Ask a hundred different Canadians what it means to be Canadian and you’re likely to get a hundred different answers. They’ll vary from region to region with cultural markers and linguistic highlights as well. An example of that is the strong presence of French in Northern Ontario that an observer from Western Canada might not expect. Another is the effect that different waves of immigration have had which explains pockets of population with names like Little Italy or China Town.
In a way, anything can be Canadian. We are still relatively young and as we approach 150 years as a country there is much that we have left to learn about ourselves. There are lots of positives, but not all of this will be good. That said it makes us stronger if we deal with problems head on rather than avoid them. This is one quality that I believe helps define us. We have managed to be both proud and patriotic without letting those terms cloud our judgement to the point that reflection is impossible.
Another aspect of being Canadian is being a little bit of everything – diversity doesn’t quite capture this and neither does tolerance. It may be more about curiosity and speaks to the innate desire to learn from each other. This likely has its roots in the dynamics of French, English, and First Nations cultures which easily could have developed far more combative relationships. Instead of allowing conflict to define these relationships, there was a more drawn out – and again not always easy – sharing of culture, knowledge, and common struggles that has left us richer than if one group had simply superseded the other.
We must also acknowledge the roles that physical and cultural geography have played in making us who we are. The fact is we are both a big and a small country since we have so much land coupled with a small population. In addition to that, most of this population hugs the southern border we share with the United States. It has created a unique scenario where another country’s popular culture dominates ours, but still we have found ways to preserve so much of our own culture. Sometimes that has been done with policies, like those that forced broadcasters to use Canadian content. Some of this can be chalked up to an independent streak that defies simply being or becoming American, but that is overly simple.
There is more at work in the notion of not being American than what it may seem on the surface. For starters it is not a knee jerk rejection of America, its culture, people, and values. They are our closest neighbours, staunch allies and we have a lot in common. Perhaps the notion of not being American is rooted in resistance to expansion and maintaining our sovereignty. It is important to remember that while we were becoming a country, they already were one. During the 19th century, America pursued the notion of manifest destiny that made it seem America would eventually include Canada. I think that has more to do with us being fiercely ‘not American’ than anything else.
It doesn’t take much to see that being Canadian is both complex and the simplest thing in the world. We don’t usually think that deeply about what this means for us or our country, we just go about life and in the process add to the ever-changing definition. In my estimation we have gotten much more right than we have wrong. No country is perfect, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Happy Canada Day!
Carol Hughes, NDP
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT
DEPUTY CRITIC FOR ABORIGINAL HEALTH