Saturday, January 19, 2008
The Solution to the Canadian Identity Problem
I'm an American who moved to Canada about three and a half years
ago. One thing I find is very important to Canadians is this sense of
identity and culture. In fact, identity seems to be a powerful theme
in Canadian art.
I hear a lot of Canadians lament the fact that they have so little
culture, and that they struggle to have an identity. In particular,
Canadians spend a lot of time thinking about how they distinguish
themselves from the United States.
There is an enormous overlap in culture between the United States and
Canada. I am very comfortable here because of this. I don't feel like
a foreigner walking around here, and I basically never did. Many
people are surprised to hear that I'm American. America and Canada are
each other's biggest trading partners. Canadians hold on to the bits
of difference between these countries. And compared to most pairs of
countries, the differences really are minimal.
The problem is not that Canadians have no culture. They have as much
culture as everyone else. The problem is that they don't take credit
for cultural things that they share with other countries, particularly
I explained this to someone last night, and asked "you eat eggs for
breakfast. Don't you consider that a part of your culture?" Her reply
was telling: "Don't you eat eggs for breakfast?"
Note that Americans don't spend any time worrying about what makes
American culture different from Canadian. American cultural and
economic influence is so enormous that we aren't insecure. Sure, we
eat eggs for breakfast, just like Canadians, just like the English,
but we also accept that it's a part of our culture. It's something we
can miss when we travel abroad.
But these things common to the US and Canada don't come to mind when
Canadians think about their culture. How they speak, the fact that
they ask what someone does for a living upon meeting them, how their
houses look, the fact that they drive on the right side of the road,
the social mores, the humour, the music, etc. All of these things are
a part of Canadian culture, but they don't take credit for
it. Canadians even invented basketball, but since it was adopted by
the Americans, Canadians don't wave it around like the huge cultural
success that it is.
I was talking with a bunch of people about the effects of global
warming, and someone suggested that if the worst predictions came
about, there would be a flood of Americans trying to come to
Canada. One person at the table said "I think it would be the right
thing to do, but it would mean the end of Canadian culture."
If Mexicans flooded America, that would have profound effects on
American culture. Why? Because Mexican culture has some striking
differences with American. Speaking Spanish, for one.* If Americans
flooded Canada, most of Canadian culture would remain intact because
American culture is much the same.
It's sad, Canada's inferiority complex, with respect to the United
States. They should take more credit for what they are.
* I am not dismissing the large and growing Latino part of American
culture. However, speaking English is still considered dominant in
America, even though the US has no official language.