On Being Canadian

Posted April 28, 2009 by Rudy Wiebe

Canada begins with the land, and lives by the imagination and will of its people. That a distinct nation should come into existence across the northern half of North America was historically unlikely; that it would survive was uncertain. But after 140 years it has developed as a strong confederation of regions between three oceans and a straight, unnatural border drawn by instruments from the movements of stars.

It is a country six time-zones wide (93 degrees of longitude), with its head high in Arctic ice and its feet in the hot latitudes of the Mediterranean Sea. Ten million square kilometers of land, over half covered by boreal forest, and barely 32 million people.

During the Quebec Crisis of 1971, when it seemed Canada would split apart on an English-French divide, poet Wilfred Watson wrote a short lyric:

the radiant grief of the owners of so much



appalls me  …

makes me into a sorrowful


to have so much world in a world where men

have so little ….

so much earth


what have they done to deserve this?

This is for all Canadians a profound question, and I begin an answer with a basic assumption: one speaks about one’s homeland with the deepest possible affection. I say, “This is my place on earth, my home and native land. It is my inheritance, the place where I have found what I believe, where my forbearers are buried and where I want my children to be born.”

Another basic assumption: Canada is unique among nations. It is not another Australia, a country with which it has much in common, and neither is it a United States of America that, somehow, didn’t quite make it. Canada is, in fact, the northern half of North America, and it is as a northern country that it exists. We invented the word “nordicity” to describe ourselves.

Human beings first came to the western hemisphere through our Arctic. They crossed the Beringia land bridge from Asia and then, over centuries, gravitated south along the Great North Trail which led between the glaciers covering North America until 12,000 years ago.  This trail, which eventually populated the two continents with prehistoric peoples, parallels the length of the Rocky Mountains. The magnificent site of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, Alberta, was developed before the Egyptians dreamt of building pyramids 5000 years ago, and was still being used for gathering food in the nineteenth century. It remains a place of religious celebration for the Peigan People to this day.

As for historic Europeans, 1985 was the millennium anniversary of the Norse arrival in what is now Canada – over five centuries before Columbus. Their tiny communities of fishing and minimal farming lasted some 350 years, because basically the northern peoples of both continents fitted together. They did not massacre each other. The Norse did not try to enslave the native peoples or destroy entire races by disease and working them to death in gold and silver mines, as happened in the Caribbean after the Spanish arrival.

Small fishing, hunting and farming communities made good sense in a cold, rocky landscape. That northern tradition of life continued over centuries: it was largely people from the Orkney Islands and Scotland who, after 1670, opened up the centre of our country to Europeans through the fur trade via Hudson Bay.

My obvious premise: Canada, a land of rock and prairie and mountains and lakes and taiga and forest and tundra and immense rivers and deep, black soil, is quintessentially a country of North. Its soul and genius are those characteristics we admire in the qualities of nordicity. Living in a climate and a geography of enormous extremes, Aboriginals and Whites together developed unique technologies to remain human: technologies like the birchbark canoe, the snowshoe, the dogsled, the national railway, the bush plane, the tractor train, central heating, national health care, the ice highway, the snowmobile, provincial equity payments, a nation-wide network of radio and television that allows everyone from Victoria to St. John’s to Grise Fiord hear and see the same programs via communication satellites. That these flourish in Canada is no accident; they are the imaginative necessities of community in a gigantic northern land.

One recent example: to develop its isolated Arctic mineral resources, Canada has never resorted to Gulag slavery.  Rather, workers are paid the highest wages and are flown, by company plane, to the copper and diamond mines or oil rigs from their home communities in the south or Aboriginal centres around the north. After six weeks of work on site, they are flown back for three weeks with their families, variable cycles that are repeated year after year.

Canada did not become a nation by war. Rather than armies, our history is full of negotiating tables and almost endless talking. Talk, talk, to this day we talk, have a round of elections and when that leads to deadlock we go on talking until we shift ourselves into another election.  Even during the Quebec Crisis of 1971, when an official was killed and the War Measures Act declared, the Canadian Army acted strictly as an enlarged police force until the murderers were arrested and political talk about a united/divided Canada could continue. Honest, committed talk, which still carries on thirty seven years later.

These social experiments, of Aboriginal and immigrant, of French and English living together in a peaceful, multicultural society are, I believe, Canada’s contribution to the world’s common humanity. They are ongoing experiments now being tested in a new way: since 1970 over 60% of immigrants have come to Canada from Asia; the third most common language spoken in Canada today is Chinese.  Can we continue to develop our peaceful society even as we become more diverse in race, language and religion?

And the poet’s original question still haunts us:

so much earth


What have they done to deserve this?

The answer, of course, is:  nothing.  We have worked hard, yes, but millions of the world’s people have worked at least as hard as we, and many still have less than nothing.

Our huge, natural land – so much earth — is an unimaginable gift. In particular, the five million square kilometers of Canadian boreal forest have been called “the lungs of North America;” they must be lived with more wisely than we have until now — for the good of all humanity. For that reason, as much as for many others, a Canada “of peace, order and good government” for all its people, of “true north, strong and free,” must continue to grow.