Canadian identity

To a visiting European, Canada must appear as a very strange country, a string of urban conurbations scattered across a very big hunk of geography separated from each other by a lot of space, both physical and psychic. There has been a traditional Canadian preoccupation with Canadian “identity”. The desire for more independence, accommodating the French-speaking population and integrating the surge of eastern European immigrants settling the Prairies, all the while maintaining attachment to the glory of the British Empire and the insistence on the primacy of the English language, all this marked the decades leading up to the First World War.

Probably the biggest change in the past century that has affected Canada’s anxiety about its national identity has been the reorientation of Canada to the United States, the Great Republic to the south. Especially since the end of World War Two, the growth of U.S. investment in Canada, the growing trade between the two countries, and pervasive influence of United States mass media, have dominated many Canadian conversations. Since Canada adopted a floating exchange rate in the early 1970’s, Canadians seems to always be aware of what changes to the U.S. value of the Canadian dollar means for their commercial and individual interests. What other country talks about how the value of their currency is now only 72 cents?

During the years since the end of World War Two, Canadians have also been moving in from rural areas and become highly urbanized, with 80 per cent of the population now living an urban lifestyle. And the six largest urban areas, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, in the past 50 years, since 1967, have attracted a large non-white immigrant population. The face of Canada is definitely changing.

Add to that the divide between urban and rural worldview, and then there’s the complication of the generational divide. As is common elsewhere in the developed world, the people born in the most recent 40 years have different views than older generations.

For most Canadians, travelling as a visitor or moving for work to another part of this vast country, brings into sharp relief how different life can be, not only in terms of climate and geography but in terms of political culture and civic society.

An example – Canada is different from most other nations in its usual avoidance of using the word “nation” when speaking French to describe itself, in deference to Quebec’s insistence that that province is a “nation”. The National Gallery of Canada uses a different name in French, Le Musée des beaux-arts du Canada. In politically-correct federal French, Canada is, well, Canada, whatever that might imply.

As someone who grew up in the Maritime Provinces and migrated to Ottawa for school and work, I found my typically Maritime set of assumptions about the federal government were not shared country-wide. The Maritimes are have-not provinces dependent on federal transfers and eternally grateful for federal spending on defence and regional infrastructure. Provincial politics in the Maritimes had traditionally been road politics, focused on patronage for jobs and contracts to maintain the highway system. The truly serious government was assumed to be the federal government in Ottawa, a place that also had given ambitious Maritimers a wider stage to venture forth on, ever since Sir Charles Tupper despite widespread protests dragged Nova Scotia into Confederation in 1867.

It was a revelation to find that other parts of Canada had very different perspectives about Canada. The Quebecers that I met working on Parliament Hill were very candid and aware that the Canadian federation was financially beneficial to their province. They were also somewhat bemused that somehow the rest of Canada let them get away with it. The powerhouse of central Canada, Ontario, seemed to just assume its close integration into the economy of the mid-western United States. The Prairie provinces had historic grievances about being ignored and treated as a colony of central Canada and certainly wanted more recognition of their growing economic heft (the campaign for a triple-E Senate, equal, elected and effective, was a big thing through the 1970’s leading up to the 1982 Constitutional negotiation), and the far western province of British Columbia seemed generally a bit removed, focused on its own interests and oblivious to other Canadian concerns.

How Canada began 

In August 1535, the Breton explorer Jakez Karter, better known by his French name, Jacques Cartier, sailed into the vast estuary of the river we now call the St. Lawrence. Cartier was certain that this inlet of the sea would prove to be a passage through the New World to the riches of China.

French map of Canada 1755

Going up river, Cartier came across an aboriginal village called Stadacona, situated at a spectacular spot where the broad river narrows to a cliff-lined gap, the site of today’s Quebec City.

The word for village in the language of the aboriginal people living then at Stadacona was kanata and Jacques Cartier mistook this word, kanata, for the area surrounding Stadacona, including the river. Cartier gave the name Canada to the area and called the aboriginal people, Canadiens.

The name stuck, even though Cartier failed to establish a permanent settlement during his voyages to the New World. It would be 1608, almost 70 years later, before another French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, would found a permanent settlement at Stadacona. Champlain called his settlement Quebec, based on the aboriginal word kébec, meaning “where the river narrows.”

The French continued to call the surrounding region the name Cartier had given it, Canada. The river was the Riviere du Canada, and the aboriginal inhabitants were les Canadiens.

Through the 1600s, the French brought several thousand peasant farmers to settle in the New World. They began to put down roots and by the beginning of the 1700s, these settlers were being called Canadiens, to distinguish them from the proper French. The settlers called themselves habitants, a name which lives on today in the Habs, the nickname of Montreal’s professional hockey team, the Montreal Canadians of the National Hockey League.

The French colony of Canada was only part of Nouveau France, the broader French empire in the New World which stretched from Acadia and Newfoundland on the Atlantic Coast, to Hudson’s Bay in the vast northwest, and south below the Great Lakes to the Louisianan territory, stretching down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Through the 1700s, the French lost control of this huge territory, and by 1763 it was almost completely ceded to Great Britain. The British renamed the original French colony of Canada, the Province of Quebec.

A decade later, in 1774, the British government sought to accommodate its new Canadien subjects by expanding the borders of the Province of Quebec down below the Great Lakes into the Ohio Valley. This move to mollify Quebec greatly irritated Britain’s New England colonies who thought their contribution to the conquest of New France meant they would have the first crack at claiming the virgin land in the Ohio Valley. This resentment contributed to the outbreak of the American Revolution the next year, in 1775.

The conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783 and the creation of the United States of America left Great Britain with the Province of Quebec and its territories north of the Great Lakes. There was a considerable influx of Loyalist settlers or refugees who fled north from the new United States in order to live under British rule.

These English-speaking Americans called themselves United Empire Loyalists and their considerable numbers altered the makeup of the Province of Quebec in British North America. The Loyalist settlers thought of themselves as British subjects first and foremost, with little in common with the French-speaking and mainly Roman Catholic Canadiens.

With the arrival of the Loyalists, the original Province of Quebec was divided into two new provinces, mostly French-speaking Lower Canada (now called Quebec), and mostly English-speaking Upper Canada (now called Ontario) although these were not ethnically separate since a large and viable English-speaking population lived in Lower Canada and a large francophone population lived in different parts of Upper Canada.

After decades of trying to manage the tensions between these two groups (one British official in 1838 reported Lower Canada to be “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state”), the British Parliament in 1867 confederated most of their North American provinces (Upper and Lower Canada, plus the three Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) into the new Dominion of Canada. Unlike the stirring language of the American Declaration of Independence, the vision for Canada in the British North America Act, the legislation creating Canada, was “peace, order and good government”.

In the century following Confederation, the Canadiens inside and outside Quebec began to somewhat identify as French-Canadians. Meanwhile, in English-speaking Canada, the decline of the British Empire as a result of the two world wars encouraged the slow emergence of a Canadian national identity, a process that continued during the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s.

Besides the original French and English settlers, beginning with the settlement of the Canadian prairies in the 1890s there was an influx of settlers from eastern Europe. In the years following World War I and II, there were more surges of immigrants came from war-torn Europe, especially from southern and eastern Europe. These new Canadians felt no nostalgia or affection for the British Empire and the entanglement of foreign wars, and they were a growing bloc of voters. As long as the tie to the British Empire remained, many of them felt it was an implicit message that they weren’t really considered Canadian.

The creation of a national identity in a vast, dispersed, and ethnically disparate country is never a smooth process. Here’s one good example – after decades of discussion, when the Canadian Parliament in 1964 began to debate choosing Canada’s flag, it would take 10 months of passionate debate. The choice of the single maple leaf used on today’s Canadian flag was finally made not because it was favoured, but because it included no obvious symbols that identified any one founding group or ethnicity, and so was less likely to arouse opposition in either French or English-speaking Canada.

Nowadays, two generations after the flag debate, life has moved on and Canadians are proud of their flag. They take practical advantage of displaying it when going outside the country, since Canada’s international reputation is generally good.

Inside Canada, things are more complicated. Following the end of World War II, the up-to-then very traditional, conservative, church-dominated and politically almost fascist society in Quebec began to modernize. By the 1960s, Quebec was rushing to throw off its past.

At the level of federal politics, there were renewed attempts to accommodate the national aspirations of Quebec. The increasingly urban and modern Quebecers no longer thought of themselves as Canadian, but as French-speaking North Americans, increasingly confident and determined to leave behind the colonial boot of the mostly English-speaking business class. They even changed the slogan on Quebec’s license plates from la belle province (the beautiful province) to maîtres chez nous (masters in our own house).

The drama of Quebec society’s search for sovereignty within the Canadian federation, and the attempts by successive Canadian federal governments to accommodate and co-opt Quebec nationalism became the major preoccupation of Canadian politics in the early 1960s. It was the main cause of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the father of the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The elder Trudeau led the federal government for almost the entire period from 1968 to 1984, during which Canada adopted a Charter of Rights and patriated its constitution from Great Britain.

As with most complex changes and debates in society, the passions may subside but the issues are usually not resolvable, people come to terms in different fashions and move on with their lives. But the issues live on beneath the surface and the debates often return to the fore in different guises.

Canada today

In the most recent 20 years, another growing theme in Canadian life has been the coming to terms with the colonial apartheid treatment of Canada’s aboriginal population. There are a growing number of established aboriginal artists and writers and their work has been bringing the aboriginal experience into the awareness of the Canadian public. The cultural genocide from the century-long history of removing aboriginal children to residential schools has been a particular focus, with a wide-ranging Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Currently underway is a national inquiry into past police treatment of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Other debates are ongoing. Canada’s participation in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City has rekindled passions about sending troops abroad. The debate over whether to increase spending on defense, the reliance on access to the American market in the face of increasing protectionism in United States politics, the mixed blessing of growing foreign investment in Canadian real estate, the demand to settle more of the growing worldwide flood of refugees, and the Canadian experience of the growing social inequality that is being debated everywhere in advanced economies, all these issues and more are a preoccupation. They are a challenge to the evolving Canadian identity and to the Canadian middle class which generally thinks of itself as “good guys”, respectful, decent and dependable, willing and proud to do more than their share.

Today in 2017, as Canada celebrates 150 years as a “country”, a recent Abacus poll of Canadians reported in Macleans magazine notes that Canadians are still welcoming of immigrants but wary, and most think there should be stronger security along the border with the United States. By large majorities, Canadians are concerned about discrimination in Canada, and they want the wealthiest Canadians to pay more.

The idea of a carbon tax is divisive, there is no majority support there. Canadians are also divided on whether they’d be willing to pay more taxes for shorter health care wait times. Forty-five per cent thought it was a good idea; 55 per cent disagreed.

The hoary old Canadian concern, whether we should remain a monarchy, gets a slight majority in support. Asked what other province they most want to live in, a majority of Canadians pick British Columbia, (those pictures of daffodils popping up in Victoria, the British Columbia capital, in February have made a big impression).


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