Questioning the Canadian Identity

The Canadian identity is an issue professors and leaders of Canadian educational institutions constantly encourage students to think about. It seems since the rise and global domination of the United States, Canada has been having an identity crisis. Being raised in a borderland between the States and Canada, and spending most of my life in both countries, I’ve always been forced to find ways of understanding myself in both nations. 

I was born in Canada, specifically in Toronto. As a child, what I remember of Canada cycled around moments in my family’s deep blue minivan; the one that could squish nine people into six seats on our way to church, or carried the flakes of crumbling spicy beef patties between worn leather seats. The most prominent and final moments of my Canadian childhood found themselves in that van. When it broke down on the side of the highway one evening, it felt like a finale. 

When I was 7 years old, I moved to Seattle, Washington with my sister and my mom. Together, we lived cross-culturally as immigrants and Black women in a country that charted its relationship with race and migration through violence and fear. My Canadian identity pushed me through middle school in the States. The protection of the sweet and repenting Canadian stereotype projected onto the world partly shielded me from the burdens placed on most immigrant children. That was a privilege I couldn’t understand at the moment. To emigrate from Canada to the United State is a vastly different experience compared to emigrating from Jamaica or South Africa as my grandparents on both sides of my family had to Canada decades before.

The harmlessly ignorant ponderings of whether I drank maple syrup at every meal and what language is spoken in “Canadia” (yes, I’m serious) were nothing in comparison to the privileges I received from my Candian identity. These privileges did not come only as an immigrant but also as a Black person. America’s history with Black people is one seeped in exploitation and hatred. The treatment of African-Americans in the country that their ancestors have seemingly built is unfathomable, and coming from Canada, it was a reality that I closed synomynated myself with growing up in the States. I always knew I could escape back across the border and connect back to my family history.

Often, I would have white Americans inform me that they knew I was not from the States, after my Candaianess would come to light. Comments about the way I would speak or my politeness would be brought into comparison with that of other Black Americans. My form of blackness and is distinctness with that of African-Americans was often perceived by my peers as leveled in comparison to Black Americans, which produced a sense of shame for their own expressions of race and national identity. 

I remember how angry it would make me feel when I would gain access into these spaces of “acceptable” Blackness because of my added Canadian identity, though there was nothing tangibly poignant about me that distinguishes me from any of my friends or other Black folks around me. 

It made me angry at Canada because my own truths and understandings about Canadian life told me that if my sister and I had stayed there, if our mother hadn’t made the incredibly brave choice to take her daughters to America, I would have missed out on a world of opportunities that Canada simply did not, and still in many ways does not have. In my mind, Canada was a vague entity made up of only familial connections to bear any meaning in my life, and nothing about myself felt Canadian to me. 

It was in America that I was taught to be introspective, to see a world beyond myself and acknowledge the complexities of a person and their intersecting identities regardless of first perspectives. It was in Seattle that I attended my first protest, a Black Lives Matter protest for Michael Brown, when I was only 13. In school, I learned about the consequences of a world globalized and interconnected through imperialism and greed. And, we assessed the stakes sacrificed and stolen humanity through rebellions, uprisings, and war. My life in America was one centered around introspection. The atrocities set upon the world by the States is a weight that clouds any beauty sustained in the nation. And yet, being raised there - I believe - saved my ability to dream a world I can see, touch, or feel. 

There is an openness to America that often feels suffocated here in Canada. I knew it even as a child through the passive-aggressive racism of Candians shrouded as attempts to gain cultural understandings or the false presence of multiculturalism. This neglects the appropriation of immigrant culture while also dismissing low-income immigrant communities and their lack of opportunities and affordable housing in the nation. 

Canadians struggle to be introspective and to question themselves on a continuous basis. Since we have universal healthcare and no history of slavery, we forget that in many ways we carry the same crimes against humanities as othe powerful, settler-nations of the world. The sweet Candian identity allows for the willful ignorance of Canada’s continuous racism, classism, and sense of superiority that stifles real growth and change as a nation. 

There is a reason why so many creatives in Canada choose to work abroad and why educational institutions continue to push students to study abroad and question what it means to be a Canadian. We can’t grow and develop into a country of real definable substance that ventures deeper than the superficial projections of progressiveness if we continue to remain content with the comfort and safety blanket of placid adequacy. 

Excitingly enough, Canada seems to blooming with the rise of Gen Z. We’re all so fortunate to be alive at a time when the voices of the young are no longer stifled under the critique of age and experience. The perspectives we need now are the ones that have been silenced and marginalized for much of modern humanity. With these perspectives will come the confrontation of questions that will make us examine who we are, not only as a nation, but as individuals with the privilege attached to Canadian identity. The entire concept of a Canadian identity is dangerously nationalistic in a world moving toward centering the indivudual and people power over instituons and established systems dating centuries old. Canada can no longer be known as the antithesis of America. It’s boring, old news, incorrect, and not enough. 

Who we are as Canadians, who I am, is yet to be established. But our power comes from the undiscovered landscapes of our identities - there is a vast emptiness to be built upon, and that is exciting.