The question “What does it mean to be Canadian” is one that this country’s greatest leaders, thinkers and writers have wrestled with since our inception.
At a time when the people of Britain are struggling with their own identity in the wake of the Brexit vote, and the United States appears headed for a bitter presidential election with the potential to greatly change the way the country sees itself on the world stage, Canada stands in stark contrast.
As we sit here on the eve of Canada’s 149th birthday, it’s readily apparent that the Canadian brand is evolving in a way that not only acknowledges our past but embraces an independent future where change is inevitable.
Despite our enduring links to both Britain and the U.S., Canada is now confidently different from our Commonwealth brethren and our neighbour to the south. So what is the brand identity Canadians celebrate on July 1?
Roughly 35 years ago, SCTV gave us Bob and Doug McKenzie and introduced the world to the stereotypical Canadian “hoser.” For many Canadians, and to the rest of the world, the Canadian brand was one of Mounties clad in red serge, beavers, maple syrup and a country of polite, beer-drinking hockey fans.
But as comfortable as that nostalgia can be, those images paint an insufficient piece of the Canadian brand – a brand that is evolving before our eyes as our country grows up and puts a different foot forward for the rest of the world.
Statistically speaking, we are more different from these stereotypes than we realize. Is hockey really Canada’s game any more? According to Statistics Canada, more Canadian adults play golf and there are twice as many kids playing soccer as there are playing hockey. The Toronto Raptors’ and Blue Jays’ playoff runs drew television ratings once reserved only for Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts.
“We The North” is the new “True North Strong and Free.”
For a long time, Canadian identity was conceptually tied to Canadian geography, but for the majority of us that’s simply not the reality. One in five of us is foreign-born, and 81 per cent live in urban centres rather than those picturesque mountains and prairie fields with which we’re often associated.
Those once-iconic Canadian stereotypes don’t reflect the current Canadian experience (though I do know a lumberjack or two).
Of course, it’s not to say that beavers, Mounties and Saturday nights watching a tilt between the Leafs and Habs aren’t still a part of the Canadian identity. It’s just that we’ve grown as a country – and as the Canadian experience changes, so, too, has our brand and what we stand for as a nation.
Most notably, we no longer, and arguably never did, identify as “America’s Hat.” There has been a marked change in our nationalistic identity based entirely on the Canadian-American relationship. As our friends to the south consider fleeing north for political asylum, we move from being considered their quirky (and slightly backwards) neighbour to being defined by our progressive outlook.
It wasn’t that long ago that our national identity was most easily defined by our un-Americanness. Today, Canada is no longer defined by what it isn’t but by what it is.
While marketers still rely on some of the old standbys of Canadiana in their content, a growing number are showcasing the progressive, pluralistic, modern Canada.
And while we embrace these changes, we do so with a confidence that we are not leaving an idyllic, nostalgic past behind. The Brexit vote revealed a different sort of identity crisis – one where more than half the population looked to the past with rose-coloured glasses, voting with a sense of nostalgia and a rejection of change.
As both the U.S. and Britain wrestle with the future of their national brand identities, Canada moves forward with a hopeful eye on the future. The Canadian mandate that might have been called passive is now recognized as a policy of deliberate kindness and inclusion. Polite, maybe, but not without purpose.
As Canada’s brand value grows, so, too, does the demand to be met. Canadian brands need and continue to evolve with our identity, not lean on the safety of stereotypes.
The most successful homegrown brands focus not on our differences, not on our un-Americanness, but on the complexity of the Canadian experience.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jun. 30, 2016 5:00AM EDT