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The Canadian Distinctiveness into the XXIst Century - La distinction canadienne au tournant du XXIe siecle

Chad Gaffield
Karen L. Gould

The Texture of Canadian society / Le caractère de la société canadienne

“I Am Canadian!” From Beer Commercials to Medicare: In Search of Identity

Monique Bégin

Texte intégral

1 When preparing for this presentation, I mentioned this conference to Michael Marzolini, president of Pollara Inc., the biggest Canadian polling company, who immediately retorted that “Canada had a culture of envy while the Americans had a culture of greed.” This took me aback, I admit. Although not the terms of my own view of ourselves in comparison to our neighbours to the south – how do we know who we are if not in comparison with the Other? – I suspect that this perception of Canadians has some truth to it. This, however, is a topic for another conference.

  • 1 S.R. Graubard, ed., In Search of Canada (New Brunswick, USA and London, UK: Transaction Publishers (...)

2Today's Canadians, at least Canadians of older immigration stock – Scots, English, Irish – mentally compare themselves constantly with the United States. As Stephen Graubard wrote in his introduction to a Daedalus issue on Canada: “Canada, compelled to live cheek by jowl with a more populous society, itself supremely self-confident and more than occasionally aggressive, particularly in respect to its economic and cultural power, has never found the experience easy. No Canadian is ever able to ignore or forget the United States.”1 And the Americans do not help them – or do they? – in their search for identity with the “Blame Canada!” song that figured prominently at the 2000 Oscars ceremony! French Canadians, however, do not participate in that exercise as much. On the one hand, they are busy opposing ‘the English’ i.e. the rest of Canada; on the other hand, they rather like the Americans and do not feel threatened by them on any level.

3But how do recent newcomers to Canada, first from Europe, then from Asia, South America, or Africa, think and act at that level? Do they adopt our legendary lack of national self-esteem or do they rather focus on the immense potential of global connectedness that their presence among us offers their new country? I would suspect the latter is closer to reality. When co-chairing the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning (1993-1995), I heard repeated demands from parents and ethnic cultural associations, but more importantly from high school students themselves, for the inclusion in the curriculum of international languages in addition to the standard English and French. Some were most interested in the cultural benefits of learning another language; they argued that learning another language and about the culture from which it springs helps students appreciate other people, here and in other countries. Others saw foreign language acquisition in terms of travel and personal enrichment. Still others emphasized the importance of knowing other languages in this era of global business. As a trading nation, being able to speak the language of our trading partners is an advantage, teenage students told us. Our rich variety of linguistic abilities resulting from the number and diversity of new immigrants can make the difference between a deal and no deal, they added, confident that the sky is the limit.

4Actually, Canada is made up of three broad demographic groups: the ‘French’ the ‘English’ and the others – the ‘ethnic’ Canadians. Adding the Native people, the country is made up of four groups. Each of these groups, in turn, subdivides into two, three, or more categories. The French, for instance, meaning the Quebecers, now consist of the old stock of Francophone Québécois pure laine, as well as relatively recent Haitian immigrants, Asian Francophones, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Francophones from North Africa and the Middle East, as well as more recent immigrants from all over the world who have to learn French to settle in la belle province. With them also lives a decreasing but still important group of Anglophones who are either these ‘newly arrived future citizens’ or descendants of earlier settlers. Outside Québec are the Acadians and the other Francophone minorities. Each of the other nine provinces and the three territories show distinctive regional characteristics in their social make-up, not just in their physical environment. The Aboriginals, seen by other Canadians as a clearly homogeneous entity, are-and have been kept-an even more fragmented population. According to the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1992), they form forty-five linguistic-cultural groups in Canada, the Crees and the Ojibways being the largest.

5Consequently, any attempt to find a common denominator among all Canadians in order to define the texture of our society is a very daring and risky proposal. The elusive concept of ‘political culture’ may help us best to capture some elements of what Canadians are all about, or think they are all about. The political culture consists of shared beliefs and values that inform our collective behaviour. This necessarily also includes the perceptions and images we have of ourselves, as well as the icons with which we identify.

6Toward the end of the eighties, writing on this same topic of our identity for the above-mentioned issue of Daedalus, I identified two domains of public debate and two domains of public silence that distinguish us from the Americans and define us as different. The two great Canadian silences in public life were religion and big business, while two great debates were the status of women and issues of world peace and development.

