My Ever-Evolving Definition of “Being Canadian”

I’m 37 and I’m still not really sure what “being Canadian” means.

We’re a hodgepodge of nations, Spackled together with generational waves of immigrants who land here, retain some of their culture, and absorb others, and blend it all together in a delightful Canadian cultural smoothie that has oddly distinct flavours throughout.

We’re a sum of all our parts, always have been, so, as the world ebbs and flows through times of geopolitical strife, those seeking Canadian citizenship have changed greatly over the decades. From Poles to Jews to Hindus to Cambodian and Vietnamese, decade after decade, we’ve seen changing tides, and it changes who we are.

In a way, that’s a large part of Canada, an ever-changing reflection of the world’s times and its migrating peoples.

Somehow, a line in the sand separates us from our American friends, known around the world as brash and outspoken citizens, and we’re known to all as the continent’s meeker, milder types.

I’m the perfect age for knowing that Being-Canadian-Then versus Being-Canadian-Now has morphed considerable over time. Our sense of national identity has shifted through the decades, which is part of why I’m unsure about what my national identity means at times. Add that my city is the youngest, fastest-changing city in this country, and my somewhat untethered identity kind of computes.

My confusion is compounded when I visit the United States. Cross the 49th, and it’s a country dotted heavily with billboards selling the military as a career choice, and Jesus as Saviour. A land seemingly built on agriculture is littered with fast food chains that barely represent the nation’s great produce. The richest country in the world, at one time, and it doesn’t even provide ongoing medical care to all its citizens. The class divide is like a fault-line cutting across every American city, and Detroit is a harrowing postcard of its industrial decline.

The USA seems a land that comes together as well as any in times of national crisis — like 9/11 and Katrina — and shows the world what a great people it has, but somehow doesn’t provide a social safety net because the belief of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” means no comprehensive safety net for you. It’s a place where socialism is a bad word, despite an “in it together” mentality that comes out with every natural disaster.

You step into Canada, and we’re in it together both in word and in deed, our income tax system is proof. We pay more but get more, but not as much as we once got.

There are problems here, too. Some native communities are like third-world outposts. Vancouver’s Downtown East Side has long been rife with drugs, poverty, homelessness, and an AIDS/HIV rate that once was among the highest in the industrial world, but that’s been changing a lot too. Environmentally, we’re even now committing great sins with our natural bounty, and our personal freedoms aren’t quite as flexible as they once were.

We’re far from perfect here in Canada. But every country is.

Beyond that imperfection, there’s the people, the land, and the humour.

I’ve travelled coast to coast in this country, I’ve lived above the 60-degree line of latitude. There’s no place in Canada that I don’t love.

But how do I nutshell a country that’s this huge? How does a country with 202,000 kilometres of coastline and 10 million square-kilometres of landmass, that’s the most multicultural nation in the world, with only 144 years of history get crammed into an easy-to-define class?

It’s impossible.

From the safe passage allowed to African-Americans during slavery to our shameful treatment of the Japanese in WWII to our not-too-distant slap on the wrist from the UN for neglect of native rights, there’s a long and storied history of Canada embracing human rights in an inconsistent way, but for every failure we’ve had, there’s also been a shining moment.

Today, we’re a country that generally embraces knowledge, human rights, culture, and good times. We tend to love nature and the world around us. Because it’s as expensive to travel to the other side of the country as it is to visit the rest of the world, we’re pretty well-travelled beyond our borders, so we know it’s a bigger world than just us.

Unfortunately, that also means our talent migrates, a problem we domestically call “The Brain Drain.” After all, other countries have more flash and money, like the UK and USA, and money’s a nice thing, since our taxes are high. We get it.

Fortunately, our talent deserves the global recognition it receives. Over the decades, our writers, singers, actors, and painters have been celebrated as world-class. We read more per capita than any other country and we write more, too. From Mary Pickford, Louis B. Mayer, and the Warner Brothers, early Hollywood was built by Canadians. Today, William Shatner is loved around the world and Jim Carrey remains one of the highest paid movie stars.

We’re definitely the mild-mannered types who say please and thank you, but our favourite sport involves black eyes, high-speed collisions, institutionalised fighting, and some of the most aggressive gameplay on earth.

With almost a tenth the population of the United States but only narrowly more land mass, Canada feels like a vast and empty land once you get outside the cities. Sprawling and impressive in its expanse, some of it, like the poet Robert Service once wrote, is so isolated and desolate that there’s “a silence that bludgeons you dumb.”

I’ve always believed that Canada’s geographical spread/disconnect and the long winters with long nights are a part of why we’ve been such an imaginative, artistic, expressive land. To bridge that expanse, we now use the internet more per capita than most of the world. It seems to be changing our sense of disconnect as the use of social media grows.

We’re a changing country, Canada.

In my lifetime, we’ve gone from thinking we were an international afterthought to seeing Pierre Elliot Trudeau spin his famous pirouette behind the Queen, netting international headlines, showing we had a sense of humour and a less subservient sense of self than we’d always had. Some were horrified at the disrespect to the monarch, but many others felt as though the shackles of Commonwealth submissiveness began lifting then.

The Constitution came home a few years later. By then, we were known for the Beachcombers, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Gordon Lightfoot. Another television show began to get a lot of attention, and would influence Hollywood for the next decade — SCTV.

Bryan Adams would soon be singing about the Summer of ’69. Michael J. Fox would become the heart-throb burning up the silver screen. By age 13, I’d started feeling like being Canadian seemed to mean something more than had been let on to me.

We were starting to feel like we weren’t just the little sibling with hand-me-downs from the United States. Suddenly we were wanted at the party — our music, our books, our stars, our culture, our funny… our natural resources.

These days, our dollar has parity with the United States, we’re the world’s 4th-largest oil producer, and Justin Bieber is King of the World.

I don’t really know what “being Canadian” means right now. I suppose it’s time I find out what the ever-morphing national identity is right this minute, but that’s part of why Canada is so incredible.

We’re not one country. We’re not stoic, stagnant. Where the United States’ founding fathers intended their constitution to be an ever-evolving document, Canada has somehow managed to be an ever-changing land that continually reflects the people who are building it — and, as their faces change, so does ours.

I’m proud of that. We reflect the modern world as well as any nation can. I love what Canada represents in my foggy, identity-muddled brain — even if Stephen Harper is the motherfucking Prime Minister right now.

I’ll forgive you for that, for now, Canada. But sharpen up. If we keep making good beer and bacon, we’ll overcome him, too.

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