That Which We Call a Canadian

Wilfrid Chan

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I forget I’m Canadian. I don’t forget for long though. Every time I’m linked to Hulu, it tells me their “video library can only be watched from within the United States”. When I see advertising for a “barrister and solicitor” who is actually just one person, or break my femur and have to spend a month in hospital, I’m reminded that I’m very much in Canada. But is that it? We do things slightly differently, but for all intents and purposes are part of a North American culture that has been divided by the failure of Richard Montgomery’s campaign.

If you don’t know the answer to something now, you go to Wikipedia. Let’s just assume the endless edits and eccentric citations eventually add up to a broad overview of what people think a Canadian is. So, our answers are:

First, we have a large Francophone component, whereas America does not. This is true enough and has effects across the nation. Product packaging must be bilingual, and the federal government must provide services in both official languages. Though to the vexation of some, like a young Stephen Harper, bilingualism is established in our Charter and theoretically has strong popular support. So, I’m going to concede this as a difference. Quebec, however, has always been recognized as distinct from the rest of Canada. It was even recognized as a nation within Canada in 2006. What about the rest of us? Can English-speaking Canada be considered culturally distinct from America?

This leads to our second answer, which is that we are distinct because of history. Doug Saunders paints a picture of a reactionary High Tory 19th century Canada. It was afraid of mob republicanism, of the commercial and industrial revolution starting in America, and the notion of liberty that started the American Revolution. There is a vague feeling though that this has flipped. We have universal health care and gay marriage; they do not. A Google search for “Canadians more liberal than Americans” throws up a mass of confused people attributing all sorts of things to our national culture or psyche. But what do they cite as evidence of liberalism? They cite policies, our third answer.

Wikipedia spends a fair bit of time going over our universal health care system and our multicultural policies as a marker of Canadian-ness. In our eyes, they’re a pretty big deal. We voted Tommy Douglas, Father of Medicare, as the Greatest Canadian ever in 2004. A majority of Canadians think multiculturalism is a good thing. The thing is, Americans don’t differ significantly. A majority of Americans want a universal health care system, and a majority think immigration has been a “good thing” (I know, not really multiculturalism but I can’t find a poll asking directly about it). And about 35% of Americans and 41% of Canadians want legal immigration to decrease anyways. In case you were wondering, a slight majority of Americans support gay marriage.

So how did Canada end up with universal health care and multiculturalism and America end up with Obamacare and multiculturalism? Jacob Hacker argues that it’s complex. Simple explanations of culture are not enough to explain why. It is partly due to the structures that have been erected long before universal health care was an issue, partly the vagaries of history, and partly the right person, like Tommy Douglas, finding the right opportunity.

I can’t pretend I have the definitive answer to a question that, in a way, everyone has to answer for themselves. Ernst Renan’s famous definition of a nation as a “daily referendum” by every citizen as to whether they want to continue as a people is probably the answer best suited to a diverse, sometimes factiously so, nation. For what it’s worth, my answer is that Canadian culture is what Canadians do. There is no timeless form of Canadian-ness we can appeal to. Instead, we decide collectively what we want to be. For those of us who aspire to a public life, this becomes an even greater responsibility. What you choose to do and believe might one day become enshrined as a given in Canadian life.

Wilfrid Chan is 2014 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He also has a B.Sc in Psychology and Biology from the University of Toronto. His interests include health policy and science policy.   

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jerry diakiw says:

    You may be interested in my monograph on the commonplacesof Canadians culture and identity. 12 of them for debate and discussion

Leave a Reply to Jerry diakiw Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s