on things canuck-like

Yesterday I made a comment about how we Canadians identify ourselves. Typically a lot of our self-definition is in terms of how we are not like Americans. A certain distressing (to me, at least) smugness lies in the Canadian sense of superiority over Americans.

It is to be expected that smaller, less powerful neighbours will be somewhat jealous of the more powerful next door. I think this is true to America’s south as well as to the north. But for us on the north there is an added sense of competition from sharing the same language, heritage and culture, but not sharing similar positions or power in the world.

Yesterday was Victoria Day in Canada, one of our statutory holidays in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday. The holiday is set to occur on the first Monday before May 25, even though Victoria’s birthday was May 21. This day is one of our uniquely Canadian cultural events. It is always celebrated with a grand parade in our city, complete with American high school bands from Washington state. (I love to hear them when I get a chance to go down to the parade.) This year, our civic pride was boosted by a band from one of our local high schools winning the band competition.

One of our nation’s senators wrote an article in a Toronto paper yesterday on the occasion of Victoria Day. He made an interesting comment that highlights some essential differences between Canada and America.

Here is his comment:

The role of the Crown in the maintenance of who we are and our own brand of national identity remains a compelling force. Our head of state is not elected. Prime ministers and premiers are elected under the rules of responsible governments reporting to democratically chosen legislatures and parliaments. But the continuity of the state, our underlying values and principles, equality before the law, habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence are carried forward by the institution of the Crown.

It reminds all our elected leaders, the civil servants and political staffers who serve in the cause of government or party that there is a higher authority that can and would respond to any effort to violate the Constitution or the core conventions of our democracy and society where the rule of law is supreme. It reminds Canadians that in the kind of democracy we have built, “peace, order and good government” actually reflect a different value set than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The author of this piece is right about a profoundly different value set between America and Canada. If we as Canadians attempt to define ourselves positively, it is in the notion of “peace, order and good government” … but there we go again, we have to make it clear that that is not the same as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I don’t share his Loyalist optimism in the role of the Crown (largely merely symbolic) in keeping or empowering the continuity of our state or the rights of men under the law. Our legislative leaders quite regularly infringe on these freedoms with all kinds of justifications. The Crown is powerless to do anything about it, nor is the Crown really interested in doing anything about it – she doesn’t even know what is going on in her dominion. In Canada, the crown (though embodied in Elizabeth) is nothing more than an idea enshrined in our documents but gradually being eroded by our politicians.

In any case, I offer these thoughts and a link to this article to help my American friends understand something of the Canadian part of my makeup – though I do not share all the ideas of my nation, I am nevertheless shaped in my prejudices by some of these forces. One’s national myths are not entirely escapable.



  1. Don,

    Thanks for your insight into these areas. I did not realize the extent of which Canada is concerned with being “not America,” but the comments the last few days have been illuminating in this regard.

    I was wondering if this is something that you have observed a change in over the years. In other words, is Canada more “not American” today than it was when you were younger? And, if it the “not America” view is becoming more pronounced, do you think it is a steady progression due to the cultural differences – or do you think American politics plays into (or even causes) the level of “not America” feeling at any given time?

    My only Canadian experience is from a honeymoon visit to Niagra and Toronto, etc. and from reading a bunch of Canadian prayer letters over the years.

    Just curious,


  2. Hi Frank

    I don’t think the attitude is particularly more pronounced now than at other times in the past. Our politicians can use this mood to further their own ends and often do so.

    Generally speaking, however, it is more of a general mindset. If you get talking to a Canadian about the differences, you will find that at some point the prejudice will be exposed. Even though I love America, my American wife and children, still their are points where I can’t help myself!

    After all, the redcoats were the good guys, eh?

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. If anything, Canada is less “not American” in its thinking today than it was in 1867.

    The phrase “peace, order and good government” isn’t a popular retort to the American values, but actually our own statement of founding principles, first codified in the British North America Act, 1867. A generally-acknowledged motivation for the BNA Act in 1867 was a fear of absorption by the lately independent 13 colonies.

    Canadians today live in a culture still distinct, but less isolated from our American neighbours. Few of us even remember the phrase “peace, order and good government,” actually, so we positively identify ourselves over a rapidly shrinking list of things: hockey, Tim Horton’s, cold weather, spellings, Thanksgiving in October, and hmm… other suggestions? Of course, even those positive identifiers have a negative twist ;)