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Jeremy Roberts: Canada’s ambiguous identity is still being built, and that’s just fine


Canada Day is upon us! A day to celebrate all that makes us proud to call this vast land “home”.

For most of us, it’s the chance to have a long weekend in the sun. Some might spend it at the cottage, or in city centres basking amongst the crowds, face painting, and fireworks. It’s a celebration of the fact that we are blessed to live in one of the most peaceful, stable, and prosperous places on earth.

For a small segment of the populace, it’s also a day to reflect on the age-old question: what is it that makes us unique as Canadians?

It’s a question that has many answers.

Unlike our American brethren, who on Tuesday will celebrate their own national birthday, Canadians have never had quite as clear a picture of our national identity. Marshall McLuhan once said that “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity”.

Is it our diversity—both linguistic and cultural—that defines us? Are we a cultural mosaic that embraces our difference in contrast to the U.S. “melting pot”?

Is it our dualistic origins, a product of the “Two Solitudes” of French and English that shapes us? Or perhaps we are defined by our Aboriginal, Metis, and Inuit heritage, which has imbued in us a deep love of the land we inhabit?

For some, the answer is as simple as: we are not American. While we love them as neighbours, we have a strong sense that we are different from them.

Perhaps it is because of this ambiguity that governments in Canada have sought to participate in the project of defining our national identity. Throughout our history there have been unique contributions from both Liberal and Conservative governments to that project.

Because of their electoral dominance during the 20th century, Liberal prime ministers had ample time to advance their visions of national identity.

Lester B. Pearson sought to enshrine the notion of Canadians as international peacekeepers into the national mythos. Jean Chretien honoured this legacy, building a National Peacekeeping Monument in 1998.

Pierre Trudeau introduced the policy of multiculturalism, envisioning a country where individuals would be “encouraged to share their cultural expression and values with other Canadians and so contribute to a richer life for us all”.

And many Liberal leaders have sought to define us as a “caring and sharing nation”, bounded by some of our national institutions, like the Charter of Rights & Freedoms or universal health care.

Conversely, Conservative Governments have emphasized different narratives. Founding Father John A. Macdonald argued that we were a nation founded on the ideals of “peace, order, and good government”, in contrast to the more revolutionary “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” espoused by our neighbours.

John Diefenbaker declared that Canada was “a dynamic northern nation” and laid out a northern vision for the country. It would celebrate our identity as “the true North, strong & free”, with emphasis on our ability to thrive in a rugged landscape. Brian Mulroney built on this, commissioning the world’s largest arctic icebreaker, re-emphasizing Conservative commitment to the North in a way that wasn’t done by Liberals governments.

More recently, Stephen Harper sought to leave his mark by celebrating Canada’s military and royal heritage. Rather than viewing the resolution of the Suez Crisis as the defining moment of Canadian foreign policy, his government emphasized the Battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth of our nation—a moment that showcased our fortitude and commitment to fighting for our way of life. Vimy was featured prominently on coinage and money was invested to revitalize the memorial in France.

Moreover, his government reversed a 1968 decision by Trudeau the Elder to remove the word “Royal” from our military branches. Combined with numerous royal visits and an extensive celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Harper government sought to place our monarchy, along with its values of service and perseverance, at the centre of our national identity.

All of this brings us to our current government, whose recent decision to redesign the Canadian passport appears emblematic of its approach to identity-building.

Gone from the passport are Vimy Ridge, Billy Bishop, the pier in Halifax, a westbound train, and an Inukshuk (amongst other national symbols). Instead, we find pictures of the changing seasons and of nature.

Our historical stories have been erased. This has given new breath to the arguments of many on the Right that the current government is more focused on “apologizing” for our history rather than “celebrating” it. Perhaps it’s not an either-or proposition.

Now, I grant that very few people have taken the time to look through their passports and reflect on their national identity.

But the episode harkens back to Justin Trudeau’s declaration in 2016 that Canada has “no core identity” and that we are “the first post-national state”.

This mantra has been evident throughout his tenure as prime minister. Unlike Liberal and Conservative governments before him, his government has done relatively little to weave a narrative around national identity. The passport redesign has put this question in front of us. Do we want a government that engages in national identity construction, or not?

