​The New Canadian Identity Crisis

Al Purdy’s introduction to The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the United States, 1968.

​Since starting this project, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Canadian Identity. What is a Canadian? What does it mean to be Canadian? Who can be Canadian? What do Canadians think of other Canadians? And will I ever be considered Canadian?

The process began with trying to remember the lines from Molson’s “I Am Canadian” ads from the early aughts and looking for funny ways to gauge whether I am Canadian according to its script. Then I read some humour books about Canadian behaviours and Canada’s relationship to the States. (America, But Better: The Canada Party Manifesto, published in 2012, contains far too many Trump references for comfort in 2016.)

I thought I was taking a break when I sat down to watch Al Purdy Was Here, a documentary on the life and work of Canadian poet Al Purdy. Through the interconnectedness of events, I fell down the Canadian Identity rabbit hole. I spent an afternoon reading the essays and poems in Purdy’s 1968 anthology dedicated to Canadian nationalism, The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the United States. Many of the pieces were focused on Canada’s peacekeeping efforts in the wake of Vietnam, the country’s patriotism, and its position on the world stage following Expo ’67. Canada was a sprightly young thing of 100 and concerned about the invasion of Corporate America and the fragility of Canadian culture. No one seemed too pleased how much Canadian Identity is tied up in American history and culture.

I’m reading through the 2006 anthology What is a Canadian?: Forty-Three Thought-Provoking Responses, with its post-9/11, terrorism vs. multiculturalism, pre-Stephen Harper takes on the country and its place in this modern world. Essays by First Nations and Québécois reveal the pre-existing issues that persist within Canada’s borders. Still, no one is pleased by how much Canadian Identity is tied up in American history and culture. Isn’t it cute how the Americans put Canadian flag patches on their backpacks when travelling, though?

After Brexit and Trump-it, and with an impending milestone anniversary, Canadians from sea to sea to sea will soon emerge to once more ask and answer “What does it mean to be Canadian now?” The ghost of Al Purdy just muttered, “Jesus, not this shit again.”

As Canada grapples with its sesquicentennial life crisis, we’ll be treated to thinkpieces and listicles from experts, academics, and pundits around the country telling us what it means to be Canadian, what we should do about/with our Maple Privilege (oh, please don’t call it that), and that we definitely shouldn’t get too comfortable with our current charming Prime Minister. No two Canadians will truly agree, except in the belief that Canadians are still better than Americans (if only just marginally). We’ll see an uptick in the usage of “smug.” We can’t afford to be smug, citizens. Well, on a good Trudeau news day, we can be a little smug. Okay, we can be privately smug, but y’know, let’s not make anyone feel bad in public with our smugness.

How can I expect to identify as Canadian if the concept of Canadian Identity is always in flux? (Some could argue that it is not in flux but that the nation requires occasion reassurance that it is still modest, polite, peace-loving and eco-friendly — the qualities one might associate with being Better Than Americans.) I would prefer not to self-identify as smug, especially in These Troubling Times when friends and acquaintances of all the various ways to be are already living in fear of an American administration that has not yet been sworn in.

I cannot address the Canadian Identity as a whole. Last week, I had notes on being an arrogant American here to single-handedly define an entire country’s population — manipulated so that conveniently also applied to me. I don’t feel like doing that right now. Trumpism is already infecting Canada. It was lurking under the Harper administration. Canadians — pre-Harper, at least — took smug satisfaction in not being as bad as Americans. But it made Canada complacent and we got Harper stealthily dismantling things we took quiet pride in. We got Rob Ford blundering cluelessly around American late night television. And we get fellow citizens (or taxpayers, as they prefer to self-identify — although they sure don’t like to do it) who applaud those men and their appalling behaviours. The Canadian Identity as we perceive it is in more danger than we’d like to admit.

So…what does it mean to be an American-born Canadian in the perilous 21st century? Last week I could’ve spouted some stuff about peace and pride and tolerance and acceptance. I might’ve said something about Canada being better than the States and how I was the better for it. I would lament the minor annoyance of occasionally being asked to proffer insight into America’s latest folly. But tolerance and acceptance is being attacked on both sides of the border and we can’t exhale for fear that peace and pride will soon fall. Should I publicly identify as American-Canadian, I will be expected to answer for the worst of a country of which I am not wholly representative. Whether or not in jest, multi-generation Canadians will try to ascertain my political stance and personal agenda. Am I yet another American coward come to hide in a Hudson’s Bay blanket fort until danger passes? Do I expect Canada to follow in America’s oversized footsteps to destroy the planet and humanity just to boost profits for some faceless stockholders? Will my presence pose a further threat to Canadian culture as the media conglomerate uses American immigrants to excuse importing American television content instead of investing in Canadian stories?

How can I define myself as Canadian if the Canadian Identity is so dependent on being Not American (which is not the same as anti-American, although I imagine some people are that as well)? If I identify solely as Canadian, does that then mean I erase and deny my American past? Should I slap the Maple Leaf patch over the first chunk of my life and move on? As an invisible immigrant, I certainly have the privilege to reject and disregard my homeland — but should I exercise that privilege? Well, no. One does not simply burn one’s passport and walk off into the Canadian sunset. And so my national identity remains ambiguous. Unless…

Unless the act of questioning one’s own Canadian Identity is one of the rites of passage of being Canadian, then perhaps I’ve answered my own question with a question.

At 150 years, our plucky little country is poised to solidify its identity at home and abroad. Can Canada brave the xenophobic winds blowing through the UK and US? Will Canada be bullied by its mother and sister into adopting an unsustainable narrow worldview? Will Canada stand firm against intolerance and protect its multicultural citizens, residents, taxpayers, and stockholders?

If ever there’s a time for Canadians to be “Not American,” it’s now.

This essay is part of Katharine’s new project “Am I Canadian Yet?” — a record of 10 years of experiences and observations from an American who moved to Canada and learned how to become a Canadian.

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