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.

Historian Matt Hayday on the Invention of Canada Day

1 07 2011

Today is Canada’s national holiday. “Canada Day” is actually a recent invention– the name was adopted only in 1982 and the start of federal subsidies for the celebrations coincided with the rise of separatist sentiment in Quebec in the 1960s. (Quebec’s national holiday falls just a week before Canada Day). Until the 1960s, “Dominion Day” was an ordinary day of work in Canada. In fact, in the 1950s some Canadians expressed pride at the fact that the national day wasn’t a day of leisure and nationalistic bombast, unlike the Fourth of July celebrations south of the border.

Like many invented traditions, Canada Day has a fascinating history. The expert here is University of Guelph history professor Matthew Hayday. His article “Fireworks, Folk-dancing and Fostering a National Identity: The Politics of Canada Day,” appeared last June in the Canadian Historical Review. Hayday is the author of Bilingual Today, United Tomorrow: Official Languages in Education and Canadian Federalism.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be attending this year’s event on Parliament Hill, but this  won’t be the first time that British ties played a prominent role in the federal government’s celebration of Confederation.

Hayday reminds us that July 1st was originally called Dominion Day. That’s the name Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was trying to honour back in 1958, shortly after he was elected. Diefenbaker was critical of the previous Liberal party’s attempts to distance Canada from British connections and symbols, and thought an enthusiastic celebration of Dominion Day might strengthen the ties.

Read more here.

To all of my readers in Canada, “Happy Canada Day”. Enjoy your long weekend!

More Dominion Institute Nonsense

29 06 2009

You know that Dominion Day Canada Day is rapidly approaching because the Dominion Institute has released the results of a survey demonstrating that the average Canadian knows very little about Canadian history. See Canadian Press story here.  More press coverage, see here, here, and here. Publishing the results of this survey is an annual ritual for the Institute.

As I have said before, the annual surveys of the Dominion Institute are deeply flawed and display a terrible parochial mindset on the part of their creators. First, the DI survey only test knowledge of Canadian history, the apparent assumption being that it doesn’t matter whether our citizens know about Auschwitz or Pericles, as long as they know about Riel and Diefenbaker.
Moreover, the DI makes no effort to compare the results of its surveys with similar historical knowledge surveys in other countries. (In contrast, science and math surveys of high school students are almost always subject to cross national comparisons and the creation of league tables).

The DI has never presented a shred of evidence to support its claim that Canadians know less about Canadian history than Americans know about US history.  The Globe article on the DI survey paraphrases the argument of Marc Chalifoux, executive director of the Dominion Institute, thus:
“Americans are full of national pride, while Canadians don’t toot their historical horn to the same extent.”

Chalifoux’s notion that there is inverse relationship between national pride and historical ignorance is a very dubious one at best.  In fact, it is risible. A _rigorous_ historical education is actually a fairly effective antidote to nationalism. (When I say rigorous historical education, I’m talking about the type of education that is based on secondary sources that have gone through peer-review). Nationalists, especially ethnic nationalists, trade on the public’s limited knowledge of history.  Some of the most appallingly nationalist dictatorships in history have emerged in societies with very low levels of general and historical knowledge (think Burma).  I think we would all agree that there is more nationalism in the Balkans than in north-western Europe, but it is north-western Europe that you find more educated people. (Being able to recite an epic poem about the Battle of Kosovo doesn’t make you educated in the same way that, say completing a British A-level in history). Modern Germans are very anti-nationalism and almost proud of being unpatriotic. The average German today is probably knows much more history than the average German in say, 1932, because they have spent much longer in school, has more leisure time to read history, and can buy more historical books with an hour’s wages.

Moreover, I’m not certain what the hell “toot their historical horn” means.  The Globe appears to be suggesting that a form of historical education that stresses the nation’s positive accomplishments would be a good thing because it would promote patriotism and loyalty to Canada.  I’m not convinced that such a historical curriculum would achieve these desiderata. Americans are very proud of their country’s recent accomplishments (such as inventing the Internet) but are very aware of all of the bad things that have taken place in American history. For instance, we heard a lot about slavery during the televised coverage of Obama’s inauguration.  Knowing that Thomas Jefferson slept with his slaves doesn’t keep Americans from being patriotic and loyal to the United States circa 2009: people are intelligent enough to know that a nation should be judged by what it is doing today, not by what its members did a long time ago.