There is a strong likelihood that defining national identity may be a fool’s errand for governments. Our identity may be organic—growing from the ground up over the course of our 156 years. But the issue of national unity—an ever-present reality in Canada—looms large. Transcendent leaders have the ability to unite. To weave a narrative about where we’ve been and where we’re going. This is storytelling at its finest, and some of Canada’s greatest leaders have left their marks. In the coming years as elections loom and the political landscape continues to reshape, it will be interesting to see what stories we are told, if any.

In the meantime, on this celebration of our Confederation, I hope you take a moment to reflect on what makes you a Canadian. What binds us together from sea to sea to shining sea?

Happy Canada Day, Hub readers!

How to enjoy Canada Day, according to Hub staff and writers


Rain, wildfire smoke, and a nagging sense of colonial guilt may be putting a damper on some Canada Day celebrations this year, but at The Hub we’re determined to have a good time on July 1.

Whether it’s a small gathering with family and friends or a massive outdoor party with some CanRock luminaries, there are still a lot of options out there. We’ve assembled some of The Hub‘s contributors to tell us what they’ll be doing on Canada Day and what the holiday means to them.

Howard Anglin

Canada Day was a close call this year. Both Calgary and Toronto first cancelled their annual public celebrations and then quickly reinstated them after sharp backlashes. We’ll have to wait till next year to see if this marks a turning point against po-faced oikophobia or just one last reprieve, but for now we are still officially permitted to celebrate our country.

Selfishly, I wouldn’t miss the festivities: I don’t like fireworks, crowds, or public concerts. But I would regret what it said about our country to be too ashamed to mark its national holiday. Canada’s history includes much to be proud of and, in the sweep of history, comparatively little to regret, but you wouldn’t know it if you listened to our city councils, which seem more concerned about atoning for the wrongs of the past than fixing the problems of the present. Maybe they would have got a better reception if they’d proposed to use the money saved on fireworks to deal with tent cities.

While our city councillors brood on our national failings, I will be enjoying Canada Day as I usually do: performing a commemorative reading of the Hansard text for July 9, 1982, when a handful of Liberal Jacobins rammed through without quorum the name change from Dominion Day to Canada Day, then cracking a Hoyne pilsner, reading the passage from That Summer in Paris where Morley Callaghan knocks down Hemingway (our literary “burning down the White House” moment), and staring at the Pacific with a wondrous gratitude, like Alex McKenzie first scenting the salt sea at Bella Coola.

Rudyard Griffiths

Canada Day in recent years has become a wistful national observance for me. This stems from the experiences of an earlier part of my life when I started and ran for a decade, from the late ’90s into to end of the first decade of the century, a charity called the Dominion Institute (DI).

In the aftermath of the near miss of the Quebec referendum a group of us in our late 20s became animated by a simple idea: English-speaking Canada’s lack of awareness of its history, its growing amnesia about its past, was a threat to federalism and a unified country. Thanks to some luck, an early generous donor in the form of the Donner Foundation and a national moment where Canadians were looking for touchstones to shore up the country’s shaky sense of self, the DI was launched in 1997.

Over the next ten years we raised millions of dollars for educational programs that explored Canadian history, civics, and an understanding of national identity that consciously embraced our “colonial” past, warts and all. One of our initiatives I was most proud of was sending thousands of WWII and Korea War veterans into schools to talk firsthand with what ended up being hundreds of thousands of kids about their wartime experiences.

Looking back now on my decade-plus at the DI I am reminded of  L.T. Hartley’s famous quote “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So much has changed in a span of a few short years when it comes to our collective sense of history and nationhood.

For many of our fellow Canadians it is now all but impossible now to think of our past as a source of unity and pride. Now broad swaths of our history, especially its colonial chapters where so much of our uniquely Canadian identity was forged in war, nation-building, and internal conflict, are viewed as something that should be actively erased, torn down, and expunged from memory. It is quite simply impossible to think of starting an organization like the DI today. It would be pilloried into oblivion by a Tweet storm before you could sing “O Canada”.  

That is a loss for our country. Our need for touchstones of belonging today is evidently as great or greater than the aftermath of the Quebec Referendum. Hopefully someone, somewhere this July 1 is thinking about how we can bolster our unity as a nation in the turmoil and tumult of the 2020s. It is not mission impossible. Pendulums swing. Fads pass. Events often transpire to remind us what in fact is important.

