Reflections On Canada Day 2017: What Does It Mean To Be Canadian?


I’m writing this on the morning of Canada Day 2017, Canada’s 150th anniversary, thinking about all the fascinating things I’ve read and the people I’ve met.

One thing that I’ve come across is how much time and effort we as Canadians spend trying to define exactly what being Canadian means.

Our American neighbours do not usually seem to have much of an issue over this, defining themselves as they do by the U.S. Constitution. The American Civil War was in many ways about whether the idea of equality of all people, regardless of their ancestry, or the idea of “states’ rights”, both enshrined in the Constitution, would prevail. A large part of the black civil rights movement was about demanding the recognition and respect for black Constitutional rights. Progressive Americans criticizing the actions of the George W. Bush administration say that its actions violated the Constitution.

In Canada, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what being Canadian means. Canadian governments have invested heavily in “nation-building” policies meant to try and build a national culture and connect different parts of the country together, both physically (through railways and highways) and culturally (through institutions like the CBC and the National Film Board, and policies like health care, multiculturalism and bilingualism). Immigrants from all over the world continue to make Canada more and more diverse. Quebec had two referendums on whether it wanted to stay part of Canada. Indigenous people demand recognition of their rights and identities, rejecting the idea of assimilating into the mainstream.

Different people have tried to answer the question. John Ralston Saul said that we are a “Metis” society, not in the sense that everyone is Metis, but that we are influenced in part by the British, French and Indigenous roots. Richard Gwyn said that Canada is the world’s first “post-modern” country, one that is not centred on a particular ethnocultural identity, but whose identity is actually flexible and adaptable. An unknown author claimed that a Canadian was someone who “drank Brazilian coffee from an English teacup, while eating French pastry, sitting on Danish furniture after driving home from an Italian movie in their German car”.

All of this led Irving Layton to quip that a Canadian is someone who keeps asking the question, “what is a Canadian?”

That said, there may in fact be a common thread running through all this, a fundamental truth about what Canada is:

Namely, that Canada is a country where many different groups have had to learn together and recognize each other’s differences, while building a greater common identity out of it.

Mutual recognition has been part of Canadian history from the beginning. Different First Nations signed Treaties of mutual recognition with each other, then with European fur traders, and with the later French and English colonists who settled here. When Britain acquired New France, it had to balance the desires of its own British citizens with the desires of the French-speaking Canadiens, most notably through the Quebec Act. British Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution fled north into New France. Lord Durham analyzed the 1830s rebellions as “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state”, while Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine allied to bring true, responsible democracy to Canada.

Confederation has been described by the “compact theory” of it being an agreement between the provinces. The “two-nations theory” describes it as an agreement between Francophones and Anglophones. Other theories describe it as an attempt to create an entirely new nation. The different approaches of Macdonald and Laurier reflected different ways of seeing the country-either a centralized country, or one that gave more way to local concerns and autonomy.

As Canada expanded, the Indigenous people signed Treaties of with Canada that they considered to be agreements of mutual recognition and respect of each others’ rights. The Metis, in the first Riel Resistance, demanded recognition of their religious and language rights by the federal government before becoming part of Canada. These agreements are still seen by the Indigenous people who signed them as legally binding, and requiring fulfillment by non-Indigenous Canadians, and as part of Canada’s Constitution.

Many of the people who have immigrated to Canada often did so fleeing famine and persecution in their original homelands. Whether the Irish in the 19th century, blacks fleeing slavery, victims of Communism in the 20th century, or refugees from conflicts in places like Syria and Afghanistan, among others, they have all come seeking new homes and lives, bringing new cultures and influences to Canada.

More recently, there have been debates over how and when immigrants should be expected to conform to Canadian values and what those values are, how and when French- and English-minority communities should be recognized, the place of Indigenous people in Canada and the recognition of their rights, and whether multiculturalism should be replaced by interculturalism.

Other countries have had similar disputes, of course, but they have arguably not been defined by them to the extent that Canada has. Other countries have firmly established identities that have existed for centuries, or have had to forge new ones for themselves after fighting for independence, but the mutual recognition and compromise between different groups has been part of Canada from its start.

At its worst, this has led to violent conflict, and disgusting violations of the values we claim to hold as Canadians. At its best, this has led to our creating something beautiful and proud, that has done great things for the world, and greater than the sum of its parts.

This mutual recognition and compromise is not just part of Canada’s past. It is very much a part of Canada’s present, and will be part of its future. Continuing to build on our successes, while remembering and addressing our failures, will be a key challenge for Canada in the years to come.

Vive le Canada uni!

This article was written on Canada Day 2017 in commemoration of Canada 150, reflecting on what it could actually mean to be Canadian. Many other Western countries have much clearer ideas of what some of their national traits are, but Canada remains an open question.



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Jared Milne

Passionately devoted to Canadian unity. Fascinated by Canadian politics and history. Striving to understand the mysteries of Canada. Publishes every few weeks.