What Does it Mean to Be a Canadian?

An Investigative Inquiry into a Question We Should All be Asking

Being a Canadian is an incredible blessing for each and every one of its citizens. Canadians live in a land of bountiful opportunities, resources, and wealth. They live in a country influenced by wise men and women to empower the citizens and protect their rights. They live in a nation formed under Christian ideology—a land that remains “glorious and free.”


However, these shared bonds have been weakened by the fact that Canadians do not share a common identity. Canada is so diverse in its cultures, backgrounds, and languages that understanding Canadian identity becomes a challenge. This challenge is an ongoing and lengthy problem—one which must eventually be solved, as a national identity is crucial for uniting a country’s citizens. This lack of national identity conjoins the question, “What does it mean to be a Canadian?”


For many, this question is difficult to answer and the increasingly diverse perspectives represent Canada’s identity problem. Redeemer students and their unique responses to this question are a further illustration of this. Natcha Wuranti, a third-year international student, said that Canada does not have many defining characteristics. While she mentioned Tim Hortons and immigration as distinctly Canadian, she said that not much else about Canadian was incredibly unique. 


Other students who were born in Canada also had very different views of what Canada meant to them. Cordelia Hardie, a second-year student, had a more negative view of Canada, regarding broken promises of freedom, unrealistic views of the healthcare system, and misused taxes. Hardie also added that the “ideals that Canadians boast are not realistic” specifically referring to the healthcare system. Like Wuranti, Hardie also said that she did not have a strong view of Canadian identity and culture. 


Another student, Avril Schatz, had a more positive view of Canada, mentioning Tim Hortons, the cold, holding open doors, and multiculturalism as Canadian aspects. However, once again, she did not have much to say on deeper Canadian elements and focused more on the fun, trivial, and iconic Canadian things.


Unfortunately, most Canadian writers and thinkers also have little substance to contribute to this question, many focusing simply on the trivial elements of being a Canadian, ignoring the true meaning of being Canadian. Thus, this report will attempt to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Canadian?” by discussing Canada’s history, culture, and deeper identity.


To begin, Canada’s history originates with the Indigenous peoples and tribes who originally lived in Canada. By the 16th century, Europeans had also discovered Canada and began settling here in primarily British and French colonies. While Canada did not become an official country until 1867, three defining moments in Canadian history aided its formal establishment. The first is when Britain defeated France after the Seven Years’ War. This victory established Britain as the dominant culture of influence in Canada. The second is after the American revolution, where nearly 60,000 loyal British colonists fled north, becoming the first pre-Canadians. The final key moment to Canada’s development is the war of 1812. This war between America and pre-Canada clearly highlighted the distinctness of these two nations and established Canadian loyalty to the British monarchy. While no side truly won the war, it was a win for Canada in that it helped shape Canada’s independence and gave citizens a sense of community and nationalism.


Eventually, due to fear of American invasion, Britain united three of its Canadian colonies into the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Following this, in 1931, under the Statute of Westminster, Canada gained full legal autonomy. Once the Canadian constitution was developed in 1982 along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada became a fully independent country while remaining a member of the British Commonwealth. 


Through Canada’s history, a deeper understanding of Canadian identity can be drawn. One of Redeemer’s history professors, Dr. Michael Haykin, is an excellent resource in understanding Canadian history and has addressed Canadian identity in class. According to Haykin, the significance of the British loyalists in the American revolution cannot be understated. By fleeing America, these men and women were making a clear rejection of both the American experiment and American culture, becoming the first future Canadians. Similarly, Haykin stated that the War of 1812 was a major occurrence for Canada, declaring “that we belong to the British empire.”


Furthermore, Haykin offered insights regarding Canada’s more recent history and its effect on Canada’s identity. For example, he explained that while Canada’s history of British loyalty significantly influenced Canadian culture in the 19th century, this influence weakened in the 1950s. Through the invention of television, waves of immigration, and American influence, modern Canada is no longer primarily influenced by Britain. However, historical British influence can still be seen in many Canadian elements including the monarchy, Canada’s parliamentary democracy, and the very fact that Canadians, like the British, are a very reserved and polite people.


To conclude this interview, Haykin discussed his personal views of Canadian culture. He shared that he has a deep love for Canada and said that “I could have moved to the states but chose not to.” Haykin believes that Canadian culture is focused on peace, good government, order and balance, and democracy. Additionally, he explained his admiration for Canada’s respect of other cultures and support of multiculturalism, claiming that in this regard: “Canada is pretty unique.” He also explained how, in his opinion, Canadian culture is both strong and weak, in that Canadians understand they are not Americans, but they do not know who they are. He shared his concerns that because many Canadians do not seem to care about understanding their identity nor their history, they will begin taking their cues from American culture and imagery, a model he firmly believes will not work in Canada. 


Canadian culture can also be a useful tool for understanding Canadian identity. For example, these characteristics have all been attributed to Canadians: honesty, tolerance, fairness, unity in diversity, modesty, informality, and sensitivity. Canadian identity is also heavily influenced by patriotism. According to the Angus Reid Institute, nearly 80% of Canadians are proud of their country. This support is annually seen in Canada’s respect and support for military veterans during Remembrance Day. Multiculturalism is also a large part of Canadian identity. Canada welcomes immigration and Canadians emphasize treating everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of their religious or cultural background.


Another lens to view Canadian identity is by comparing Canada and America. While commonly referred to as “America’s hat,” Canadians are incredibly different from Americans. For example, Canadians are deeply concerned about global issues including global warming, worldwide trade, and supporting the United Nations. Contrarily, Americans typically are much more internally focused evidenced by the common political phrase “America First.” According to Haykin, Canada’s global perspectives originate from being a part of the British Empire, adding that Canadians “have never felt we can stand alone from the world and the rest of its problems.” 


Now, while it is clear that Canada has its own distinct culture, history, and identity, there are some who believe that Canadian identity is not incredibly strong. Charles Blattberg says that Canadians have never reached a unified version of Canada. Blattberg attributes the disconnect between Canadians to the fact that there are so many different types of Canadians including  Indigenous, French, British, European, and other immigrants. This multiculturalism prevents Canadian unity, which presents a problem for Canadian identity. David Johnson also explains the problem of multiculturalism when explaining the success of the American identity. He explains that the American founding fathers understood that national identity could not be formed on different ethnic backgrounds and religions. Thus, the fathers created the “American identity” based on beliefs that each American must agree with. Unfortunately, Canada’s desperate attempts at multiculturalism mean that the country is very divided in its beliefs, which is a problem when creating a unified, national, Canadian identity.


Through online research about Canadian identity and culture it becomes painstakingly clear how little of the Canadian identity is broadly understood. Most resources are short, personal opinion pieces without any real substance, demonstrating the lack of depth to Canada’s identity. Tim Hortons, beavers, snow, Mounties, and igloos are all fun and interesting elements of Canada, but do they really deserve to represent an entire nation 150 years after its birth? In short, Canadian identity is still an open question that is not being aided by the country’s constant focus on diversity nor its writers’ focus on trivial Canadian elements.


To summarize, it is very difficult to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Canadian?” Canadian identity has clearly been influenced by the country’s British background and rejection of Americanistic ideals during the American revolution and war of 1812. Moreover, Canada’s values of respecting others and multiculturalism are clearly integral aspects of Canadian culture, along with Canada’s more global perspectives. Still, Canada’s focus on multiculturalism and the media’s focus on trivial Canadian elements have made it challenging for Canadians to understand who they are on a deeper level. Hopefully soon, Canadians will be able to fully understand who they are and why they can be proud to be a Canadian.