7Americans easily define themselves in terms of particular religious denominations and, as all the past primaries show, bring the issue upfront in their electoral campaigns; Canadians seem to recognize instinctively the potential divisiveness of religion in the public sphere. All public figures consent to a wise silence, despite a voice here and there expressing the moral values of the New Right. It is not always a serene silence, but rather a voluntarily imposed one. Not a tormented one either, but a silence that at times feels like talking. Yet – a silence. Some may argue that the mid-eighties 'acrimonious debate in Ontario about full public funding of the Catholic school system disproves my thesis. This was probably not so much a case of open religious bigotry as an example of barely disguised resistance to the rights of Francophones. In my eight years in the federal Cabinet, religion was never discussed. Trudeau, who shaped Canadian public philosophy for some seventeen years, felt very strongly – as did his predecessors – that religion and politics, church and state, ought to be and be seen as, completely separate. Yet, contrary to the American Constitution, which provides for a clear separation between church and state, Trudeau did not seek to include such a provision in our 1982 renewed Constitution.

  • 2 F. Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: Free Press, 1995)

8If big business is also a silence in our public life, except when we decry it, I think it is because we feel more comfortable thinking of ourselves as a nation of small entrepreneurs and family businesses. Canadians like to believe they are a hard-working people who may at times be daring in business ventures but who have nothing in common with the risk, abuse, and violence of big business. Peter C. Newman's The Canadian Establishment seems more appropriate as a coffee table art book of the rich and the famous than as the rigorous analysis of a Canadian reality that it is. Maybe we are, as American social scientist Francis Fukuyama would say, a “low-trust society,” a fertile ground for family businesses, but one that has difficulty adapting to successful globalization, compared to “high-trust societies” such as Japan, Germany, or the United States.2 But this view of ourselves may be undergoing profound transformation with the mastery, by many more Canadians, of mutual funds and stock markets, the phenomenon of company mergers, and globalization.

9That defining the status of women is a great Canadian debate should not surprise anyone. For a good thirty years now, Canada has shared with the Scandinavian countries the remarkable distinction of being among the few Western nations that have been officially discussing, and acting on, feminist issues at all levels of government. This does not mean that Canada is the ideal feminist environment even if the public debate does include women and women's issues. This debate is about reforms, not radical changes, and this marks the difference between Canada and the Nordic countries. Here, the debate must remain sensible, for only then do all people feel comfortable and reassured that social change will not take place at their expense. Modern feminism has truly been a social movement in Canada and has remained one at least in Québec, with the anti-poverty march of the Fédération des Femmes du Québec under Françoise David's leadership, that resulted in the Fall 2000 World March of Women. In 1982, the equality clause was enshrined in Section 28 of the Constitution and Charter of Rights. This makes our American neighbours envious, for its equivalent, the Equal Rights Amendment, was never passed as the 27th amendment to the US Constitution.

  • 3 M. Catley-Carlson, “Aid: A Canadian Vocation,” Daedalus 17 (4) (Fall 1988): 322.

10The other debate is one that takes place among the citizenry, one that many politicians and senior officials do not seem to see and hear, or are ashamed of: world peace and development. As Margaret CatleyCarlson, former president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) put it: “Whatever our motivation-religious, humanitarian, ethical, idealistic – it is powerful. It is the bedrock of public support for an official aid program... the level of public support [for aid and development over the decades] has stayed high in Canada, in the 70 to 85 percent range.” And, referring to a 1987 survey, she added that “nine out of ten [Canadians] wanted Canada to be among the more generous donors or a world leader in development assistance.”3 We have no reason to doubt that this sentiment has changed, even if many Canadians are sceptical about whether development and aid actually work. In the same way that Canadians think of themselves as egalitarian at home, they feel comfortable with a foreign policy based on an equal partnership among all nations and have never had any expansionist desires. Being the northern neighbour of the wealthiest and only superpower, they are very much aware of the interdependence of nations. Even if their once strong support of American foreign policy has slipped seriously over the last decade, they remain loyal partners, while their officials try to impress Canadian viewpoints and nuances on their Washington counterparts, not always with success. Three topics particularly interest them: famine and poverty; the plight of refugees; and peace and security, including denuclearization of the world. It is as if the national conversation on these issues progresses along an informal network that covers the country. But it is not a national debate, for official Canada wants to dissociate itself from these ‘soft’ issues so close to the population.

  • 4 D. Staines, ed., The Forty-ninth and Other Parallels (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1986); (...)

11These Canadian ‘silences’ and ‘debates’, although controversial, like so many reflections published about ourselves in comparison to our neighbours to the South – for example, Staines's edition of The FortyNinth and Other Parallels, or Malcolm's The Canadians – do not seem to meet once and for all our unending quest for identity.4 No discussion of what kind of a society we are can avoid speaking to who we are.

12And discussing who we are in the year 2000 cannot be done without mentioning the stupefying phenomenon of current TV commercials that choose to do just that: selling goods by asserting, not their products, but who we are, and who we are in relation to the Americans. Canadians will remember the Molson beer ads and the mythical “Joe Canadian.”

  • 5 Used with permission of Molson Canada. ©2000 Molson Canada.