To all our loyal Hub readers, a big happy Dominion Day. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Sean Speer

We have a binational household. Our two-year-old was born in Ottawa and our infant was born in New York City. The two-year-old now recognizes the Canadian flag and has a vague understanding that he’s Canadian and his brother is an American. (We haven’t yet gotten the youngest his Canadian citizenship.) He seems to like the distinction. It’s something special or different about each of them. It probably means that we should celebrate both Canada Day and the Fourth of July this year.

I don’t quite know though how the celebrations themselves ought to differ. How does one distinguish between the spirit of Peace, Order, and Good Government, and Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness in planning a backyard party? The legality of the fireworks perhaps?

Maybe I’ll just drink Canadian beer on Saturday and American beer on Tuesday. Or make the boys watch TSN’s day-long coverage of the first day of NHL free agency on Canada Day and Rocky IV or the original Red Dawn on the Fourth of July.

It’s a big decision. We may be unwittingly starting a family tradition. That’s the best part though of course. Being together as a family and having experiences and memories that may seem a bit unusual or different but they’re ultimately ours.

Who am I kidding? With two kids aged two and younger (and a poorly-behaved beagle), my wife, Katelin, and I are not really making the decisions anyway. We’re just trying to hold things together until the boys are finally asleep and mom can have a glass of wine and dad can have a beer. At that point, it really doesn’t matter where it’s from.

Happy Canada Day (and the Fourth of July) from our family to yours!

Amal Attar-Guzman

Growing up, I, along with my family and friends, celebrated Canada Day every year basically the same way: a barbecue or picnic, playing sports and card games, eating and drinking merrily, and then ending the night watching the fireworks. For us, Canada Day was a celebration of feeling at home in a country where we were safe and we can be who we want to be and nothing (and no one) can tell us otherwise.

However, that changed in 2020. Not only did the pandemic put a damper on things, but as issues of racial injustice in North America and stories of unmarked graves of Indigenous children the year after went to the forefront of social consciousness, to celebrate Canada Day seemed unseemly and even cruel. It left a bad taste in our mouths. This, along with economic and affordability challenges, Canada Day was put on the backburner.

This has been my stance for the last few years. But that has somewhat shifted recently. A close graduate friend of mine recently became a Canadian citizen after being a permanent resident for so many years. After suffering through the citizenship process, he finally took the oath. As I visited his and his partner’s apartment, a string of Canadian flags was still hanging up in their living room from celebrating this milestone days before.

Seeing and hearing the absolute excitement in their faces and voices immediately gave me perspective. I just imagined this is what my parents felt after they became Canadian citizens: finally becoming citizens in a stable country with ample opportunities. When I spoke to them about their immigration experience and citizenship ceremony, they still had this light in their eyes despite this occurring decades ago.

Any country’s history is not without its dark sides. But celebrating Canada Day is a statement, that in spite of all that, communities that were and still harmed are resilient and always push towards a better future. This spirit of resilience, fight, defiance, and gumption is what pushed Canada forward and to become better. This is the story of communities facing injustices, calling it out, and doing something about it. This is also the story of Canadians from all backgrounds and stripes who pushed innovative thinking and broke barriers when the society of the day was not ready to let go of status-quo thinking. They didn’t let anything stop them so why should we?

So this year, I will be celebrating Canada Day. I will be going to a picnic, playing sports and card games, eating and drinking merrily, and then ending the night watching the fireworks. My celebration is not to dismiss or discredit historical and current ills. My celebration is to acknowledge them while being inspired to actually do something about them. It is time to remember and celebrate our countryfolk’s grit and gumption- past, current, and future.

Stuart Thomson

Somehow I ended up in Ottawa alongside my three best friends from childhood. Four Haligonians landlocked in the nation’s capital.

We have two mandatory gatherings each year: the Christmas Daddies telethon hosted by CTV Atlantic in early December and Canada Day.

The telethon is an excuse to get together when the days are shortest and eat Halifax donairs. Canada Day is for eating burgers and chips and catching up before everyone goes off for separate summer holidays.

It’s also the day where the ambient and unspoken gratitude in my brain takes the shape of a conscious feeling. It’s a good day to remember how lucky I am that, like Sir John A. Macdonald, another Scottish-Canadian, “I was caught young and was brought to this country before I was very much corrupted.”

