Unlike Americans, Canadians tend to lack knowledge and have little passion for learning about their history, maintained Andrew Cohen, associate professor of journalism at Carleton University. Cohen was joined by CBC Newsworld Washington correspondent Henry Champ to discuss his latest book, The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are, at an event hosted by the Canada Institute and the Canadian American Business Council on June 12, 2007. The book explores Canada's history, politics, institutions, and culture in an effort to explain why Canadians remain ignorant of their own history, demand little in return for Canadian citizenship, and continue to struggle to define a clear Canadian identity. He argues that modesty, amnesia, and indifference are some of the less enviable traits of the Canadian character that have led the country to largely ignore, and in some cases forget, its own unique history.

Ignoring the Past

If Canadians are ever to establish a firm understanding of their identity, argued Cohen, they must achieve a far greater understanding of Canada's history. In his book, Cohen discusses several surveys conducted by the Dominion Institute—a not-for-profit organization based in Toronto dedicated to promoting the study of Canadian history—that found a disturbing number of Canadians to be uninformed of their history, geography, and role in the world. The results of the surveys, argued Cohen, reflect that the importance of teaching and learning about Canada's past is not emphasized or encouraged, noting that six out of the ten Canadian provinces currently do not include Canadian history as a mandatory requirement of school curriculum.

Equally discouraging was the release of Canada's Auditor General's 2004 report, which indicated that almost two-thirds of the country's historical landmarks were in "poor to fair condition," and could be lost in the next two to five years unless action was taken to commence immediate restorative work. Cohen also suggested that Canada's museums are partly to blame to for the country's lack of historical knowledge. For instance, the Canadian Museum of Civilization—one of Canada's largest and most popular cultural institutions—completely ignores major events in Canadian history, including the siege of Quebec in 1759, the October crisis of 1970, and the Quebec referendums of 1980 and 1995. The absence of any record of these historical events in the museum's exhibits, argued Cohen, reflects the Canadian tendency not to discuss or acknowledge potentially divisive subject matter.

Champ agreed with Cohen's assertion that "Canadians are underserved" in their historical knowledge of the country. He described museums, memorials, and the celebration of national anniversaries as critical to building national character and establishing a sense of patriotism. Nevertheless, noted Champ, although there is no excuse for Canada's ignorance of its past, the country has and will likely continue to persevere in spite of its lack of historical knowledge.

Barriers to a Clear Identity

Cohen suggested that establishing a clear Canadian identity is also made more difficult by the "casual" attitudes held in the country regarding citizenship. He noted that Canada demands little in its naturalization oaths and does not require new citizens to acquire a comprehensive understanding of Canadian history, culture, or either of the country's two official languages. Consequently, Canadian citizenship has become one of the "easiest to obtain and one of the hardest to lose." This situation, said Cohen, risks creating a "fragmented" population within Canada who lack a clear sense of citizenship, benefits, or rights.

In addition to creating a stronger sense of citizenship, Canadians must overcome their inclination to define themselves by what they are not, in order shed the ambiguity surrounding the country's national character. Cohen said that Canadians are particularly vulnerable to define themselves as simply "not American," contributing to what he calls an "immature relationship" with the United States. This aspect of the Canadian character reveals itself most frequently in Canada's political sphere. Cohen explained that Canadian politicians have historically criticized American economic, environmental, and foreign policy as a means of enhancing their own image and popularity. This political tactic reflects the Canadian tendency to find small differences with their closest ally and neighbor in an effort to define themselves as distinct from the Americans. According to Cohen, however, though there are considerable differences between Canadians and Americans, establishing a clear Canadian identity will require the country to stop obsessing over their narrow, and at times overstated, differences with the United States and accept the considerable cultural similarities between the two countries: "There are probably no two peoples alike on earth than Americans and Canadians."

The Evolving Canadian

Achieving a national identity, argued Cohen, will ultimately require Canadians to look deep within themselves to contemplate how to take the meaning of citizenship seriously and acquire a greater knowledge of the country's history. Though this will take time, Cohen remained optimistic that the country will indeed one day discover its true character. He described Canadians as an "evolving people," who share in the belief that the country's best years are still ahead and have reason to be optimistic about their future. For Cohen, Canada has come too far to simply disappear, and has the will, resources, and commitment to realize its full potential and one day establish an identity worthy of the country. Until that day arrives, however, Canada will remain best described as "a promise in search of a people."

Drafted by Ken Crist, Program Associate
David Biette, Director, Canada