As Canadian as Possible ... under What Circumstances? Public Opinion on National Identity in Canada outside Quebec

By Raney, Tracey | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

As Canadian as Possible ... under What Circumstances? Public Opinion on National Identity in Canada outside Quebec


Raney, Tracey, Journal of Canadian Studies


Public opinion on national identity in Canada is changing. Using data from the International Social Science Programme, this essay presents evidence that most Canadians have a strong national identity rooted in universal conceptions that everyone can share, such as citizenship. Data also show, however, that a growing number of Canadians define their national identity narrowly, such as through birthplace and religion. Drawing on research from social psychology, the essay suggests that theories of Canadian identity need to take into account the fact that many Canadians have strong national identities that do not fit cleanly into the civic/ethnic theoretical dichotomy.

L'opinion publique sur l'identité nationale au Canada évolue. À l'aide de données tirées du programme international des sciences sociales (ISSP), cet article présente des preuves que la plupart des Canadiens possèdent une identité nationale solide enracinée dans des concepts universels que tout le monde peut partager, comme la citoyenneté. Toutefois, ces données montrent aussi qu'un nombre croissant de Canadiens définissent leur identité nationale de façon étroite, comme par le lieu de naissance et la religion. En s'inspirant de recherches de psychologie sociale, l'article suggère que les théories sur l'identité canadienne devraient tenir compte du fait que beaucoup de Canadiens ont une forte identité nationale qui ne s'intègre pas facilement dans la dichotomie théorique civique/ethnique.

In 1972 Peter Gzowski asked listeners on his CBC morning show to complete this sentence: "As Canadian as...?"1 The winning response was "As Canadian as possible ... under the circumstances." Three decades later, the notion that the Canadian identity is impossible to define remains a dominant idea (Gwyn 1995; Resnick 2005; Bliss 2006), and the prospect of a distinctly Canadian national identity (as opposed to Québécois or Aboriginal) is one that has not been taken seriously. When it has been investigated, most often the investigation comes from a theoretical or state-centred perspective, showing how the Canadian state has crafted (or ought to) a "civic" national identity bound by universal principles embedded in its constitution (e.g., the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), policies (e.g., cultural and trade policies), political symbols (flags, anthems), or direct nationalist appeals from political leaders. Consequently, the master narrative of Canadian identity is that it is weak and fragile, and that if it does exist, it is a civic national identity (Ignatieff 1994; Gwyn 1995; Resnick 2005; Bliss 2006).

The dominance of this viewpoint reached a high point in the 1990s, a time of intense national uncertainty. After the failures of the Meech Lake (1990) and Charlottetown accords (1992), which sought to unite Canada through constitutional means, many Canadians grappled with the reality that their country was on the verge of disintegration (Bell 1992; Resnick 1994; McRoberts 1995; Gwyn 1995). Leading up to the 1995 Quebec Referendum, Gwyn observed that Canada's national crisis was so severe that "to be Canadian is to be unbearably light, in terms of identity and nationality" (1995, 255).

Circumstances change: today, the national unity crises of the past 25 years no longer occupy central political stage in Canada. Canadians who were eligible to vote for the first time in the 2008 federal election were only five when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien went on national television to plead with Quebeckers to vote "no" in the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, and they were not yet born when Quebec Premier René Lévesque returned to Quebec after the 1981 Constitutional talks, declaring that the rest of Canada had betrayed his province during the "night of long knives."2 Canada's external environment has also shifted over the last two decades: free trade and globalization continue to expand the Canadian economy beyond national borders, and the increasing threats of global terrorism pose considerable challenges to national security. …

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