Karen Restoule

For as long as I can remember, I have spent every Canada Day at our family home in Dokis First Nation. It starts with a slow morning with a big breakfast, before heading out to local gathering spot for a day of sun, swimming, visiting, and cold drinks. We enjoy an outdoor pickerel fish fry (or walleye, for some of you!) before we cap off the day with marshmallows over the fire, beers, guitars, and fireworksWhile this year, we won’t be lighting fireworks in response to the dry environmental conditions, lots of fireworks.

It’s a full day spent appreciating life here in Canada and all that it has to offer: fresh air, vast lands, fresh water, family, friends, and good cheer!

In recent years, Canadians have been awakened to some of the harsher realities of our shared history. As some, generally more urban types, have struggled to make sense of it all, they have taken to public platforms to express shame and guilt on anyone celebrating Canada Day, including Indigenous peoples.

I agree that — yes — it is tough to reconcile a day that both celebrates the beauty of Canada and serves as a reminder to First Nations peoples of the imposition of British authority and governance that led to the destruction of our laws, governance, families, and way of life. It is especially challenging when your very own family has lived through the wickedness of residential school, day school, as mine and so many other families have.

However, this is not something that is front of mind on July 1st exclusively. We carry this intergenerational experience with us every day. And while I cannot speak to the experience or views of all Indigenous peoples, I can say that in my experience, a deliberate choice is made on Canada Day and every day to look beyond the darker points to see the positive advancements being made in our time, be it the justice served through residential school settlement and others or through opportunities created through key partnerships on major projects that advance economic reconciliation.

These have been advanced jointly by Indigenous and Canadian citizens alike, with recognition for the injustices of the past and an ambition for a better future.

And that is what I will be celebrating this year on Canada Day in Dokis Bay.

Janet Bufton

Weather and wildfire smoke willing, we’ll be privileged to spend Canada Day weekend in Ontario cottage country and Canada Day itself camping. We’ll take the kids to stay with my parents in the Haliburton Highlands and meet up to camp overnight with old friends for a reunion on Lake Simcoe.

Kid One (almost four) is interested in holidays so we will probably talk about Canada Day. We are so lucky to live in a country like Canada and we try to balance appreciating that luck with the ways that Canada has never been good enough—always a work in progress. I hope she will want to make her community and her country a better place and have sympathy and understanding for how others try to do that, too.

I’m an unrepentant urbanite, but I can still enjoy salamander, frog, and crayfish catching, and I hope both kids can get a kick out of those things for a few days. Plus, any excuse to stop for wet Cajun wings at The Granite in Bancroft.

And I expect Kid Two will have fun marauding new and non-babyproofed environments.

Sandie Reid and her daughter-in-law Candace Reid ride a float during a Canada Day parade in the rural community of Cremona, Alta., Friday, July 1, 2022. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

Jack Mitchell

To celebrate the Day of the Canadian Dominion, the Mitchell-Galvanek household will first rise early to stare at the calendar and realise there is no scheduled baseball: not a practice, not a game, not a lesson, not even at the batting cage; and the penny will drop. We will then make our way to the Halifax Common, each sporting some piece of red or white clothing—though not the full-on Carnival garb of an Ottawa Canada Day. There is usually a flypast at noon, maybe a paratroop drop, and a general bubbling of celebration. After that we’ll walk home to escape the heat (we hope!) of the day and watch a movie about Canadian history—probably Hyena Road, which the boys have been asking about and are probably old enough for. Likewise, this year they’ll be allowed to stay up to watch the fireworks over the harbour. Then to bed, as the baseball schedule only concedes one full day to patriotism.

Malcolm Jolley

There aren’t a lot of truly Canadian foods that belong to the English-speaking people of this land who settled west of Montreal. This is largely because until recently the American border was porous. Between 1850 and 1950 it’s estimated a million Canadians emigrated to the USA and a million Americans reciprocated by moving here. They brought their recipes with them.

It’s also because having a truly distinct national cuisine requires some tradition of peasantry. Things get interesting when people are poor enough to have to stretch out bits of meat or cook with weird vegetables. The settlers that cleared the land west of the Ottawa River surely worked hard, but they were free and owned their farms. They had the privilege of making boringly bland, New England-style meals from the fruits of their labour.

For Victorian Canadian food innovation, like today, one has to look to enterprise. There’s a reason Toronto is known as Hogtown, and in the middle of the nineteenth-century English emigre William Davies decided his fortune would be found in a pork barrel. He rolled his pickled pork loin in a yellow dust made from the same peas people made soup from and hoped to sell it to the Royal Navy, who were busy clearing Ontario’s old-growth forests to mill the masts for their ships.

