, kerosene, caulking guns, standard time, the combine harvester, green garbage bags, the electron microscope, instant potatoes, snowblowers, AM radio, the Blackberry, electric stoves, IMAX, the Robertson screw, Muskol, the snowmobile, the paint roller, five-pin bowling, the Wonderbra, and Trivial Pursuit.
Canadian Dr. James Naismith invented basketball while he was living in the United States. Canadians ranging from Mary Pickford to Jim Carrey and James Cameron have played important roles in Hollywood. Terry Fox inspired the Terry Fox Runs that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research. Canadian soldiers terrified their German opponents in World War I with battles like Vimy Ridge, and fought with all their hearts for freedom in World War II in places like Normandy and Italy. John Diefenbaker took an early stand against apartheid, helping to get South Africa thrown out of the British Commonwealth for its apartheid system.
That’s a particularly Canadian trait, I think-contributing to the world in many small, meaningful ways that have been largely overlooked both by us and the world at large. I’d also venture that our contributions have been well out of proportion to our population, which is small in scale compared to that of world powers like the U.S., Japan, China, the U.K. or Germany. Even when we move abroad, we as Canadians often do amazing things for the world.
But how many people, either here at home or globally, realize this?
-Survival: Margaret Atwood claimed that “survival” was a fundamental Canadian trait. Certainly it’s been a recurring theme in Canadian history, what with the United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution; impoverished French who sought out new lives in New France and Acadia; the Irish fleeing poverty in their homeland and immigrating to Canada; Sitting Bull and his people seeking asylum in Canada; immigrants fleeing political tyranny and violence in countries ranging from Nazi Germany (where we turned away the Jews who sought asylum here, to our eternal shame) to countries where Communism was established, to countries like Somalia, Afghanistan and Rwanda today.
-Multiple groups learning to live together: I’ve found it fascinating to see how we’ve spent so long arguing over what it means to be Canadian, while the Americans have spent comparably less energy doing so. I think this may be because they created an entirely new political framework from scratch, one that never had accommodations for particular minorities. Indeed, writers like Will Kymlicka have suggested that American state boundaries were often drawn so that people of English descent were the majority in each one. Federalism, for the Americans, was about ensuring that the Republic could defend itself from external threats while reducing the threat of government tyranny.
Conversely, in Canada, the Aboriginal Treaties were necessary for the Crown to gain legal title to most of the land. In addition to that, we’ve also accommodated Francophone Canadians and immigrants from various parts of the world. This is why we have things like the minority language education rights, the various provisions and programs related to multiculturalism, the fusion of a federal system with the parliamentary system we inherited from the British, multiculturalism and bilingualism, the presence of both provinces and territories, recognition of Aboriginal Treaty rights in the Charter of Rights, the notwithstanding clause in that same Charter to balance out judicial review with parliamentary supremacy, and so on. They’re all part of the compromises and balancing acts we’ve had to make to ensure that we can live together.
It’s funny how we have so much debate over things like “who speaks for Canada” or “what does the West/Quebec/the Native want”, whether we should accommodate multiculturalism and Aboriginal rights or all be ‘just’ Canadians, and so forth. It all suggests to me that Canada has been marked by many different groups who’ve had to learn together and found a country that recognizes both what makes them distinct and what they have in common. And that common ground does exist, otherwise we wouldn’t have a country to begin with.
As Canadians, we’ve had to balance between individual and collective rights, between the public and private sectors, between the individual quest for wealth and prosperity and the need to help out poorer citizens in need, between new arrivals and long-established communities, between the local and the national, between different stories and communities. Other countries are going through many of these same debates, but in Canada, I think, it has a particular importance.
Those are my thoughts on Canada Day. Not everyone will agree with them, of course, but I do think they offer some interesting insights on what distinguishes us as Canadians, as opposed to just our saying that we’re not American.
Vive le Canada uni!
This article was originally published in 2013 as a response to what some Canadian cultural/political traits might be. It’s been said that “a Canadian is someone who spends all their time wondering what a Canadian is”. This represents several traits I have noticed in my study of Canada’s past, present and future.