What Are We?

One question that kept recurring during a recent trip to Canada dealt with the idea of Canadians in general – who are we and how can we explain ourselves to other people? It’s no easy feat and it’s certainly a different answer depending on who you ask.

Because, the truth is, it’s not that simple. Canada is such a big country, such a vast expanse of changing landscape and changing people, that it is impossible to nail us down with a couple of cover-all adjectives. Homogeneous is not really in the makeup of Canada. Though that’s part of what makes it tick.

Canada is a nation that stretches the length of two oceans and shares the longest border in the world with its southern neighbour. Each region of this massive country is different than the last. Some of these differences are small, while others are certainly notable. We have an Arctic, oceanfront, prairies, cityscapes with stretching skyscrapers, and rocky mountains which reach even higher. Depending on where you come from within those borders, the land has a tendency to shape who you are and your idea of Canada is.

And so the best answer I can give to anyone asking about for a general idea of Canadians is this: we’re different; it just depends which part of the country you come from. There isn’t a whole lot of unity from coast-to-coast about many things.

In spite of this, we are especially united as a country in two circumstances. As is the case with many other countries, the first involves sports. When it comes to the Olympics or, more importantly, ice hockey, we are all Canadians. The petty squabbles of one region over another, one language versus the other, and any and all disagreements about how we’re the example the rest of the country should follow are wiped away in a sea of red and white and beer and repressed boisterousness.

Vancouver Olympics, Vancouver 2010, Canadians, gold medal celebration

Apart from sports, the only other time that we are united is certainly something that must be unique to Canada. Few other nations base their cultural identity on not being like someone else, but Canadians do. We are brought together in our attempts to distance ourselves from the US and its citizens. Which, when you think about it, is pretty odd.

Our identity as Canadians oftentimes hinges on not being American. We have sat next door to the greatest superpower of the twentieth century, often ignored, and seen the good and the ugly sides of a very powerful nation. For nearly a century Canadians have made a concerted effort to avoid following in the footsteps of the US.

We are told from birth that a part of being Canadian is to strive to be more open, more polite, and more tolerant of others . . . yet most of this is merely relative to America. We condemn certain things the US does  – beat the drum of exceptionalism, unabashed nationalism, limiting personal freedoms – and feel superior for not doing these things to such extremes. Though, at the same time, most of the Western world is a lot less nationalistic than Canada (due to the risk of being seen as a radical right-winger, for example[1] ) and many of those other governments put a higher emphasis on personal liberty, allowing their citizens a lot more leeway with regard to taboo issues or earthly vices. Since most of our identity as a nation is measured against the US and the US alone, we oftentimes fail to recognize that the world is a much bigger place.

There are few nations in this world, perhaps no other, where such a significant part of the cultural identity driven by not being like their neighbour. Moreover, having a landmass this large unite over anything at all is unlikely, yet these two things – sports and, for lack of a better term, soft anti-Americanism – see us bonded together as one.

It’s not necessarily the most normal thing to hang your cultural hat on, but it’s something Canadians do more often than we might care to admit.

Still, there are countless fantastic things about Canada.

Canadians are, in general, a very polite people. We say please and thank you and hold doors open and actually make an effort not to be dicks . . . at least most of us. The average Canadian has a very low tolerance for dicks.

Trailer Park Boys, free liquor, free dope, no dicks, cyrus, say goodnight to the bad guys. blanford recreation centre

Seen at recreation centres across the country

Again, for the most part, we’re a simple people – and I mean that in a positive way. We tend to be happy with what we have and can find the joy in the small pleasures in life. A weekend at a summer cottage, a case of beer with your buddies, or a hockey game on Saturday night – we don’t demand a lot and we are a really happy people because of it. We endure some pretty harsh winters and, like Scandinavians, if we can appreciate the little things while surrounded by chilly darkness, you better believe we can make a sunny day count.

Canada’s a diverse and wondrous place that has welcomed immigration from all corners of the world for nearly all of its existence. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you probably won’t stand out or feel all that alone in Canada. I’m not saying we’re free of xenophobic asshats, because idiots are inescapable, but it’s certainly not too terrible here and most of us realize that foreign influence has become a powerful contributor to Canadian culture and society.

We’re free of a powerful religious right, a strong gun lobby, or a greed-driven economy. And we’re really really good at one of the toughest games on the planet.

Canada is where I grew up and I’m extraordinarily glad it’s where I’m from.


Back to post 1. In Finland or Sweden, it’s seen a bit of a Nazi move to hang your flag on your wall or get a symbol of your country tattooed on your body. In Canada both of these activities are extremely common, but with no connection to any radical political beliefs.

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