Peameal bacon was a hit, but not so much with the fleet of the Empire as with the colonials. Descendants of them, like me, know peameal makes a superlative sandwich that can’t be found anywhere else. Some time around the middle of the day on July 1st I will be enjoying one with friends and family with a cold locally brewed ale. I hope my compatriots will enjoy some version of the same thing, maybe Kosher or vegan, or with a seltzer instead of a brew. That part doesn’t matter, it’s the nod to our history that counts. That will pave our way to the future.

Richard Shimooka

Over the past decade or so, I’ve increasingly identified Canada Day with a single person, my grandfather-in-law Ron, whose birthday lands on that date. Usually there’s a party—as with this year which will mark the celebrate of his 90th birthday.

Now many cynical readers will think this is clearly an attempt to ingratiate myself with my in-laws’ extended family, and it isn’t (yet). Ron embodies many positive Canadian values, including selflessness, hard work, and tolerance, which are worth expanding on.

Ron was born into a hardscrabble life in the coastal forestry communities. There he cultivated cultural awareness and acceptance, as First Nations, Asian and European immigrants interacted in close proximity. Later he would serve in the Royal Canadian Navy as a cook, after which he returned and led a quiet, but fulfilling life building a family and helping his community. For all the time I’ve known him, he’s constantly volunteered to help others, often by applying the cooking skills he learned from the navy to serve hundreds of people. I’ve been reliably informed by a number of individuals of impeccable standing (okay that is a shameless effort at ingratiation) that he has long acted in these ways.

So I can’t really think of a better way to spend Canada Day than to celebrate Ron’s birthday and his remarkable life.

Fireworks explode above the Peace Tower and Centre Block during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, July 1, 2019. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

Steve Lafleur

Canada Day is a time to celebrate and a time to remember—both the good and the bad of Canadian history. It’s possible to be proud of the good parts while conscious of the bad parts. Indeed, progress depends on it.

Canada is the best country in the world, and the one that has most successfully weathered the global populist storm. But we have a lot of work to do. Some of that is rectifying injustices of the past, some is addressing injustices of the present. We’ve yet to achieve the task of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, and we’re in real danger of locking a generation out of the housing market. We need to look both backwards and forwards to solve our problems.

That’s what I’ll be thinking about on Canada Day. A great, imperfect country that can be even better in the future, if we make the right choices.

Brian Bird

I am marking this Canada Day by celebrating the arrival of a new Canadian. On June 28th, my wife and I welcomed our daughter Michelle to this world.

The proximity of Michelle’s birth to Canada’s birthday renews my gratitude for the blessings we enjoy in this country. No place is perfect, but in countless ways, Canada is a beacon that shines brightly within the community of nations.

Canada of course faces challenges, the most pressing of which may reside in the stitches of our social fabric. How we proceed with matters like reconciliation, euthanasia, and gender—among other issues—will shape the future of this country in fundamental respects.

Even in the early days of parenthood, the impulse to realize a better Canada commands deeper significance for me. We will not always agree on what “better” looks like for Canada, but we improve our chances by imagining life when we are no longer here. The objective features of a good society appear more readily, in other words, when we think beyond ourselves.

What kind of country do I desire for Michelle and her generation? This question will define every Canada Day for me from now on.

L. Graeme Smith

One of the many things Real Canadians of Van-Ott-Mon-Tor stock don’t have the slightest idea about is a Canadian summer. Sure there’s a summer down there. But if you live below this line, I’m sad to say you’re a sorry southerner only experiencing a shadow of our sunny season’s true capacity.

In Edmonton, where I’m typing, the summer solstice this year stretched itself into a day lasting 17 hours, two minutes, and 45 seconds. In Thunder Bay, it’s 17 hours and 46 minutes. Keep going up to the true north of the True North and you’ll meet the midnight sun in Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. 

This year for Canada Day I’ll be driving down to Ponoka to watch the stampede and take in the small-town festivities until evening. And later that night I’ll drive back to Edmonton while the sun is still holding high above the horizon and the day won’t be in any rush to end. 

If any of that sounds nice to you then maybe this time next year come north, come west, come watch a rodeo, come take in the fireworks celebrating our Dominion even if you have to wait until a little later in the day for that last one because up this way the sun is going to take its time to slip away and there’s always some light that lingers longer than you expect.