Canada is in the news for bad behavior, which means bemused questions from my American friends about whether or not I still have any civil liberties. It also means an outpouring of excuses from Canadians about how the world stage has caught us on a bad day — this isn’t actually who we are.
As always, nobody made it personal until Canadians did so themselves. When a convoy of truckers rolled up to the nation’s capital to high-five cops and complain about vaccines in January, the country’s reputation wasn’t really in peril. But, on social media, a vocal contingent insisted that the right-wing occupation, while being something they opposed with every fiber of their homegrown being, was really and truly about them. Slogans like the old chestnut “I am Canadian,” the not all men–lite of “Not My Canada,” and the embarrassing identity-speak of “As a Canadian” blazed across Twitter in the tens of thousands. The hashtags were occasionally used by the convoy and its supporters, but they were more commonly appended to phrases meant to show our true national character, which is to say, law-abiding, mask-wearing, fully immunized, a good hang, and definitely not racist.
This obsession with policing the borders of the nation’s character isn’t new; rather, it’s what the country has built much of its brand on. Canadian pride has always bloomed around a sense of us-and-them woundedness — people have been practicing for a moment like this for years. One of the phrases that’s gotten a lot of play in the past few weeks is “I Am Canadian,” the slogan of an early-aughts beer commercial that staged a canny trade between Canadians’ feelings of cultural inferiority and full-throated national pride. In 2000, Molson Canada released a sixty-second ad spot of a flannel-clad, mangy-looking white man who rants into a microphone about all the ways his homeland is different — and notably superior — than the U.S. His litany involves the usual touchstones: we love diversity, we hate policing, we believe that “the beaver is a proud and noble animal.” The ad is a cringey display of insecurity — when it comes to describing ourselves, especially to ourselves, is not America really the best we could do? — but it went viral before virality was a thing. They would air it in stadiums and cinemas and Canadians would go apeshit (and buy a ton of beer). This is what many people have insisted on rallying behind as proof of being not like those other Canadians — that the beaver is a proud and noble animal.
Similarly, large swathes of our journalism have been powered by the phrase “meanwhile in Canada,” which pivots on the same idea — that the news south of the border is a constant stream of tragedy and human rights violations, but up here, we’re a bundle of laughs. A representative example is the phrase appended to a photograph of Trudeau cuddling baby pandas at the Toronto Zoo, the implication being that the country’s running perfectly and there’s nothing more serious requiring his attention. HuffPost Canada, may it rest in peace, ran an entire “Meanwhile in Canada” story category on their site, with an archive going back to the fall of 2016, a telling time to start flaunting such smugness. Some of this is gentle self-mockery — Americans have dragged us for dullness and niceness long enough that we’ve decided to follow suit. But it’s one thing to poke fun at yourself for being a square; it’s another to claim that you’re such a square that all the bad shit perpetrated by your government and your compatriots is an anomaly every single time it happens. That’s an awfully delusional pass to give every kind of atrocity, and it provides a dense cloud cover for something like right-wing radicalism.
Early in the pandemic, when I was going on my stupid little daily walk, I clocked almost immediately that more Toronto houses were flying the national flag. The maple leaves appeared slowly and then seemed to be everywhere at once, as if the social pressure to display them was building in real time. I’m not big on omens, but this one felt pointedly ill — we faced a global threat and our response was to think nationally? It felt narrow-minded, smug in an unearned way, by which I suppose I mean it felt Canadian.
Canadian pride has always bloomed around a sense of us-and-them woundedness — people have been practicing for a moment like this for years.
The new variant of Canadian nationalism stretches the idea further than ever, implying that “good” Canadianness is something like an identity under attack. This is a global problem as well as a local one: The language of inclusion and social justice circulate so freely that, to the casual observer, they can look like they’re anyone’s game. On Twitter and in the pages of national op-eds, white people have learned to copy the moves.
This wasn’t an issue of white supremacy or terrorism, argued this group of patriots who have multicultural friends, but the fundamental goodness of our people. This type of rhetorical move — making the political conveniently personal — has become a common feint in recent years, both within this context and beyond it. It’s a handy little distraction: pretend to interpret a structural problem (shameful, messy, expensive) as a personal insult (easy, satisfying, free) and you don’t actually have to do anything to fix it. The myth of this country’s exceptionalism is less tenable than it’s ever been, all the more so in the wake of the convoy and subsequent government response. And yet, enough people are desperate to hold onto the story of our niceness that the thing just won’t die.
Invoking the identity-first language of “As a Canadian …” is especially squirmy. Traditionally, the formulation prefaces a statement — like “as a woman of color” — that takes its authority from a speaker’s lived experience. Often, that experience is one of being marginalized. (As Jenny Zhang writes, that type of rhetorical shield can also be a conversational truncheon, cynically deployed to prove the speaker’s automatic rightness.) It’s not, in other words, exactly the purview of white people. But their belief that they’re entitled to that language is how we wind up with op-eds like this one, published by the Globe and Mail in May 2021: “The term ‘BIPOC’ is a bad fit for the Canadian discourse on race” because, as the author argues, the real victims of settler colonialism in this country weren’t Indigenous peoples but white French Canadians. Progressive language has been so decoupled from actual accountability that you can use it to reclaim or bury virtually anything, no matter how blatantly hypocritical. Canadians have always known this. There’s even a whole term for it: maple-washing.
It’s possible that the Ottawa occupation could have been an opportunity to assess this story of national goodness and explore the various ways it’s done real harm. As police broke up the occupation in Ottawa this past weekend, it became clear that we’ve largely missed that chance. People seem more interested in litigating our internal differences along even less imaginative axes, yelling about the various ways the New York Times has flubbed reporting on the story, and perpetually obsessing over the ways we are and aren’t like America.
We could have come out swinging for anything as our distinctive trait. Somehow, we got saddled with better than them, which is closer to the absence of a distinctive trait than the presence of one. It’s one that people have stuck with despite centuries of evidence to the contrary. What is it, I’ve often wondered, that makes Canadians so defensive about the way this place is perceived, that prevents them from seeing it for what it is? What could possibly have caused a wound so severe that it merits this elaborate architecture of denial? Is it because the U.S. got the better national parks? Lasting publicity for slavery? More cultural capital, superior TV shows? Say what you will about Americans, but when shit is bad, at least they’re likelier to cop to it.
Tajja Isen is a writer and editor. Her essay collection, Some of My Best Friends, will be published in April.