The Canadians

Who are the Canadians? What are they like?

Let’s take a candid and totally prejudiced look at the Canadian people, tongue firmly in cheek, and hope they forgive my flippancy or that they don’t read this bit.

The typical Canadian is polite, hard-working, law-abiding, classless, unpretentious, generous, friendly, independent, liberal, cheerful, a good skier, proud, compassionate, an animal lover, reserved, dull, helpful, practical, introverted, conservative, a city dweller, fair, prosperous, a nice guy, peace-loving, an environmentalist, indefinable, honest (except with regard to taxes), an immigrant, polite, respectful, a humanitarian, healthy, unassuming, an outdoors man, cautious, democratic, modest, boring, loyal, relaxed, convivial, honourable, informal, tolerant, decisive, tough, pragmatic, well-educated, determined, sporting, hospitable, cosmopolitan, patriotic, mean, stoic, a hockey fan and definitely not an American.

You may have noticed that the above list contains ‘a few’ contradictions, which is hardly surprising as there’s no such thing as a typical Canadian and few people conform to the popular stereotype (whatever that is). Canada is one of the most cosmopolitan and multicultural countries in the world (Toronto and Vancouver are among the world’s most cosmopolitan cities) and a nation of foreigners (except for a few hundred thousand native Americans and Inuit) who often have little in common with one another. However, despite its diverse racial mix, Canada isn’t a universal melting pot and has been called a cultural mosaic, where the country’s multicultural approach emphasises the different backgrounds and cultures of its people. Canadians are one of the most difficult peoples to categorise and the country has been described as not so much a nation as a collection of different peoples on a continental scale. For a nation that’s made up almost entirely of immigrants, it’s hardly surprising that many Canadians have an identity crisis and spend a lot of time pondering ‘The Canadian Question’. (As good an answer as any to the eternal question, “What is a Canadian?” is probably “A person who knows how to make love in a canoe.”).

Class-consciousness

Canadians pride themselves on their lack of class-consciousness and don’t have the same caste distinctions and pretensions common in the old world. Canada isn’t, however, a classless society and status is as important there as it is anywhere else, although it’s usually based on money and character rather than birthright. Canada generally has no class or ‘old school tie’ barriers to success and almost anyone, however humble his origins, can fight his way to the top of the heap (although colour barriers aren’t always so easy to overcome). However, although it doesn’t have an aristocracy, old money and political alliances are important, and there are still a number of barriers that even vast amounts of new money cannot breach. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Canadians are misplaced Britons and other Europeans on the wrong side of the Atlantic (plus a influx of Asians in recent decades), modern Canada has, not surprisingly, more in common with the US in lifestyle than with Britain or Europe.

However, apart from lifestyle, Canadians have little in common with Americans and, indeed, are at pains to emphasise the differences between themselves and their southern neighbours (‘south of the border’ in Canada means the USA, not Mexico). Canadians don’t like being mistaken for Americans, who they see as arrogant, brash and vulgar. It doesn’t help that the US is Canada’s biggest trading partner and has a huge influence on the Canadian economy; in a much quoted speech in 1969, the then Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, remarked that “Living next to the US is like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt”. One sure way of making yourself unpopular with Canadians is to call them Americans or refer to ‘America’ when you mean the US (usually referred to as the States). Canada is part of ‘the Americas’ and therefore Canadians don’t want that lot below the border to claim the title. So as not to be confused with Yanks when travelling, Canadians often wear a maple leaf badge or stick huge Canadian flags on their luggage to let people know where they are from.

Famous Canadians

Although they’re often assumed to be Americans, many Canadians enjoy (or have enjoyed) worldwide fame, including Dan Ackroyd, Bryan Adams, Paul Anka, Elizabeth Arden, Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, Raymond Burr, John Candy, Jim Carrey, Leonard Cohen, Michael J. Fox, Glenn Gould, Lorne Greene, Wayne Gretsky, Arthur Hailey, Jack Kerouac, K. D. Lang, Gordon Lightfoot, Raymond Massey, Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, Mike Myers, Mary Pickford, Christopher Plummer, William Shatner, David Steinberg, Donald Sutherland and Neil Young, to name but a few. However, most don’t (or didn’t) complain too vociferously when being taken for Americans as it’s good for business and helps to be accepted in the US. Canada also gave the world Trivial Pursuit (not many people know that), instant mashed potatoes, the gas mask, the parka, baby cereal, the electron microscope, the (zip) zipper, the snowmobile (no surprise there), the paint roller, Greenpeace (founded in Vancouver in 1970), the push-up bra, insulin, the chocolate bar, Ghostbusters, the paint roller, ice hockey and basketball (a real surprise – and a sore point with Americans). The world would be a much poorer place without Canadians (and zips).

