Excuse Me, You're Stepping on My Canadianness

"What does it mean to be ‘Canadian’?”

As much as the academic world has become a part of my very being, there are some things that happen to you when you fully commit to the thinking and philosophizing lifestyle that you don’t necessarily like. Namely: questioning everything you ever believed in or understood to be true.

When I was a child and into my mid-teens, I was very patriotic. I painted a Canadian flag on my headboard; I relished playing the anthem when it was B Band’s turn to play at Starrigan’s flag break; I watched the olympics and cheered for Canadian athletes with a passionate fervour normally reserved for wedding nights; I wore my Roots hoodie almost exclusively throughout grade 9 until there were no sleeves left; I counted down the days until I could legally vote for our Prime Minister. Mom even had to stop me from painting the entire Molson Canadian poem “I Am Canadian” on my bedroom wall. You can still be patriotic, it seems, without etching a beer commercial into gyprock.

As I entered university, however, things took a tragic twist, for which I was unprepared. The summer of my second year I took two courses, one about world history since 1945 and the other about Canadian autobiography. In both courses, the question of national identity was a key discussion point.

Within the first week, my history professor boldly stated that nationalism is a fabrication. It does not exist. Rather, it is merely a tool of rhetoric to inspire confidence and a spirit of unity among a country when things like politics and currency and a flag aren’t enough.

I was unsettled to say the least. He was very attractive, though, so I didn’t want to dismiss his thoughts entirely. I figured he’d let it go eventually and we could all go back to pretending that Canada indeed does have a national identity, at the centre of which was hockey, toques, and poutines.

But the issue kept cropping up. In my English class, my professor wouldn’t stop asking us to try and define “Canadianness.” We looked at Canadian immigrants’ biographies to see how they defined their nationality. We were asked to examine how we defined our own nationality, and if we couldn’t, why not? It was infuriating, exhausting, and completely deflated my patriotism. It was with a heavy heart that I one day pulled my Canadian flag from my shelf and looked at it, tears in my eyes, mourning the loss of an old, faithful friend. The Maple Leaf as symbol of unity and stability was dead to me.

When I went to England in 2008, I noticed that when people asked me where I was from, I unconsciously said “Newfoundland.” When friends would quickly clarify that Newfoundland was in Canada, I felt oddly betrayed. I held no emotional ties to “Canada” as a whole because I didn’t know what that meant. What did a country that spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and up into the Arctic circle, of which I had seen a laughably small amount, have anything to do with me? Why did I have to claim “Canada” as my home?

Over the past year, I have started to miss my old friend Patriotism. I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy to be so patriotic that you view flag burning as a capital offence, but I’ve come to realize that it is important to care about your country and the government that we trust to make the big choices for us. I’ve thus been on a sort of personal quest to figure out how I define my national identity, how I can call myself as Canadian and live with it. Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Hockey: Obviously. Clearly this is not the most important thing about Canada, but I’d argue that it’s darn close. Sports are ways that strangers connect. It gives people a common goal, a common interest and topic of conversation. In any country, the main sport it supports cannot be ignored as an important element in defining identity. Plus there is lots of snow and ice here. Skating = duh. Anyway, I’ve made an effort, albeit a relatively weak one, to become better acquainted with the lingo, players, and stats of the game. And while I don’t think Don Cherry should be the next Prime Minister of Canada, as I read in someone’s Facebook status the other day, his outrageous attire must be noted and condoned. Rock on, Don. Love your Ultimate Wings, PS.
  2. Parliament: AH POLITICS. I know, or knew, next to nothing about Canadian politics, except that people hate Harper, and they hated Martin before him, and Chretien talked funny but was OK and someone tried to assassinate him with like a plastic fork from KFC once and he just kind of twisted his arm and all was well, and Trudeau liked English Canada. But I’ve been feeling for quite some time that I need to learn more about the system, about the parties, and about what’s happening in that big building in Ottawa. I feel strongly about this because I keep hearing people yabber on about what an idiot Harper is and how he’s messin’ with the government, but I don’t really understand why. And I feel like, as a Canadian citizen, I should care about my government. I should care about where my tax money is going and whether or not this is, in the end, for the best; or, at least, that I am pleased with where it’s going. Since being here in BC, too, I’ve become completely heartbroken over the Indigenous situation. I feel like there has to be something better that the government can do, and until I am educated and participate in my government, nothing will change. Call me an idealist, but I believe people as a collective have the power to change things. So get involved! Know your politics!
  3. CBC Television and Radio: I know, what? I used to think that there was nothing but shit programming on the CBC. And I was wrong. Aside from the news, stuff like This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report are funny, provide glimpses of life across Canada, and also insight into the politics of Canada. Then there’s George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, which I think is great. Say what you will, but George is a fantastic interviewer and he asks really interesting questions. He also has unique guests on his show. Of course there’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, a radio show that you can also watch on YouTube. And the countless other comedy sound bites, call-in shows, and general interest shows on CBC Radio One. I’ve really come to appreciate the CBC, and feel like I should support Canadian content and Canadian journalism. This stuff is a form of art, and it should be celebrated.
I can’t say that I know what it means to be Canadian yet, nor that I ever will. But I do know that Canada is a beautiful country filled with good schools, interesting people, beautiful art, and a quirky history (you really have to dig for the good stuff, though, I’ll admit).