Hey, I'm not a lumberjack or a fur trader.
I don't live in an igloo, or eat blubber or own a dog sled,
And I don't know Jimmy, Sally or Suzie from Canada, although I'm certain they're really, really nice.
I have a prime minister, not a president.
I speak English and French, not American, and I pronounce it ‘about’ not ‘a boot’.
I can proudly sew my country's flag on my backpack.
I believe in peace keeping not policing, diversity not assimilation, and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal.
A toque is a hat, a chesterfield is a couch and it is pronounced ‘zed’, not ‘zee’ – ‘zed’.
Canada is the second-largest land mass, the first nation of hockey, and the best part of North America.
My name is Joe and I am Canadian.
Thank you.5

13But another TV commercial also ran concurrently that I saw repeatedly on the CBC – this time promoting Purex Advanced, a detergent. It stated that “We, Canadians, we work more [implied: than the Americans], play more, sweat more and eat more, and our clothes show it” hence the need for a super powerful detergent. Another ad, appealing to nationalistic gut feelings, had Burger King saying: “And we have it your way, Canada!”

14CBOT (CBC-TV) Newsday had a special interview with the creator of the Molson ad, during which he confirmed it as an unprecedented success. Everyone wants to use the ad. We know he is not bragging. Conservative leader Joe Clark paraphrased it at his party's national convention in Québec City. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps showed it in Boston at an official conference. I was at Canada House in London when our High Commission received a video copy of the ad and enthusiastically announced that it will be used in their future presentations promoting Canada. We watch it, ranted by the actor, in live performances at theatres and hockey games. The Ottawa Citizen of 19 April 2000, in its coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs, reported that: “After his live recitation before 18,500 fans at the Corel Centre Monday night [April 17], actor Jeff Douglas, 28, was rewarded with a standing ovation. The same has happened in arenas from Toronto to Vancouver.” And it seems that there is now a website for “The Rant.”

15The commercial was written by thirty-five-year-old Glen Hunt of the Bensimon Byrne D'Arcy agency in Toronto. When interviewed, he referred to several street interviews of young people, aged nineteen to twenty-five, during which he had elicited their feelings about a number of topics, including their views about Canada. “It was really like a boiling volcano waiting to boil up and erupt,” he said, adding that he composed the 136 words in about fifteen minutes – with some polishing afterwards – for they were things he'd always wanted to say.

16The sociologist in me noted the cultural phenomenon, but I will let the audience draw its own conclusions. Three commercial ads at the same time – and there may be more – exploiting crude nationalism ‘against’ the Americans means that market studies have told the advertising business that it sells. There may be a more profound meaning to it but I do not think so. “The Rant” (Joe Canadian) should be taken at face value: a collective shout, no more, aimed at people who do not hear us. More interesting are the recent focus groups conducted by Environics Research Group for the Bank of Canada that sought to identify a popular consensus on Canadian icons for our new currency bank notes. Well, the only icon that met with some degree of agreement was... the Famous Five, the women who obtained from the British Privy Council the judgment that women were “persons”! So we have a problem; we define ourselves by the negative and when the time comes for positive identification of who we are, we do not easily recognize heroes and we are weary of icons.

  • 6 As a complete programme including both the coverage for hospital stays and doctors visits.

17Let us move from images of ourselves to common values to see if we can find more agreement there. Medicare, our universal health care system, would appear to meet the test. The most loved government programme over the decades, all Canadians, including Québecers, are quite proud of it, even when they worry about its future as they do right now. Only thirty years old, Medicare has become deeply entrenched in the Canadian identity.6 But we are not talking here of the quality or range of medical care, the way we train our nurses, how our hospitals are organized, or who pays what to whom and how. What interests us in a discussion of the texture of our society is the collective belief that our health care system makes us different than others, especially the Americans, by virtue of some intrinsic moral superiority that we attach to our Medicare. As a piece of legislation, the Canada Health Act, 1984, which spells out the five basic conditions or principles of the system, has now reached icon status – so loaded with emotions that it is impossible for any politician to risk reopening the Act, even to improve it.

  • 7 L. Osberg, The Equity, Efficiency and Symbolism of National Standards in an Era of Provincialism ( (...)
  • 8 R.G. Evans, “We'll Take Care of It for You: Health Care in the Canadian Community,” Daedalus 17 (4 (...)

18Public figures like to repeat that while Americans consider health care as a market commodity, we, Canadians, are proud to see it as a public good, “a common citizenship right-something that all Canadians will need at some point in their lives, and something which is available to them because they share a Canadian identity.”7 In the words of health economist Bob Evans, “the Canadian health care system, precisely because it is different, responds to and reflects significant, if perhaps subtle, features of ‘Canadianness.’ It is one of the most convincing forms of evidence, perhaps the most convincing, that we are not Americans after all.... At the most basic level, the public funding system embodies a view of the relationship between the individual and the environment. Nature is, at best, rather hostile and difficult to control. With no regard for virtue or vice, illness or injury can strike anyone. There is no moral reason why the victim should be exposed to financial insult on top of physical injury. Health care in Canada is free, because to charge the patient is to tax the sick.”8

  • 9 R. (Bob) Rae, The Three Questions: Prosperity and the Public Good (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1998): (...)

