This was written for Heliophon, a youth intercultural e-magazine. Unfortunately the editors were unable to get the article up on time for Canada Day, but here it is nonetheless.
Canada Day. It’s like the Independence Day of our southern neighbours, but with a little less pomp and fanfare. It marks the signing of the British North America Act in 1867, which joined our first four provinces (Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) into one country. In other words, it’s Canada’s birthday. You can find large, outdoor concerts with quintessentially Canadian bands (like The Tragically Hip or Great Big Sea) across the country, though Parliament Hill in Ottawa is generally seen as the place to be. Wherever you are, there’s always somewhere to show off your red and white and watch fireworks. Poutine will be eaten, Tim Horton’s coffee will be drunk and references to hockey will be made; it’s a once-a-year opportunity to be unapologetically Canadian — whatever that means.
As we approach our Canada Day celebrations on July 1, I’m reminded of my tenth grade Canadian history class, where we were tasked with an essay to answer the question, ‘what is the Canadian identity?’ Several years older and a bachelor’s degree wiser, a definitive answer to this query remains evasive as ever. More knowledge and less idealism have simply made my search more convoluted.
Beyond our surface symbols (the majestic beaver) and stereotypes (an alleged affinity for pronouncing the word about, ‘aboot’), what is the Canadian identity? What, other than our existence, are we collectively celebrating on Canada Day?
Our diversity as a people makes this incredibly challenging to answer. Canada has two national languages, English and French, with the latter spoken by around one-third of our population. The majority of French speakers reside in one of our ten provinces, where threats to secede have dwindled since the 1990s, but not disappeared entirely. We also have a large population of diverse Aboriginal Peopleswith unique cultural customs and heritages. Many of these groups have highly tenuous relationships with national and provincial governments, given the historical oppression they have experienced and the devastating conditions faced by some on reserves today. Our diversity is also reflected in the rich cultural tapestry woven by the substantive immigrant population we host. While this might suggest multiculturalism is a defining national characteristic, it is a value that has been threatened, in my view, amid increasingly stringent immigration regulations.
Given these immense differences within our population, how does one begin to grasp what it means to be truly ‘Canadian’?
I’ve spent the last two Canada Days abroad. It’s given me a lot to reflect on in terms of how other people view my country and what I represent when I am acting as an unofficial ambassador for it. I live in a country with a (more or less) functional democratic system; a universal healthcare system that we love, and love to hate; and a relatively young, though highly valued, Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While forms of discrimination tragically still find their way to fruition here, I believe that more than in many other countries, you can bring your own values to the table and find a place for them. My own province of Ontario, where we recently elected an openly gay, female premier to a majority government, is a testament to this. Maybe that’s part of why we work, in spite of the challenges. You’re free to ascribe to your own version of what Canada means to you, rather than being forced into a narrow, pre-ordained definition. Simplistic, perhaps, but it’s not so different from what I wrote on that grade 10 history paper. That’s what I’ll be celebrating on Canada Day. Of course, there are some who would disagree with that—I welcome the challenge.