Can I see some ID please?

By Ruth Davenport

In light of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition, the term Canadian identity might be considered an oxymoron.Ask a Canadian what the qualities or conditions of being a Canadian are, and they will look mighty puzzled. Canadian identity is not something that anyone has an easy answer for. The wide diversity of ethnicities within our borders, the comparative youth and troubled history of the country, as well as the sheer size of the bloody place all contribute to the simple fact that there is no single quality or condition which distinguishes Canadians from the rest of the world.

Though Canadian identity may be an oxymoron, Canadian identity crisis fits much better. Not only do individual Canadians have difficulties naming their identity, but the country as a whole is oddly placed on the international scheme. In the global village, we seem to fit in nowhere other than as the proverbial idiot–pleasantly bumbling around, providing a bit of comic relief, but otherwise fairly expendable. The difficulty involved in determining Canadian identity at the individual level is compounded by the Canadian identity crisis at the national level.

When looking at other national identities, it seems that "identity" is a euphemism for "stereotype." Why would anyone actively seek to be pigeonholed? If having an identity means nothing more than having a neat little cartoon featured on a United Nations poster in full traditional hairstyle and clothing while holding hands with the little cartoon figures from other countries, then why would the lack of an identity cause "emotional disturbance?"

Identity provides stability. It provides purpose. It provides a reference point, a way of creating order. An identity is more than a stereotype; it includes many facets like culture, history, heritage, national pride and Things We Do Better Than Anyone Else. The problem is that some would argue these things engender an identity, while others say the identity provides insight to them. All arguments aside, Canada’s problem is, quite simply, we have none of these things.

Whether a sense of national identity is a matter of buying into the perceptions of the rest of the world or proudly bearing a long tradition of an internally-generated quality, it’s not something easily created. Canadians talk about having an identity as though it’s something we might be smote with overnight–as though a giant Pez dispenser will hork one from the skies and brand us all. Canada–thy name is…thy name is…

Thy name is what? If identity is something internally engendered, something we all take pride in, we’re screwed. The size of Canada, our youth as a country, and the diversity of the people preclude us from pigeonholing. Countries and cultures established for thousands of years have well-recognized rituals, religions and foods. Canada has a scant 134 years–too small of a time frame to develop tradition or culture. Additionally, Canada’s population descended from Europeans who exterminated and marginalized the only people that might be called true Canadians–the Native people–and our lack of identity is suddenly not such a mystery. Add the fact that Europeans and their descendants clung fiercely to the traditions and cultures of their homelands rather than embracing their brand new land and developing traditions and cultures of their own, and the reasons for our lack of "identity" seem rather obvious. We have, quite simply, never tried to develop our own identity, we just borrow from everyone else.

So if our identity doesn’t lie in our history, does it lie in our present? To a certain extent, it does. Ontarions are the center of the universe. Saskatchewanians are farmers and union monkeys. Albertans are either rednecks or transfer payment victims, depending on who you ask. British Columbians are weed-farming hippies. The Maritime provinces? Welfare recipients or fish farmers. And Quebec? Let’s not even start. Regionally, we all know exactly who we are and we know who everyone else is. We have no problem with our provincial identities, but how do you categorize 31 million people under one umbrella? More importantly, how do you convince 31 million people scattered across 9,976,140 square kilometres that they have anything in common? The simple answer: you don’t. As Will Ferguson observes in his book, Why I Hate Canadians, Canadians show a very strong link to the physical properties of the country. And they show the strongest link to the physical properties of the region they inhabit. So in a country with a richly diverse landscape, it stands to reason that you’ll never convince an oil tycoon on the prairies that he’s in any way similar to a lobsterman buffeted by salt waves on the Atlantic coast. We are just all too different.

We are not a people blessed with culinary gifts, like the Italians; with a stiff upper lip, like the English; with a big militia like the States; with divine chocolate like the Swiss; or with kick-ass rugby teams and football like Australia or New Zealand. We don’t have a technocracy like China or Japan; we don’t have an ancient indigenous religion like India; and we don’t have dominating physical performances at world athletic events like Russia. When the world looks at us, what exactly do they see?

They, in all likelihood, see a country that is oddly proud of a number of completely unrelated items, all of which are summed up in Molson Canadian’s latest round of "Here’s to you, Canada!" commercials. Of all of them, the single most trenchant observation to come out of it all is that we’re "nice" folk. But there are other things too. Funny Canadian comics, yes. Remarkably pleasant ambassadors. Television programming that has never come within sniffing distance of a censor. Unguarded borders and a military ranking somewhere between Luxembourg and the Salvation Army. Nice beers, yes. Great potatoes. Even our money is aesthetically pleasing. We are the people who say sorry when someone hits us. We are the global peacekeepers. The rest of the world can’t be blamed for believing we’re amiable sorts of chaps, nothing more than America’s cousin with a great personality.

It’s possible–just possible–that all this agonizing over identity is pointless. We should accept being undefinable and make the most of it. Is it so horrible that the specific qualities of being a Canadian are flexible and open to redefinition with every generation? And if the only label we’ve managed is nice, is that so horrible? We could consider it one big umbrella term, the world’s way of packaging a lot of very different but positive qualities into one, manageable little bundle.

Maybe the only answer to the Canadian identity crisis is our lack of identity and the only thing we have in common is our difference. From humble beginnings pioneered by a myriad of people from around the world, we have emerged as a complex and–no one can argue–truly unique society that defies description. We do not a need little card or label to legitimize ourselves as Canadians; a sense of personal or national worth shouldn’t be linked to a stamp on the hand or cartoon on a poster. While the rest of the world gains access to the UN posters by standing in line and being recognizable, we are the cool guy who gets in by being nice to the bouncer everytime, no ID necessary. The very factors which seem to preclude us from having a neat, concise, Canada-centric identity simulataneously provide one. We are the nice guys, the good guys, the guys who get all the free drinks. We shouldn’t torture ourselves over finding an identity because we already have one–and everyone knows it but us.

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