Friday, January 16, 2009

What is Canadian? What is American? Let's talk politics.

Is it the Canadian flag? What else makes us a unique group? Are we just Americans? (Image: Rarwriter).
This question came up recently in one of my classes and started my thinking on the topic. Though my first objection may be that grouping people like this examination requires is nearly impossible, I will ignore that problem to discuss what makes up the Canadian identity. On a basic level, we are very much like Americans because we share much of the same cultural content. We, for the most part, watch the same television shows, news, movies, and listen to the same music. Despite this, there is still a difference in public opinion on many issues between the two countries. To examine the Canadian identity, it may be necessary to compare it directly to the American identity.

As mentioned in another recent class, there is a difference in how Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms handles free speech compared to how America's First Amendment does. I personally believe that Canada tends to define freedom of expression as being conditional on whether it infringes on the freedoms others are granted. After doing a bit of research, I found that my opinion was validated by legal interpretations. This definition of freedom of expression is, of course, in contrast to the often stated American belief that they can say whatever they want, regardless of what it is they are saying.

Now that small example sheds little light on this discussion, but it may suggest the trend in the bigger differences between the two countries. The proclaimed notion of absolute freedom in the United States could cause its citizens to feel a sense of uniqueness and superiority -- which is certainly a sentiment many foreign people project onto American travellers they encounter. To state that it's anything other than a projected stereotype is wrong in most cases; the vast majority of Americans are no different than Canadians, and vice versa of course.

So then why does America generally value military power and private enterprise while Canada tends to value public services and corporate responsibility? I believe the differences in perspective have a lot to do with established politics in both countries that have been entrenched since their formation -- entrenched in the words of their founding documents. Canada split from the British Commonwealth peacefully, where as the United States did so militaristically. Perhaps then the differences can be described as merely the side effects of political decisions that have affected the teaching of generations of citizens. Otherwise it seems we are very much the same in that we are all people with the same potential.

There is no way to have this discussion in a non-idealistic way. Many would insist that there is more to the difference than that which has been called political, but I would say that politics is all that nations have to define them. Politics determines education, foreign relations, and many other things that influence how citizens view the world and their country.

Thus, I will stress the importance of political involvement and continue to argue with everyone who insists that voting one way or another doesn't matter. It matters very much and it is our responsibility as citizens. We determine our national identity because it is never fixed. The only way to ensure the accuracy of the identity is to be educated about the issues and take part. If we don't do that, we leave our national identity in the hands of others.