O Canada, Or Finding Identity In Negative Spaces

A few times in my life I have found myself in Canada.  It happens.  On one memorable trip back to the United States I spent a few hours napping and enjoying the hospitality of a Tim Horton’s restaurant at the Vancouver International Airport.  A couple of times I went to the Feast of Tabernacles as a young person in Niagara Falls, and before those feasts I did a bit of traveling with my father and brother to the birthplace of my maternal grandmother in the area of Peterborough [1].  Admittedly, Canada is not a popular subject for me to write about, nor is it something that often comes to mind, but from time to time it is an area of interest [2].  So it is today, on Canada’s 150th birthday.  Anniversaries like this one are a time to celebrate nationalism, and on this particular day I would like to celebrate, or at least comment on, the strange nationalism of Canada.

As it happens, last night while I was relaxing at home after a long day full of after-work errands, I watched a video from one of my favorite You Tube music critics (Spectrum Pulse), and he, a Canadian, was commenting on the lack of nationalism he felt and saw for Canada.  He commented on the sins of Canadian history involving Canada’s first peoples, and the various gimmicks about mounties and hockey and the like that are used to give Canadians a sense of identity, as well as Canada’s popular cultural exports, and he made the comment that Canada had a negative sense of identity in that they are not the United States and that they are nicer and less expansive than the United States, but not a positive identity that served to join Canadians together.  Not everyone would agree with his statements, but I thought them well-spoken and not too dissimilar to an analysis to the sort one would get from an American with liberal white guilt.  The main difference is that an American would complain about the bumptious arrogance of the American cultural identity and not deny that said identity exists.  And that is a crucial difference.

Although I am definitely not Canadian, as someone who has studied Canadian history (a remarkably obscure subject for an American, I know) and has some Canadian family, I feel I have at least some understanding of the origins of Canadian identity.  Canada’s identity was formed in opposition to the United States.  Twice, in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, there were efforts on the part of American armies to conquer Quebec and Ontario, and in both cases there was a strong enough Canadian identity that was in contrast to Americans.  Loyalist former colonists were hostile to those who had dispossessed them in their original homes.  French Canadians were hostile to the fierce Protestants down South, and the people of Ontario could look at the burning of York as well as the presence of exiles from various tribal peoples who had grudges against Americans which led them to be hostile to Americans.  This does not mean that there was a unified identity of what these people were, except what they were not–Americans.

So, why is Canada’s cohesion so weak?  Like many identities, Canada’s identity, such as it is, was formed in contrast to something else.  The process of edge induced cohesion for Canada was along the border with the United States, formed over decades of American imperialism.  That was sufficient to form an identity of Canada as “not American,” but the difference between Canada and the United States was not sufficient to give Canada a positive identity.  This was in stark contrast to the way that the identity of the United States was formed in the cauldron of genocidal conflict with the Spanish, French, and native populations.  The difference between defining yourself as “not savage” and “not American” is the difference between a bumptious national identity and one that is polite, awkward, and uncertain as Canada’s is.  This is not to blame Canada for anything, but merely to point out that the later development of Canada’s national identity gave it a weaker identity that is not an imperial one.  Not every nation wants to be an empire or should be an empire, but imperial identities spring from the context of identity.

At this point, it appears that Canada is going to have to be content with the identity it has.  It is a bit late for a nation that is 150 years old to form a positive identity when it has spent so much time defining itself as not American.  Canada has a lot to be proud of–it has an honorable reputation around the world, it has a high degree of culture when it comes to music and acting, it has a well-functioning parliamentary democracy along with a rich degree of regional identities of great interest and plenty of open space and fresh water.  I could go on and on, but I think the point has made.  Canada is turning 150 years old, a successful example of a British dominion with its own identity that has managed to maintain its independence over that time despite having a somewhat aggressive southern neighbor.  Is it too much to ask of a nation like Canada to demand that it has a positive identity?  Isn’t it enough to know what one does not want to be, and to be able to stick to it despite blandishment and temptation for so long, while even maintaining a positive relationship with that same power one has defined itself against?  That sounds like enough of an achievement to do.  To expect more of Canada than what it has done would seem to be rather too demanding.

[1] See, for example:


[2] See, for example:





About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to O Canada, Or Finding Identity In Negative Spaces

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