I am glad that I live in Canada. I can’t wait to sit down with a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee while Toronto plays the Habs on the TV, counting my coloured money and catching up with my old friend.



Anonymous said…
I don't know what it is -- a kind of warm feeling at times -- but doing the whole 'identifying with your country' act is, I suppose, demonstrable proof of our need for community. Just about everyone I've met from a country outside Canada cannot help even at least feigning a look of happiness when they speak of their country, as if they could tell you about that if nothing else.

I raise eyebrows at any academic intellectualization of this feeling, however. It doesn't demote it, but it doesn't capture it either.
Kenmore said…
The National Film Board (http://www.nfb.ca/) is just as deserving of attention as the CBC, I feel.

Also, Canada does pose a problem for national identities, and it's something I've been thinking about for a long time. National identities are born from a variety of forces, including linguistic pride (the French) geographical convenience (the Swiss, Irish, and Newfoundlanders), negation of another national identity (the Taiwanese vs. People's Republic of China, or Israeli vs. Palestinian), or any other number of factors.

I'd love to do a proper study of this sort of thing, but my hypothesis is that people naturally identify with small, exclusive groups, and only identify with National identities when it is easy/convenient for the group as a whole to do so. (Which is to say that Newfoundlanders will probably always be Newfoundlanders, but they will only be Canadians as long as Newfoundlanders easily identify with the rest of Canada, a phenomenon that may not last forever.)
Aunt Janis said…
Excellent piece Jillz !.....as Jane Fonda said: "When I'm in Canada, I feel this is what the world should be like." We live in the most comfortable, tolerant, place on the planet.Also, I became a Mom on Canada Day 2000...how patriotic is that !!! xo Auntie J
Lorne Pike said…
Great post, Jillian. I remember going through similar disillusionment when a prof conjectured that all charity and kindness was ultimately self-serving in nature. It's easy to become cynical when we lose our ideals. Keep believing and keep on being Canadian. We have much to be proud of, especially the coloured money.
Danni Y. said…
I've been keeping up with your blog, Jill, and I really enjoy it, I must say (do I recognize a little Nancy Pedri in this particular entry?). To this really great post, I also wanted to recommend you tune in to Afghanada on CBC Radio. If you like radio drama (which I always have) this one is really something.
Anonymous said…
Although I may not be a History professor and may in fact be just about the furthest thing from that I would have to disagree with his opinion on Nationalism. In a few ways I would agree that some people can go overboard and if I were say, American, I would have a hard time backing my countries stance on certain issues. But being Canadian I've found is a much safer place to be patriotic.

I've found that Nationalism can sometimes be defined as "Blind support for your government and country even when you have no idea whats going on" and thats the reason why alot of people get pissed off with it and think that if you support your country, then you're unintelliegent. Its like when some douchebag blows up a building and says God told him to do it, and then Christopher Hitchens says religion is bad. I think Nationalism has its place, as do many views, as long as its an educated Nationalism. Not one thats warps your sense of judgement, kinda like when Americans backed a president who couldnt tie his own shoes because thats just what you do.

If you can't support Canada just for being Canada, you definitely won't have any better luck with other countries. I personally (and maybe for biased reasons) think its pretty badass that unlike our southern neighbors, we only use military force to help people. Until recently, we were peacekeepers and now as peacemakers we still maintain the same Canadian values of protecting those who cant protect themselves and holding those accountable who decide that greed is more important than peoples human rights. We have men and woman who from the first world war up until right now, gave their lives to protect others not because of money, land, or natural resources but because thats what any good Canadian would do.

Thats what makes me Patriotic and not afraid to be a bit of a Nationalist. Everyone has something and I guess thats mine. No matter what crazy dude is running our country, or whatever is going on with our economy I can always count on Canadians to be Canadian and in our country that actually means something:)

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