Canada is Humongous

You may have noticed that Canada is a very large country (it takes a week just to drive across it); so large in fact that Canadians coined a new word to describe it: HUMONGOUS. It’s the second-largest country in the world (after China) and almost as large as the whole of Europe, with six different time zones. The more you see of Canada the bigger it gets and in rural areas your nearest neighbours are likely to be miles away. The interior plains or the prairies are Canada’s (and the world’s) bread basket, consisting of hundreds of miles of wheat fields interspersed with vast forests and a few scattered towns. Despite it huge size, Canada has a small population of just 32.5m people, largely due to its inhospitable climate.

The weather is a topical subject of conversation in Canada, which is surprising considering that most of the year it’s either bloody freezing or as hot as hell, with little in between these extremes (which the exception of Vancouver, which is really part of the US). For most of the year much of Canada is frozen solid and most of the time is spent indoors trying to keep warm or cool (which is why they invented Trivial Pursuit). However, unlike most Americans, Canadians revel in their winters and turn (and tame) the weather to their advantage. They love the outdoor life and have a thriving winter sports industry, and spend the summers hiking, camping, hunting, fishing and boating (and trying to avoid being eaten by bears). The outdoors has a major influence on the lives of most Canadians, although most live in cities. They are passionate conservationists and schemes to protect the environment and recycling abound.

If you wonder what Canadians get up to during the long winters, judging by the low birth-rate it isn’t sex (high immigration is largely to compensate for the low birth-rate). Canadians are fairly broad-minded when it comes to sex and nudity, and some provinces have ‘topless’ laws which make it discriminatory to forbid women to go topless in any place where men can go without a shirt. This hasn’t, however, led to a surfeit of ladies baring their breasts in public, but simply to many places (such as sports stadiums) banning topless men (and hence women). While on the subject of sex, you may be interested to know that (according to a recent survey) the average Canadian makes love 102 times per year (how do they know these things – surely they don’t believe what people tell them?). Canadians are apparently thoughtful lovers and rate highest in the league for considering their partner’s satisfaction more important than their own and ninth in the list of countries considered good lovers. Naturally the French are top in this respect (it must have been a French survey) – the statistics don’t mention French Canadians, who no doubt consider themselves French in this regard! Like Americans, Canadians are tolerant of homosexuals and many cities have ‘Gay Pride’ days, when parades and other celebrations attract large crowds, including straights (or as they’re called by gays, ‘breeders’).

Life in Canada

Life in Canada isn’t always a bed of roses, however, and it has a ‘few’ problems, although they’re minor compared with those faced by most other countries. One festering sore is the treatment and rights of its indigenous peoples such as the Inuit (also known as Eskimos) and native Americans, who are now collectively referred to in politically correct terms as ‘First Nation’ people. Like the natives of all countries ‘discovered’ by Europeans, First Nation peoples were treated abominably, ‘persuaded’ first to part with their land, then their traditions and finally their lifestyle. In return they received the dubious benefits of Christianity and European diseases (such as measles, smallpox and tuberculosis) that killed them off like flies, and the joys of alcoholism and drugs. In recent years, the Canadian government has moved away from its paternalistic attitude and in 1999 granted the Inuit around 800,000 square miles (2m km2) of the Northwest Territories as a separate and autonomous territory called Nunavut (‘our land’).

However, although the deal included the eviction of all non-Inuit-owned businesses, put federal agencies under Inuit control and included payments totalling $500m plus interest, it isn’t as generous as it seems. In return the Inuit had to renounce claims of direct ownership of most of the territory, especially the offshore gas and oil exploration areas (as John Paul Getty said, “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights”). This agreement has also opened a can of worms, with other native groups now pressing for similar deals, and what started as orderly protests have become barricaded roads and armed confrontations in some areas.

Canada’s other major concern is the acrimonious debate over the future of Quebec. There’s an ancient animosity between French-Canadians and English speakers dating back to the beginning of the 17th century, when the French were instrumental in opening up North America. They were involved in a running war with the British that culminated in the defeat of the French forces at Quebec City in 1759, following which ‘New France’ was ceded to Britain in 1763. Despite its defeat, the province of Quebec remained a stronghold of French nationalism and some 200 years later in the early ’60s the French-Canadians, fed up with their almost second-class citizen status in a country dominated by Anglo-Saxons, formed a separatist movement to demand that Quebec become a separate state. The campaign forced referendums (or ‘neverendums’ as they’re frequently called) on the question of Quebec separation in 1980 and 1995, both of which were only narrowly defeated (in 1995, just 52 per cent voted to remain part of Canada), although a recent poll of Québécois showed that over 75 per cent want to remain part of Canada.

