What does it mean to be Canadian? (2023)

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By Lorraine Mallinder


Canada is anything but a homogenous Commonwealth state; nearly one million indigenous people rub shoulders with immigrants from around the world, including many from Asia. What does it mean to be Canadian now? What are the traits which help make up modern-day Canada?

In 2009, Hollywood actor Billy Bob Thornton, plugging his music on a radio show, seemed to be in a most undiplomatic mood. With apparent disdain, he dismissed his Canadian audiences as "mashed potatoes with no gravy".

(Video) What does it mean to be Canadian?

"Oh, we've got some gravy up here as well," came the host's riposte, immediately turning him into a national hero. A beleaguered Thornton cancelled his tour and left the country.

The host had a point. This is, after all, the land of fries and cheese curds slathered in gravy, a French-Canadian classic called poutine. With mid-winter temperatures dipping to, say, -30.9C (-24F) in towns such as Yellowknife, it's a must. Canadians need food which sticks to their ribs.

'Difference is interesting'

Defining this nation of six time zones is not easy. What could an English speaker in Vancouver possibly have in common with a francophone 3,000 miles (5,000 km) away in Quebec City? What, for that matter, could either have in common with a Gaelic speaker in easterly Nova Scotia? And, that's without taking into account the 200-plus ethnic groups across the land.

John Ralston Saul, author of several books on Canadian culture, believes his country has a distinct approach to identity. "They accept that difference is actually quite interesting. What makes it possible to live together is agreement on things like ethics and public policy. Not agreement on accents and religion," he says.

While most Canadians live in a narrow corridor hugging the US border, one thing they must never be considered is American. Indeed, when polled on national identity, Canadians defined themselves by characteristics such as free healthcare (53%) and by being more polite than their southern neighbours (15%).

Lately, the country's gaze seems to be turning back to Britain. The ruling Conservatives are strengthening ties with the monarchy, hanging the Queen's portrait in federal buildings and restoring the 'royal' prefix to the country's navy and air force.

After last year's honeymoon visit by Will and Kate, over two-thirds of Canadians said they believed the couple would help keep the monarchy relevant.

It's all part of what Noah Richler, author of the book What We Talk About When We Talk About War, calls a battle for Canadian identity. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, he says, is currently re-defining the country as a "warrior nation" harking to battles ranging from the colonial War of 1812 to Afghanistan and Libya.

(Video) What does it mean to be Canadian?

He believes the return to the crown is part of this. "It's a farce. To suddenly go back to having a royal label, that's good for marmalade. It doesn't serve an independent state," he says.

Mr Harper's recasting of the nation's identity has gone down especially badly in Quebec, where the vast majority of the country's francophone population lives. In 2011, during the royal visit to the province, two-thirds of respondents in one poll said they wanted to get rid of the monarchy. Back in 2009, Prince Charles' official visit to the province was marred by egg-throwing anti-monarchy protesters.

Bilingualism, a political priority under the premiership of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the 1960s and 70s, is a core element of the country's identity. Today, 17.4% of Canadians are able to conduct a conversation in both languages, a marked increase on the 13.5% reported in 1971. "Is there enough? No. Should there be more? Yes. People take it for granted now, but if you want to be a cabinet minister or a supreme court judge, you have to be bilingual," says Mr Ralston Saul.

Just to confuse matters, immigration has added more than 200 other languages to the mix, with one-fifth of the population speaking a mother tongue other than English or French. Immigration is currently at a 75-year high, with newcomers accounting for two-thirds of the country's recent population growth.

More than half come from Asia, with a substantial proportion from Europe and Latin America. Most head to the bright lights of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, though there is also increasing interest in the province of Alberta, where oil jobs beckon.

Canadians, generally open-minded and tolerant, have mixed feelings about immigration. According to a recent poll, nearly two-thirds want their country to become a melting pot like the US, a unified culture into which newcomers must assimilate.

The country's attitude towards newcomers is changing - recently, the government introduced new rules allowing employers to pay temporary workers 15% less than the average wage, provoking an outcry from immigrant rights groups.

"The very nature of our open multicultural society is being changed. For all of our history, we have been the welcoming country that offered immigrants a new start. Paying one group less than another… cleaves the idea of Canada being a place of refuge and generosity," says Mr Richler.

(Video) What does it mean to be Canadian?

