What Makes A Canadian?

We’re certain we’re unique, but we don’t seem to know precisely what sets us apart from others

Bruce Wallace December 20 1999

What Makes A Canadian?

We’re certain we’re unique, but we don’t seem to know precisely what sets us apart from others

Bruce Wallace December 20 1999

What Makes A Canadian?


Identity Crisis

We’re certain we’re unique, but we don’t seem to know precisely what sets us apart from others

Bruce Wallace

Come on people, is this the best we can do?

Are Canadians really “spineless,” which was one of the most popular responses when the Maclean's/CBC poll asked Canadians to choose one word to describe their compatriots?

Tied at six per cent of responses was “passive.” But do spineless and passive really describe a country that likes to boast how its hockey players may be a little short on skills but long on heart and soul and guts?

Is “laid-back”—another popular answer at four per cent—the way we reacted when the call went out from our allies this year to fly bombing missions over Kosovo?

Sure, 12 per cent came up with “friendly”— the most popular choice of those who could come up with an answer. But you have to wonder whether our self-image matches our accomplishments. Was one of the worlds great trading nations built on lack of resolve? Were those Canadian soldiers hitting the blackened ( terrain of East Timor an example of “easygoing”? That 15 per cent of respondents can’t think of a single defining characteristic is astounding given the amount of breath our chattering classes have expended searching for the Canadian soul.

(“A coalition of ideas based on an assumption of the public good,” was one of author John Ralston Saul’s eloquent stabs at it, though hardly in one word.) Uncovering Canadian identity has not been just an obsession. It is probably the

To fight or to join?

What should the government do if Canada is becoming more American?

Do more to oppose the process 54

defining characteristic of the place itself.

Do nothing and let things simply work themselves out

There is still, it seems, much to lament about our nation. Canadians may be certain we are a distinct society—or so say an overwhelming 90 per cent of respondents to the Macleans!CBC poll.

Do more to encourage the process

“There are massive numbers showing that in spite of all the cynics who say Canada has lost its way, we still have a strong sense of identity,” says Allan Gregg, president ofThe Strategic Counsel, which conducted the poll. But Gregg agrees that Canadians don’t seem to know exacdy what it is that makes us so different or unique. “We don’t seem to feel the need to define it,” he adds. “It is some vague sense that, well, we’ve got our flag. And it’s cold here. We’re Canadian, damn it. Our difference is us.”

Scratch a Canadian about what makes us the way we are

and you get a celebration of the obvious. The flag is the most important characteristic, according to 80 per cent of respondents—and it is inarguably a great flag compared with all those other forgettable coloured stripes. Tied for first place is the pride we take in Canadian artists and scientists who have become prominent internationally. (Imagine: a country branded by the Maple Leaf and Shania Twain’s belly button!)

Smaller countries tend to show pride when their nationals rise to the top of the American-driven celebrity machine. But we are getting so good at it—start with Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan and see how long the list grows—that it can be argued Canada now has a pretty fair star system of its own. Add to that the fame of such authors as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, the Nobel achievement of economist Robert Mundell, the heroics ofThe Great One, Wayne Gretzky, among so many success stories, and Canadians are fairly bursting with national pride.

It is clear from the poll, however, that some self-delusion is at play. For example, 77 per cent of respondents say it is a strong sense of our own history, rather than simply a desire not to be Americans, that defines us. This comes in a year when one of the top-selling books was Jack Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History?, which mourns our poor grasp of the national story. Another two-thirds answer that our standard of living is as good as or even higher than the American level. (In purely economic terms) that is just plain wrong. The ’90s, in fact, have seen our living standards fall further behind the Americans’. It is a lag that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien ignores in favour of cheerier statistics, like the UN human development index, which has placed us first among nations for six straight years. As Thomas d’Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues, notes: “We have a government in Ottawa that fails to grasp the gravity of the situation facing the country.” Yet the American economic model, with all its aggressiveness and hairy-chested competition, remains anathema to large swaths of Canadian society. Which is fine if you

How to keep Canada Canadian

Percentage of respondents who think that in order to maintain a strong Canadian identity in the next century, the following elements have to be greater:

Canada Quebec Men Women Canadian ownership of businesses operating in Canada 80 86 Our entrepreneurial spirit 90 1 84 82 Our willingness to take risks WSci^M 81 78 69 The role of the provincial government in your province 62 66 The role of the federal government

Ontario’s Mike Harris sees merit in courting the Americans

want your country to be known in this new global economic jungle as a sort of 1960s-style hippie retreat, unrattled by the noise of an outside world in commotion. But what will others think of that? Ina world that lives by images, nations can flounder unless they have a good one.

Listen to the warning from Ted Lyman, a senior vicepresident at U.S.-based ICF Consulting, who was asked by a group of Ottawa high-tech business executives to study the regions prospects in the global economy. He reported back to them last month that the Ottawa high-tech sector lacks that “fire-in-the-belly, let’s bet-the-ranch-on-a new-company” spirit that has made California’s Silicon

Valley such a success. Lyman said Ottawa’s hightech suburbs won’t really take off until their entrepreneurs accept that failure is not a stain of shame to be hidden, but a badge of boldness.