French Language

The average English-speaking Canadian has a jaundiced view of the Québécois and the French language, which many believe has more influence than it merits. In an effort to appease French-Canadians, the French language has become the first language of Quebec and Canada has become officially bilingual. To the immense irritation of the rest of Canada, all official documents and much other printed matter must be dual-language, most of the civil service speaks only French, and the dreaded ‘language police’ have garnered the sort of power that enables them to force Chinese businesses in Chinatown to remove their Chinese signs. Outside Quebec, many Canadians cannot wait to see the back of the Québécois, if only “so we won’t need to have our soup can labels printed in French”. Of one thing you can be sure, the separation issue is unlikely to go away and it seems inevitable that the Québécois’ irreconcilable differences will eventually end in some form of separation.

Now for the good bit. Canada is one of the most open, liberal, stable and tolerant societies in the world. It has a thriving economy with political stability, abundant natural resources, a skilled workforce, steady population growth, and substantial domestic and foreign capital investment. It’s renowned for its beauty, outdoor lifestyle, unspoilt environment, rich flora and fauna, healthy diet, friendly people, creativity, open spaces, sports facilities, cultural diversity, freedom, good transportation, education, healthcare, excellent local government and things that work. Canadians have more freedom from government interference than the people of most countries, to do, say and act any way they like. They place a high value on hard work, fairness, honesty and order, which help make Canada one of the least corrupt, safest (deaths from hand guns number in single digits, while in the US they run into thousands) and most civilised countries in the world. Canadians are family oriented, which is one of the most important foundations in their lives, and it’s a caring society where the community comes before the individual. This is highlighted by the abundance of charitable and voluntary organisations in Canada that do invaluable work (both nationally and internationally) and are supported by a veritable army of some 5m voluntary workers.

Despite the shock and lingering memories of the crippling recession in the early ’90s, Canadians have strong faith in themselves and are optimistic about the future. Although immigrants may criticise some aspects of Canadian life, most feel privileged to live there and are proud to call themselves Canadians, and very few seriously consider leaving. In fact, immigrants from a vast range of backgrounds firmly believe that Canada is the promised land and a great place to live and raise a family. This is borne out by the United Nations’ ‘quality of life’ survey that consistently ranks Canada in the number one position, based on such criteria as the standard of healthcare, educational achievement, wealth, life expectancy and standard of living. It may not be everyone’s idea of paradise (particularly if you hate the cold), but Canada certainly has a good claim to be the best country in the world. For vitality and joie de vivre Canada has few equals, and for those fortunate enough to secure a residence permit it’s a (promised) land where you can turn your dreams into reality.

Long Live Canada! Vive le Canada! O Canada!

This article is an extract from Living and working in Canada.
Click here to get a copy now.

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Other comments

  • Elysia, 24 March 2010 Reply

    From a Canadian

    I saw this article and was interested in reading it to see what kind of perception it gave. Well the author does a pretty good job of not being biased and getting his facts straight I must clarify one thing. The issue of Quebec separating from the rest of the country has become more of a pipe dream of the older generations. It is not a likely event. Even so, the logistics of it would be ridiculous, it is straight in the middle of the country and separating it would be near impossible as it is so highly integrated into all aspects of Canadian law and business.

    • Nomad 28 Oct 2010, 06:30

      There is a error in the article The Canadians, Canada is humongous

      Actually, I wanted to say that in the article The Canadians
      Who are the Canadians? What are they like? under Canada is humongous that Canada is the second largest country in the world, and Russia is the largest country in the world because CHINA is not the largest country in the world it is the third or fourth largest country in the world.

  • hair-splitter, 05 October 2010 Reply

    A little correction

    China is not the biggest country, it is actually the third. The biggest is Russia, which is almost twice as big as Canada (with its 17,1 million sqkm-s against the 9,9 of Canada's)
    China is first in population indeed, but after it Canada is definitely not second.
    Sorry for the hair-splitting...

  • DW, 26 October 2010 Reply

    correction

    One correction - civil servants, at least outside of Quebec, are most likely only English, or bilingual. Very few are only French. I haven't met one yet?

  • Anonymous, 23 February 2012 Reply

    From an aboriginal Canadian

    Your writeup is actually fairly good, maybe a revision or two would do some good, but there are a few things you wrote that highly outraged me. For one, although we are part of the Americas, no one has a problem with calling the states, America, it is just outdated and not many Canadians use it. Aboriginal Canadians are never referred to as native Americans, due to the fact that we are Canadian not American, so that is ridiculous. And how you can say Vancouver is practically the states is one of the biggest slap in the face you could do to someone from Canada. Excuse my language but that is fucking ridiculous, Vancouver is Canadian one hundred percent.

    • LB 26 Sep 2012, 06:43

      agreed

      I completely agree with you. This was the part that I had the most trouble with in this entire article. Vancouver is very Canadian in almost all aspects. And being part First Nations FROM CANADA, I find the term 'Native American' very offensive, although it is often used by american tourists.