What It Means To Be Canadian

By Jade Johnston

This post was inspired by the Blog Your Backyard competition, currently being hosted by World Nomads. This is not the first time I have thought upon the topic of what it means to be Canadian. In the summer of 2006, before I headed off to study abroad in Denmark, I had to attend an orientation at my home university. The orientation was meant to provide us with information on a range of topics – from what vaccinations we might need to get, to how to deal with culture shock. The orientation also had a workshop on what it means to be Canadian – in case any foreigner might ask.

This probably isn’t what it means to be Canadian anymore

What was interesting about this, was as the group began brainstorming, the main things we could come up with were nothing to do with what it means to be Canadian. All the points were basically, what is definitely not part of being Canadian. And of the points of what is not part of being Canadian – the majority focused on how we see ourselves as different from Americans.

Being the neighbour of the United States has affected how Canada has developed as a country and how Canadians see themselves greatly. We are bombarded with American media, American consumer products, and American ideals. Just like New Zealand is to Australia, we also feel the presence of our more aggressive neighbour.

And to be fair, Canada does have a lot in common with America. I am often surprised when foreigners can pick out my Canadian accent, because even I can not tell the difference between a Canadian and an American accent. I have frequently mistaken a Canadian for an American – a very serious offence!

We not only sound similar to our neighbours to the south, but we live in similar ways, we dress in similar ways, and most aspects of our media and culture are interchangeable. Many American Hollywood movies are actually filmed in Canada, and many famous film and TV stars are originally from Canada.

So how are we different? We seem similar in so many ways, despite our loud protestations that we are unique.

                                      The Canadian cultural mosaic

Everyone who has gone through Canada’s educational system can tell you one things for sure. That is – America is a melting pot, and Canada is a mosaic. Since the creation of both America and Canada was due to heavy immigration, this is a major point of difference indeed. I implies that while America forces it’s immigrants to embrace the “American dream”, us Canadians encourage recent immigrants to preserve and share their culture with the rest of society. Whether or not this is actually the case in practice – it is still thoroughly ingrained into Canadian collective consciousness from about grade 3 onward.

Canadians are also taught that we are a peaceful nation – much more so than America anyway. We are famous for leaving our doors unlocked, and unlike our American neighbours, we have strict gun laws. We care about international peace as well. We even have monuments dedicated to peace keeping in our capital of Ottawa, and we pride ourselves in trying to negotiate peace around with world. Canada took a defiant step away from the lead set by America when we refused to participate in the Iraq war – but then again we did send soldiers to Afghanistan, which has proved to be much more bloody than we ever anticipated. The question of whether or not Canada should continue to have a presence in Afghanistan, is an issue of great contention in current Canadian politics. It is also something which we will need to reconcile with our idea of being a peace loving nation.

Another item which comes up immediately when Canadians are asked to define themselves – is our social welfare system, particularly our health care system.  This is one thing which really sets us apart from America, and we are proud of it. Ask any Canadian about health care (myself included) and you will be in for a speech about how great our health care is, and how much we pity our poor American cousins to the south.

It’s true – I love having public health care. My last year living in New Zealand has been the first time in my life when going to the doctor became a major decision. “Am I really sick enough to spend a hundred or two hundred dollars to see a doctor?” This is a thought that never entered my mind before now. I am extremely proud that in my country, if you feel ill, you can see a doctor at any time of the day. As a sufferer of chronic disease – I find it horrifying to think that some people have to check their bank accounts first before getting the treatment that they need to be well.

Even though our social welfare system in Canada, is nothing compared to what they have in Scandinavia, most Canadians will say – “at least we are not like America.” This attitude may actually be to our detriment though, as we will never strive to improve if we are satisfied just being slightly better than the USA.

A protest against the Canadian tar sands – one of the world’s biggest polluters

Along similar lines, is our idea of being an environmentally friendly nation. Canadian’s boast all around the world about the severity of our seasons and the hardiness of our people. However, even though we see ourselves as strong, outdoor people, and even though we profess to care about environmental protection, our actions speak differently. Canada’s average carbon footprint is as bad as American’s, and due to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada is now considered a bigger polluter than America as well. Just like health care, this is another attitude which could benefit with some wider context.

What does it mean to be Canadian? The truth is, that I don’t know. An identity of “we are not America”, is not much of a national identity at all. Although that attitude may have worked well for us when our country was just starting to appear on the international stage, I don’t believe it works anymore. With the ease of global communication, I believe it is imperative that Canadians begin to compare themselves to other leading nations. If we want to be an important actor on the international stage, we are going to need to be more than just “better than America,” we are going to need to be one of the best overall.



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