What’s in a Canadian National Identity?

Journalist Andrew Cohen wrote in 2007: “The Canadian Identity, as it has come to be known, is as elusive as the Sasquatch and Ogopogo. It has animated—and frustrated—generations of statesmen, historians, writers, artists, philosophers, and the National Film Board… Canada resists easy definition.”

Rudyard Griffiths, in his book “Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto” contends that the notion of a Canadian national identity, with shared responsibilities and a common purpose, is considered out of date, even a disadvantage in a borderless world of transnational economies, resurgent regions and global immigration.

He argues, however, that this vision of Canada is an intellectual and practical dead end. Without a strong national identity and robust civic values, the country will be hard pressed to meet the daunting challenges that lie ahead: the social costs of an aging population, the unavoidable effects of global warming and the fallout of a dysfunctional immigration system.

What’s needed, he claims, is a rediscovery of the founding principles that made Canada the nation it is today, core values that can form a civic creed for our own times.

While most Canadians define themselves by first shrugging then claiming “well we’re not like Americans” many more also seem to believe there is no great need for a national identity. And yet self-identity, established through our relationships with the people and places around us and through our various occupations and past times, is central to the choices we make, the preferences and values that steer the course of our lives.

But I am not looking for anything like individual, ethnic, gender, or professional identities. I am looking for an inclusive National Identity.

I personally believe that it’s important, as individuals, as communities and as a nation, to have a clear sense of who we are, what we value and what we are willing to sacrifice for those values. Identity is not a static thing that we are given or find one day and tuck away neatly in our wallets. It evolves as we mature individually and collectively. Identity builds a sense of belonging and responsibility to the community and to the social, political and geographical environment. Without a clear sense of who we are as a nation it’s difficult to have a sense of our responsibilities, not just to one another as Canadians, but to the greater global community and the fragile ecosystem we all call home. It’s also difficult for newcomers to Canada to have a clear understanding of the social and cultural responsibilities that are attendant on their legal and financial obligations when they take the oath of citizenship.

I have also long felt that Canadians are still very much stuck in a colonial mindset. We still cling to the promise of Peace Order and Good Governance, (God Bless POGG), to the detriment of not only our social, economic and civic development, but to our ability to contribute constructively to a peaceful and sustainable global future. We have the resources and the skills, as a nation and as a people, to participate responsibly in global economic, environmental and security dialogues, to make a difference. Our colonial mindset however, has left us with chronically ill defined foreign and defence policies, a tendency to subject our military to a feast or famine existence and a disturbing naivety with regards to our national security. When we do speak up, as a result, few listen.


Wikipedia defines National Identity as ” one’s identity or sense of belonging to one state or to one nation.[1][2] It is the sense of a nation as a cohesive whole, as represented by distinctive traditions, culture, language and politics.[3] National identity may refer to the subjective feeling one shares with a group of people about a nation, regardless of one’s legal citizenship status.[4] National identity is viewed in psychological terms as “an awareness of difference”, a “feeling and recognition of ‘we’ and ‘they’”.[5]

“Understanding others makes possible a better knowledge of oneself: any form of identity is complex, for individuals are defined in relation to other people – both individually and collectively – and the various groups to which they owe allegiance, in a constantly shifting pattern.” UNESCO, Learning : The Treasure Within, 1996