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Economic Freedom

  5. Culture and National Identity

It is clear that the justification of Canadian content requirements is deeply embedded in the concepts of culture and national identity. For example, section 3 of the Broadcasting Actstates that the system should provide "a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and artistic creativity." The purpose of this section is to explore the meaning of culture and national identity as they underlie Canadian content regulations.

Culture, identity, and values

The many meanings of culture

The term "culture" has several different meanings. It may refer to the appreciation and understanding of literature, the arts, and music.29 It may even refer to growing bacteria for study. For this study, the concept of the culture of a nation is important:

The culture of a nation comprises many aspects. It is shaped and moulded by the background of its people, their languages and beliefs. It includes the many ways that people express themselves in words, movement, music and images. It reveals itself in the ways people choose to spend their time, the music they listen to, the books they read and the films they watch, the sports they encourage, and the historical sites and natural environments they protect. These factors shape how a nation sees itself, and how it establishes its identity. (Statistics Canada, 1995, p. 11)
The culture of a nation is said to be the expression of the character of that nation. Canadian culture is held to be the mirror that reflects the lives, histories, and identities of Canadians. For this reason, governments have tried to protect and promote Canadian culture through subsidies and regulation (Statistics Canada, 1995, p.32).

When the word "culture" is combined with the adjective "Canadian," the problem is compounded. It is made even more difficult when "culture" is combined with "identity" in such phrases as "the cultural identity of Canadians." The Government of Canada (1996, p. 11) argues that "the ongoing cultural dialogue ... defines our national identity, our shared values, and the common social purpose that provides the foundation of democratic institutions." Further, cultural content must "reflect our linguistic duality and cultural diversity."

National identity?

According to Pierre Berton, "One of the unifying forces of Canada is the long debate about who we are. No other country debates the way we do, and that is because of the presence of the [United] States" (Maclean's, July 1, 1994, p. 44). In light of the growing diversity of Canadians' values,30 this debate is likely to become more fractious. Yet Marshall McLuhan once said that "Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity" (Wilson-Smith, 1996, p. 23). The famous Canadian architect Arthur Erickson agrees. He argues that Canada's lack of national identity will prove to be our strength in the next century as the world moves toward a "humanity-wide consciousness." By having "no history of cultural or political hegemony-almost no history at all to hinder us-we are welcomed over all other nations. We are more open to, curious about, and perceptive of other cultures." In Erickson's (1997, p. A17) view, "world economic issues rather than national interest will undermine the old paradigms."

On the basis of extensive polling on Canadians' "silent but deep patriotism," Anthony Wilson-Smith (1995, p. 8) argues that "Canadians are convinced there is such a thing as a unique national identity-even if they are unable to agree on what constitutes it."31 Among the more interesting findings are the following:

  • 74 percent of the respondents agreed with the assertion that Canadians have a distinct character.

  • What makes Canadians distinct? A tendency toward non-violence (30%), and a tolerance of others (29%). 32

  • What makes Canada distinct from the US and other countries? Social programs (38%) and a non-violent tradition (23%). But what about the persistent tensions relating to Quebec? 33

  • Canadians are evenly divided on whether Canada is becoming more like the US. Some 46 percent of respondents who said they would rather move to the US than to a particular part of Canada said they would rather not move to Quebec.

  • Some 77 percent of men and 73 percent of women agreed with the proposition that the way they view themselves revolves largely around the work they do. This is surely one of the most interesting findings for it hardly supports the arguments of cultural nationalists that Canadian content requirements are critical to Canadians' sense of identity as individuals.

    Comparative polling data indicate that Canadians are very proud of Canada's achievements.

    Canadians lead the world in pride of their enduring political system. In fact, says a new international poll testing national pride, Canadians are among the most proud people in the world on a broad range of achievements they attribute to their country. Canada rated third over all among 23 nations polled in 1995 on a list of 15 questions designed to test civic pride in areas such as the economy, culture, the military, and sports. Ireland was first and the US second. (Beltrame, 1998, p. A10)
    At the same time, the results of a recent questionnaire indicate that most Canadians are ignorant of the country's past, people, and geography (Evenson, 1998). Susan Delacourt has offered a new interpretation of Canadian identity.
    We are the world's reigning experts at imagining how other people think and feel, even about us. We can put ourselves in somebody else's shoes at the drop of a maple leaf.... Bilingualism, multiculturalism, and religious and political pluralism are all part of the complicated mix that we call Canadian society. They function with tolerance, but they flourish on empathy. People talk about Canada being an act of will. It may be more correct to say it's an act of willingness. To be Canadian means to be willing to shrug off your own identity so you can imagine what it's like to be someone else. (Delacourt, 1998, p. D2)
    She then wields the stiletto: "Sorry boys, but Canada's personality is showing characteristics that are typically associated with womanhood."

