CBC Story on How Canada is Viewed Abroad

2 07 2012

On Canada Day, 1 July, the CBC ran a story about how Canada is perceived around the world. The reporter interviewed a bunch of academics who study Canada and work at universities outside of North America. I answered his questions about British perceptions of Canada as best I could.  Some of my responses made it into the article, but due to legitimate space constraints others did not.  I’m posting my responses to the reporter’s questions below on the off chance they are of interest to others.

How is Canada perceived in your region of the world? 

Canada has an extremely low profile in the UK. British people think about Canada about as frequently as Canadians think about New Zealand. I suspect that the Vancouver Olympics and the Vancouver hockey riots were the only Canadian news stories that were covered on British television in the last five years. Occasionally, the TV news will show pictures of a Canadian forest fire for a few seconds, but only if the footage is really good.   Print media has slightly more information about Canada. A few of the better papers might devote a paragraph or three to the result of a Canadian federal election, although I recall that one paper referred to Canada’s current Prime Minister as “John Harper.”  The Guardian, a left-wing paper with a world-wide readership, occasionally does a story about the tar sands in Alberta, but I suspect these online articles are read mainly by that paper’s many readers in Canada. The Financial Times has good material about Canadian companies such as RIM, but it’s mainly read by  executives and is behind a paywall.

I would say that the advent of social media and viral videos has helped to make images of Canada, or rather image of particular events in Canada, more accessible to British people. Thanks to Facebook, millions of people in the UK saw a picture of a couple lying on a street kissing in the middle of the Vancouver hockey riot. It was a big hit.   I was certainly asked about it on a number of occasions.

As a historian, I’m struck by how little coverage of Canada there is in the British media nowadays. I’m currently writing a book about the Anglo-Canadian relationship just before WWI. At that time, there was tonnes of coverage of Canada in British newspapers, largely because Canada was part of the British Empire. I’m talking front-page coverage here. This lasted until the 1960s, when the Commonwealth became much less meaningful to both countries. Since then, British people have paid attention to Canada only whenever there was a referendum in Quebec or Canada was hosting an Olympic Games. The same pattern show up when you use the keyword search to count the number of references to the word “Canada” in the British parliament. Prior to 1960, you can find many speeches by British politicians that refer to Canada. After 1960 or so, the word frequency drops off considerably.

The degree of awareness of Canada varies enormously in Britain. The general public knows very little about Canada, but there are also people who know a great deal about Canada because their work requires it.

I would say that there is much less truly astonishing ignorance of Canada than there was a few decades ago. In say, the 1950s and 1960s, some British people still thought of Canada as an essentially unsettled area. I think that television, which allowed them to see that there were tall buildings and so forth, ended this romantic view. The fact many British people emigrated to Canada also helped to create a more realistic view of Canada at that time. People knew from letters and photos that their relatives in Canada weren’t living in log cabins. Many British people still think of boreal forest when they hear the word “Canada.” That’s the default mental image.  Intellectually, the British know that most Canadians live in big cities that look basically like big cities in the US.

Canadians continue to be confused with Americans, essentially because we speak with US accents. However, virtually all British people are aware that Canadians dislike being confused with Americans. That’s the one thing they know about Canada.

Some, but not, all British people are under the impression Canada is a US state and that Canadians have the right to vote in US Presidential elections. The key difference is between British people who have actually been to Canada and those who have not. The ones that have been to Canada realize that it’s not simply another US state. A visitor immediately notices that Canadians use a different currency than the United States. At the airport, the customs officials wear uniforms emblazoned with the word “Canada.” This makes visitors aware that Canada has a distinct legal status within North America, even though the cars and the houses look basically the same as in the US.

Many university-educated people in Britain are aware that Canada is an independent country with distinct passports, a seat at the United Nations, and so forth. Within that subset of the population, there are people who are extremely knowledgeable about Canada.  There are British companies, such as Standard Life, that do a great deal of business in Canada. It’s their second-largest market, after the UK. I bet the CEO of Standard Life could tell you the name of Canada’s largest province without having to look it up on Wikipedia.  The same is true for people in minerals and oil.

Several Canadian-made TV shows are broadcast in the UK. However, I don’t think they do much to raise awareness of Canada. The most popular of these shows, Flashpoint, was filmed in Toronto but is set in an (unnamed) US city. There are also several Canadian TV shows aimed at toddlers that are broadcast here. The CBC show, Republic of Doyle, which is manifestly set in Canada, shows here on one of the digital cable channels. British people can watch 30 minutes of Canadian news each day, provided they can understand French and subscribe to TV5, the international French channel.

Blackberry devices are popular but virtually nobody here knows that RIM is a Canadian company.

How has the view of Canada changed over the last few years? 

As I said before, the average British person sitting in a pub doesn’t have a view of Canada aside from forest fires or perhaps the Vancouver hockey riot.  In terms of the university-educated elite, I wouldn’t say that Canada had done anything in the last few years that has changed its image in Britain. However, I would say that British politicians, especially those in Scotland, are starting to pay a bit more attention to Canada. That’s because Alex Salmond, the current First Minister in Scotland, is a separatist. In 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the UK. This has prompted many political analysts and journalists to do a bit of reading about Quebec nationalism.  I know that Alex Salmond has studied Quebec nationalism very carefully.
What does Canada mean to your part of the world? 

Trees and beavers and snow.

How is Canada’s role in world affairs perceived in your region?

Canada isn’t perceived as having a role in the world.

How are Canadians regarded?

Canadians are regarded very positively, I would say. Canadians travelling to Britain should let it be known that they are Canadian, not American. I remember that in 2003 there was a great deal of anti-American sentiment in this country.  Lots of totally anti-war Americans got lectures from strangers in pubs about George Bush and the Iraq War. All that’s gone now, thanks to Obama. However, it is still better to be  Canadian than an American here.

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