What does it mean to be Canadian?

By Lorraine Mallinder

  • Published
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Open spaces, friendly people, democracy - and hockey: Canadians explain their national pride.

Canada is anything but a homogenous Commonwealth state; nearly one million indigenous people rub shoulders with immigrants from around the world, including many from Asia. What does it mean to be Canadian now? What are the traits which help make up modern-day Canada?

In 2009, Hollywood actor Billy Bob Thornton, plugging his music on a radio show, seemed to be in a most undiplomatic mood. With apparent disdain, he dismissed his Canadian audiences as "mashed potatoes with no gravy".

"Oh, we've got some gravy up here as well," came the host's riposte, immediately turning him into a national hero. A beleaguered Thornton cancelled his tour and left the country.

The host had a point. This is, after all, the land of fries and cheese curds slathered in gravy, a French-Canadian classic called poutine. With mid-winter temperatures dipping to, say, -30.9C (-24F) in towns such as Yellowknife, it's a must. Canadians need food which sticks to their ribs.

'Difference is interesting'

Defining this nation of six time zones is not easy. What could an English speaker in Vancouver possibly have in common with a francophone 3,000 miles (5,000 km) away in Quebec City? What, for that matter, could either have in common with a Gaelic speaker in easterly Nova Scotia? And, that's without taking into account the 200-plus ethnic groups across the land.

John Ralston Saul, author of several books on Canadian culture, believes his country has a distinct approach to identity. "They accept that difference is actually quite interesting. What makes it possible to live together is agreement on things like ethics and public policy. Not agreement on accents and religion," he says.

While most Canadians live in a narrow corridor hugging the US border , one thing they must never be considered is American. Indeed, when polled on national identity , Canadians defined themselves by characteristics such as free healthcare (53%) and by being more polite than their southern neighbours (15%).

Lately, the country's gaze seems to be turning back to Britain. The ruling Conservatives are strengthening ties with the monarchy, hanging the Queen's portrait in federal buildings and restoring the 'royal' prefix to the country's navy and air force.

After last year's honeymoon visit by Will and Kate, over two-thirds of Canadians said they believed the couple would help keep the monarchy relevant.

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Poutine is a delicacy in some parts of the country - but will Chinese immigrants in Vancouver eat it?

It's all part of what Noah Richler, author of the book What We Talk About When We Talk About War, calls a battle for Canadian identity. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, he says, is currently re-defining the country as a "warrior nation" harking to battles ranging from the colonial War of 1812 to Afghanistan and Libya.

He believes the return to the crown is part of this. "It's a farce. To suddenly go back to having a royal label, that's good for marmalade. It doesn't serve an independent state," he says.

Mr Harper's recasting of the nation's identity has gone down especially badly in Quebec, where the vast majority of the country's francophone population lives. In 2011, during the royal visit to the province, two-thirds of respondents in one poll said they wanted to get rid of the monarchy. Back in 2009, Prince Charles' official visit to the province was marred by egg-throwing anti-monarchy protesters.

Bilingualism, a political priority under the premiership of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the 1960s and 70s, is a core element of the country's identity. Today, 17.4% of Canadians are able to conduct a conversation in both languages, a marked increase on the 13.5% reported in 1971 . "Is there enough? No. Should there be more? Yes. People take it for granted now, but if you want to be a cabinet minister or a supreme court judge, you have to be bilingual," says Mr Ralston Saul.

Just to confuse matters, immigration has added more than 200 other languages to the mix, with one-fifth of the population speaking a mother tongue other than English or French . Immigration is currently at a 75-year high , with newcomers accounting for two-thirds of the country's recent population growth.

More than half come from Asia, with a substantial proportion from Europe and Latin America. Most head to the bright lights of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, though there is also increasing interest in the province of Alberta, where oil jobs beckon.

Canadians, generally open-minded and tolerant, have mixed feelings about immigration. According to a recent poll, nearly two-thirds want their country to become a melting pot like the US, a unified culture into which newcomers must assimilate.

The country's attitude towards newcomers is changing - recently, the government introduced new rules allowing employers to pay temporary workers 15% less than the average wage, provoking an outcry from immigrant rights groups.

"The very nature of our open multicultural society is being changed. For all of our history, we have been the welcoming country that offered immigrants a new start. Paying one group less than another… cleaves the idea of Canada being a place of refuge and generosity," says Mr Richler.

Connected population

What about the country's original population? Canada's relationship with its more than one million First Nations people - native Indian, Metis and Inuit - is a controversial issue.

In 2011, the Red Cross was called on to the remote reservation of Attawapiskat, Ontario, where residents were struggling in sub-standard housing without electricity or plumbing. Nearly half of Canada's native people live in homes needing major repair. In other areas too, such as health and education, people of the First Nations invariably come last.

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Canadians have a reputation for a love of the outdoors - but jobs and growth appear to be a new priority

But, behind the headlines, Mr Ralston Saul maintains a different story is emerging. "There are enormous problems, but the interesting thing is that there's a remarkable new aboriginal elite, whether in universities or politics. They're gaining more and more legal power, with more influence over the use of the land," he says. "My message is that everybody had better get used to it. It's good because it will take Canadians back to the roots of their identity."

Canadians are a highly connected population, with nearly three-quarters of the population on social networking site Facebook They are also well-informed , with the vast majority (89%) following current affairs frequently.

Four in ten consider jobs and the economy to be the country's most pressing concern, ahead of healthcare and the environment .

No surprises, then, when Mr Harper was re-elected with a majority last year on a jobs and growth ticket, having successfully steered the country through the global financial crisis.

Under his stewardship the country is also becoming tougher on crime.

Recently approved crime laws will usher in minimum mandatory sentences for drugs offences and a crackdown on young offenders.

Is Canada really such a dangerous place? Not according to official figures, which show that the crime rate has gone down substantially over the past decade.

Yet, in a recent survey, roughly half of Canadians agreed with government plans to build more prisons.

Overall, however, it appears a contented country, with a high quality of life.

Canadians love to give back too, devoting some of their free time to raising funds for good causes, stocking food banks and tidying parks.

In 2010, nearly half of the adult population gave more than two billion hours of their time to volunteer work.

"The defining trait of being a Canadian is understanding our good fortune, knowing that we're not actually better than anybody else," Mr Richler says.

"We're not better than the Americans. We're not better than the Britons. But, in a way, we're fundamentally lucky."