    When compared to other public policy objectives, how important is the search for Canadian identity? A recent survey of 2,369 members of the general public and 893 elite/decision makers (political, bureaucratic, and corporate officials) asked them to rank 22 values for the federal government.
    "Canadian identity" was ranked fifteenth by the general public and seventeenth by the elite.34 "National unity" was ranked seventeenth by the general public while the elite ranked it number 12. (The four items on which there was the greatest disparity were "Competitiveness," number 1 for the elite, number 20 for the general public; "Minimal Government," numbers 3 and 22 respectively; "Excellence," numbers 5 and 18 respectively; and "Equality for all Regions," number 19 for the elite and number 7 for the general public.)
    Canadians-unlike officials in Heritage Canada or the CRTC-do not seem anxious about national identity. A national poll of 1,500 Canadians age 18 or older conducted in November 1996 found that concerns about Canada's culture or national identity were not expressed by even one percent in response to the question, "What is the most important problem facing Canada?" To this open-ended question, responses were grouped into 15 categories and culture or identity was not one of them. The top five issues were: unemployment (31%); deficit/government spending (15%); national unity (15%); the economy in general (6%); and health care (5%). 35 It is possible that the "national unity" category refers to culture and identity as well as the threat of separation by Quebec.

    These figures should give pause to the cultural nationalists bent on using the coercive powers of the state to "create" a national identity and ensure cultural sovereignty. Most Canadians-including the political and bureaucratic elite-think many other issues are much more important.

    Shared values

    If national identity is about shared values, what values do Canadians share? In a mid-1994 national poll, when Canadians were asked to say what "most ties us together as a nation," the top response (by only 7 percent of the sample) was "our system of government." When specific suggestions were offered there was substantial agreement on health care and hockey! (Dwyer, 1994, p. 17). 36 While 51 percent of Quebeckers say that their view of Canada is a relationship among 10 equal provinces, 63 percent of those in the rest of Canada give this response (versus "a pact between two founding groups,"-45 percent and 35 percent respectively) (Dwyer, 1994, p. 17).

    June Callwood (1994, p. 8) suggests that "now it seems, there are hundreds of nations at war within Canada's bosom ... the rage produced by frustration and mistrust between geographical, cultural, and religious divisions is drowning out reason." As for the things that most divide us, the top three were: Quebec separatism (26%), bilingualism/language (23%), and multi-culturalism (6%) (Dwyer, 1994, p. 18). One has only to think of the October 1995 referendum in Quebec to appreciate how divided it is. The people of that province are divided on a central issue. It is difficult to define the character of Canada, to define its important values and to distinguish them from those of other nations. For example,

    The rather fatuous notion of old, that Canadians sometimes are, well, nicer, is not entirely hogwash. Canada's human rights legislations are a codified form of public conscience.... Perhaps the unifying vision for Canada is civility. Fairness to others is a modest aspiration when compared with the dreams of world leadership implied by America's soaring eagle or Japan's rising sun but many advantages would accrue a nation that becomes renowned for a patriotic duty to be kind. (Callwood, 1994, p. 8)
    A few years ago, a Globe and Mail editorial sought to give voice to "the Canadian idea," what "we stand for as a nation:"
    Most of us already know in our hearts. We are against the idea that people should be treated differently because of their skin colour, language, religion, or background. We are for the idea that all Canadians should be treated as full citizens. We are against the idea that any person is more purely Canadian than another, no matter how far back his or her Canadian ancestry goes. We are for the idea that everyone should have an equal chance to succeed on his or her merit. We are against ethnic nationalism, in which people of common ethnicity rule themselves-masters in their own house. We are for civic nationalism, in which people of different backgrounds come together under the umbrella of common citizenship to form a community of equals. Ours is a modern nationalism: liberal, decent, tolerant, and colour-blind. That is what Canada represents to the millions of people who come here from other countries. That is the idea of Canada. (Globe and Mail, November 4, 1995, p. D6)
    This brief discussion is useful because it spells out the values and behaviours that Canada's "national newspaper" says makes us what we are as a nation. But it is important to note that there is no mention of cultural nationalism or the need for a pervasive and intrusive broadcasting policy to ensure adequate Canadian content on radio or television stations. Further, as Globerman (1983, p. 42) points out, "acknowledging that Canadians may possess certain shared values and convictions [the Massey Commission concept of social identity] is not tantamount to specifying the nature of Canada's `identity.'"