Identity Crisis

Of course it no longer takes an outsider to point out our shortcomings. A growing number of Canadians argue the “American Way” is not a disease that might infect us, but inoculation against economic decline. In a speech titled “Storming the Status Quo” delivered in Toronto last month, d’Aquino decried the shortcomings of corporate Canada—“our lack of entrepreneurship and daring, our willingness to hide behind a weak currency, our hesitancy to reach into foreign markets, and our temptation to knuckle under to government bullying.” D’Aquino’s organization surveyed Canadian business

The symbols of a nation

Percentage of respondents who think these factors are an important part of what makes us Canadian:

Canada Quebec Men Women The flag 60 78 82 Achievements of prominent Canadians, such as artists and 79 76 84 scientists, around the world Our climate and geography 77 73 85 Our health-care system 67 77 79 Our international role 76 73 80 Our multicultural and multiracial makeup 68 70 79 Canadian ownership of businesses operating in Canada 69 66 79 The traditional family 66 65 76 Englishand French-speakers 69 67 sharing one country 72 Hockey 46 66 67 Our Aboriginal Peoples 48 58 69 Restrictions on gun ownership and use 58 56 70 Public broadcasting 62 54 72 The way we treat the poor and disadvantaged 54 55 63 A Christian heritage 47 45 63 Having the Queen as our monarch 20 34 48

leaders and found a “deep frustration at an underlying attitude of envy and entidement” that runs through the Canadian culture. “There are still many Canadians who remain suspicious of the business community,” he complained.

That frustration reflects a growing cultural divide. The traditional self-image of Canada as a kinder country, less individualistic, less obsessed with wealth, believing in government as a force for good, is no longer unchallenged. Attitudes are changing. The furies unleashed by the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which tore at the country’s fabric in the late 1980s, now barely register a blip on our emotional radar. Canadians may not think free trade has been all good but, like the monarchy, few seriously believe it is going away. In fact, more respondents think the Internet now has a greater impact on drawing us closer to Americans. Only 23 per cent of those who think we are becoming more like Americans attribute it to free trade, while 34 per cent finger the Internet. Most, however, cite the pervasiveness of American media (48 per cent), followed by U.S. investment in our economy (35 per cent).

Marking Ottawa’s efforts

Percentage responses on how good a job the federal government has done to protect Canadian sovereignty:

Signs of a new cultural and political fault line show up in a question on whether Canadians would win or lose by having a common currency with the United States. Forty-four per cent see some benefit in a common dollar; 42 per cent think we’d lose out—a split. But the evidence of change is not all quantitative. It was once regarded as un-Canadian to grandly display personal wealth. Not anymore, as one look at the ostentatious “cottages” going up along the waterfronts of the Muskoka lakes north of Toronto can prove. And Ottawa’s showy high-tech businessman Michael Cowpland at least does not offend everyone in town, as he once would have.

New language has also crept into our politics. For every old-style leader like Jean Chrétien, who admits to taking an occasional swing at Washington because it plays so well at home, there is another like Ontario’s twice-elected Premier Mike Harris, who sees benefits in making nice with the boys down south. At a recent Great Lakes Governors’ Conference,

Harris told his American audience: “We really see you as very, very strong allies, more so

than many parts of Canada.

What happens in Newfoundland and British Columbia economically,” he added, “does not affect us as much as what happens in Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania

and Illinois.” An economic truth, perhaps, but a onceunthinkable public utterance for an Ontario premier.

The current journalists’ strike at the Calgary Herald is also, in part, a cultural battle, with management arguing that its left-leaning newsroom has been out of step with the go-get’em city it covers. “The editorial pages were not well respected and, in the eyes of many in this city, seemed contrarian by nature and in constant opposition to the community the paper alleged to be serving,” wrote editor-in-chief Peter Menzies in defence of Herald management. “This is a city that revels in hard work, imagination and excellence.” Then there is the emergence of the National Post. Surely the fact there is a big audience for a paper so willing to sneer at traditional values is a sign the country is changing. To the surprise of many Canadians, the Post uncovered a good-sized market sympathetic to its rebelliousness against high taxes and meddlesome government, vigorously approving of its impatience with the enduring Canadian suspicion of the business community.

The old Canada is not dead, of course, and it would never be caught on the bus with a copy of the Post under its arm. That Canada still sees itself as the guardian of greater fairness, intolerant of frantic consumerism, a firm believer in life lived at a slower pace. It was also the old Canada speaking in the Macleans!CBC poll finding that 54 per cent believe it is the job of government to fight the forces making Canada more like the United States. That streak in our character has always seen government as the guarantor of Canadian distinctiveness. It also helped elect

That Canadiern feeling

Percentage saying Canada has a unique identity as a country:

Canada B.C. Prairies Ontario Quebec Atlantic Men Women 90 89 93 92 84 93 90 90

Percentage saying that identity is based on a strong sense of our own history, rather than simply a desire not to be Americans:

Canada B,C. Prairies Ontario Quebec Atlantic Men Women 77 80 76 78 73 85 76 79

the federal Liberals, who are a reflection of that view of Canada: blissful, conservative, complacent. But keeping your independence and distinctness in an increasingly converging world may require

more assertiveness than that.

And in the end, some Canadians may find to their surprise it takes a dash of those socalled American values of daring and enterprise to save the country they love. C3