19Health care systems are the product of specific historical and socio-economic circumstances; they evolve, rooted in each country's political culture, in its value system. In that sense, health care systems are not easily exportable. As far back as post-World War I, we can document historically why and how the Canadian health care system developed as a universal and comprehensive programme, and why and how the American initiatives to that effect failed miserably, ending up in two restricted and targeted programmes – Medicaid and Medicare. We can show how European immigrants of a socialist tradition influenced Canadian political parties and politics, while the same immigration remained a marginal factor in American politics – a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, local political culture. We can explain how the Canadian parliamentary system makes it easier to pass government legislation in the House of Commons than does the American presidential system in Congress and Senate. It is harder, however, to explain how an ethic of shared responsibility comes about. As Bob Rae, one of the rare public figures to speak about values these days, says in his discussion of Rabbi Hillel's three questions: “Social democracy is about reciprocal rights and responsibilities. It is about what we owe each other.... The extension of public, tax-based support for health care and education are rightly seen as the bedrock of modern solidarity.... Public health insurance is a key expression of the principle of solidarity.”9

  • 10 J.K. Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment (Boston, New York, London: Houghton, Mifflin 1992): 28.
  • 11 A. Etzioni, An Immodest Agenda: Rebuilding America Before the 21st Century (New York: McGraw-Hill, (...)

20Some will argue, rightly so, that the principle of solidarity and the value of sharing do not appear to be very high on the public agenda these days. For twenty years in the United States, fifteen in Canada, excessive individualism and self-fulfilment – ‘me-ism’ – has been the rule. The Reagan administration, rooted in neo-conservative economics and the supremacy of the market, preached public budget reductions, tax cuts, deregulation, and general economic renewal through less government, to the detriment of any other public agenda. This ideology swept across North America and, in general, the Western world. Questions of fairness and equity were no longer heard. The “blame the victim” doctrine freed individuals from any collective responsibility. If I succeed, and if my neighbour, separately, also succeeds, there will of necessity be a “trickle down” effect for those at the bottom, the theory goes. Galbraith, talking to America of its political complacency, ridiculed the situation, saying that “Americans were being rewarded as they so richly deserved. If some did not participate, it was because of their inability or by their choice’... [Reagan's] appeal was widespread; it allowed Americans to escape their consciences and their social concerns and thus to feel a glow of self-approval.”10 Ten years earlier, the sociologist Etzioni pleaded with fellow Americans for the need for renewed “mutuality” on the eve of the new millennium – for an enhanced commitment to others and to shared concerns.11 How different from the Americans are we really?


1 S.R. Graubard, ed., In Search of Canada (New Brunswick, USA and London, UK: Transaction Publishers. Originally published as a special issue of Daedalus (Fall 1988), by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1989): vii.

2 F. Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: Free Press, 1995).

3 M. Catley-Carlson, “Aid: A Canadian Vocation,” Daedalus 17 (4) (Fall 1988): 322.

4 D. Staines, ed., The Forty-ninth and Other Parallels (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1986); A. Malcolm, The Canadians (Markham: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1985).

5 Used with permission of Molson Canada. ©2000 Molson Canada.

6 As a complete programme including both the coverage for hospital stays and doctors visits.

7 L. Osberg, The Equity, Efficiency and Symbolism of National Standards in an Era of Provincialism (Toronto: Caledon Institute of Social Policy, 1996): 5.

8 R.G. Evans, “We'll Take Care of It for You: Health Care in the Canadian Community,” Daedalus 17 (4) (Fall 1998): 157,163.

9 R. (Bob) Rae, The Three Questions: Prosperity and the Public Good (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1998): 101, 111, 112.

10 J.K. Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment (Boston, New York, London: Houghton, Mifflin 1992): 28.

11 A. Etzioni, An Immodest Agenda: Rebuilding America Before the 21st Century (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983).


Professor Emeritus, University of Ottawa. She served as Executive Secretary of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (1967-1970), followed by two years in research at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), before becoming the first woman from Québec elected to the House of Commons (Liberal, 1972). She held the office of Minister of National Revenue from 1976 to 1977 and Minister of National Health and Welfare from 1977 to 1984 in the Trudeau Government. The Canada Health Act, 1984, is her political legacy. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and was invested as Officer of the Order of Canada in 1998. She served as Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa from 1990-1997, and currently teaches in the Master's Health Administration Programme

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2003

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