    So why does the federal government intervene in cultural activities and, in particular, establish elaborate Canadian content regulations in broadcasting? Is the policy attributable to a weak sense of national identity?

    Weak national identity: English Canada versus French Canada

    Professor Edward Grabb (1994, p. 129) notes that Canadians

    are notorious for wondering about who and what we are, and inevitably seem to define our own identity by comparing ourselves with Americans. More than a few observers have suggested that, in fact, Canadian identity is very difficult to describe or explain, except as a negative. In other words, whatever Canadians are, the one certainty is that they are not Americans.37
    Grabb (1994, p. 132) notes that several analysts have suggested that "our relatively weak national identity [as compared to that of Americans], especially among English Canadians,38 is one reason why Canada is able to accommodate such diversity in its cultural composition." He notes that Canada's foreign-born population (16 percent of the total) is more than twice that of the US and ranks as one of the highest in the world.39
    One interpretation of this situation is that Ottawa has sought to make a virtue out of a notable weakness. Having little sense of who we are, it is easy to trumpet diversity as Canada's "unique identity." This diversity includes regional and linguistic diversity (but only to a limit of two official languages) and multi-culturalism which is reinforced by a host of federal government policies. The result is a "mosaic," rather than a "melting pot." In summary, it is argued that Canada's identity is its diversity or multiplicity of different identities. But we know that individuals do not thrive on multiple identities or internal diversity. Those who have this characteristic may be diagnosed as schizophrenics. Can a nation thrive with multiple identities?

    In contrast to most English Canadians, "French Canadians are believed to have a very clear understanding of who they are as a people and, in this way, are much more like Americans in their nationalism and patriotic fervour"-for Quebec, not Canada (Grabb, 1994, p. 132). As a result, support for Canadian content in Quebec, i.e., French-language programming, has always been strong.

    When television began in Canada in 1952, Montreal quickly became the world's second-largest centre of French-language TV production. Ever since, Quebec television and radio have been dominated by indigenous production. For example, TVA, the province's largest TV broadcaster, includes only one US drama series in its weekday prime-time schedule. To the envy of producers in English Canada, the unprompted allegiance of Quebeckers to home-grown shows has been enough to make TV production a largely profitable business within the province. (Everett-Green, 1995, p. A6)
    The data indicate that Francophones watch much more Canadian content than do Anglophones (about 69 percent versus 32-see table 6 above). The difference is very likely due to language. In Quebec, the use of French is like a small island in a large sea of English spoken elsewhere in North America. In Quebec, Canadian content is largely locally-produced French-language programming. Recently, however, some Quebeckers have become concerned that US cultural products (notably TV programs) have become more popular and that Quebec's culture is being threatened (see Aubin, 1997).

    While the federal government uses a host of policies to differentiate Canada from the US, Quebec employs at least as many policies differentiating itself from the rest of Canada. The motto must be Vive la difference! Indeed, much of the political (and cultural) elite in Quebec is determined to create a new nation-state so as to better able to express their concept of a unique identity (see Mackie, 1995). Canada's tolerance for diversity goes so far as to subsidize the federal party which is openly and energetically devoted to the creation of a sovereign Quebec.40
    Clearly, both the existence of a national identity and the nature of that identity for Canadians is contested. It is also hard to agree on the key values shared by most Canadians. The national identity of francophones seems to be better defined than that of anglophones. No wonder there is so much debate about the role of Canadian content regulations in shaping national identity. I turn now to a discussion of the politics of Canadian content regulations. Despite the many criticisms levelled at it (i.e., see section 8), the polls indicate that CanCon has the support of a majority or near majority of citizens.

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