Connected population

What about the country's original population? Canada's relationship with its more than one million First Nations people - native Indian, Metis and Inuit - is a controversial issue.

In 2011, the Red Cross was called on to the remote reservation of Attawapiskat, Ontario, where residents were struggling in sub-standard housing without electricity or plumbing. Nearly half of Canada's native people live in homes needing major repair. In other areas too, such as health and education, people of the First Nations invariably come last.

But, behind the headlines, Mr Ralston Saul maintains a different story is emerging. "There are enormous problems, but the interesting thing is that there's a remarkable new aboriginal elite, whether in universities or politics. They're gaining more and more legal power, with more influence over the use of the land," he says. "My message is that everybody had better get used to it. It's good because it will take Canadians back to the roots of their identity."

Canadians are a highly connected population, with nearly three-quarters of the population on social networking site Facebook They are also well-informed, with the vast majority (89%) following current affairs frequently.

Four in ten consider jobs and the economy to be the country's most pressing concern, ahead of healthcare and the environment.

No surprises, then, when Mr Harper was re-elected with a majority last year on a jobs and growth ticket, having successfully steered the country through the global financial crisis.

Under his stewardship the country is also becoming tougher on crime.

Recently approved crime laws will usher in minimum mandatory sentences for drugs offences and a crackdown on young offenders.

(Video) Kids Explain: What it means to be Canadian

Is Canada really such a dangerous place? Not according to official figures, which show that the crime rate has gone down substantially over the past decade.

Yet, in a recent survey, roughly half of Canadians agreed with government plans to build more prisons.

Overall, however, it appears a contented country, with a high quality of life.

Canadians love to give back too, devoting some of their free time to raising funds for good causes, stocking food banks and tidying parks.

In 2010, nearly half of the adult population gave more than two billion hours of their time to volunteer work.

"The defining trait of being a Canadian is understanding our good fortune, knowing that we're not actually better than anybody else," Mr Richler says.

"We're not better than the Americans. We're not better than the Britons. But, in a way, we're fundamentally lucky."

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What is the meaning of being Canadian? ›

A Canadian is a citizen of Canada. You become a citizen either by birth (being born inside the political boundaries of Canada or to Canadian parents), or by choice by taking the Oath of Citizenship in a formal procedure after living in Canada for at least three years and passing a Citizenship test.

What does it mean to be Canadian and what is our Canadian identity? ›

Canadian identity refers to the unique culture, characteristics and condition of being Canadian, as well as the many symbols and expressions that set Canada and Canadians apart from other peoples and cultures of the world.

What makes a person Canadian? ›

Most Canadians were born in Canada and came from the original founding peoples. But over the past 200 years, many newcomers have helped to build and defend this country's way of life. Today, many ethnic and religious groups live and work in peace as proud Canadians.

What does it mean to be a Canadian paragraph? ›

Canada consists of ten provinces, five great lakes and 27 million neighbours. The extreme weather conditions, our ethnic cultures, our neighbourly lifestyle and our democratic government are what it means to be Canadian. Our ever-changing climate unifies the populations of Canada. Canadian is not a light word.

What it means to be a good Canadian? ›

Definition of a “good citizen”

Canadians define “citizenship” as more than having a passport, obeying the law and paying taxes. These are widely seen as key aspects of citizenship, but just as important are being active participants in one's community, helping others and accepting differences.

What makes you proud to be a Canadian? ›

Universal health care, diversity, good old Canadian charm and politeness, are just a few of the things that make the great white north a stellar place to live.

What are the four basic Canadian values? ›

There are shared values—openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first post-national state.

What is my culture as a Canadian? ›

Known as 'the just society', Canada's culture is underpinned by its tolerance, respect and community-orientation. Canadians are generally individualistic , yet they also emphasise and value everyone's contribution to their community.

What is the Canadian attitude? ›

In general, Canadians are a mostly friendly, unpretentious people who value honesty, sensitivity, empathy and humility in their relationships with friends and strangers, as well as respect for the privacy and individualism of others.

What it means to be Canadian quotes? ›

I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.

What is Canadian stereotype? ›

Over the years Canadians have been pegged by the world as hockey-loving, polar bear-riding, poutine-eating, toque-wearing northerners who love to apologize and say “eh” a lot. Those stereotypes are as old as the Gatineau Hills in Quebec, but surely there's got to be some truth to them, right?


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