What Being Canadian Means to Me

Five of Canada's most celebrated figures attempt to answer the age-old question, "What does it mean to be Canadian?"

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Photo: Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock

Actor Donald Sutherland on what it means to be Canadian

“To whom? To me? To someone wishing they were Canadian? To someone waiting in line for a doctor? To someone listening to a loon out on the lake? To someone wishing that the flag had blue in it? Truth be told when you get right down to it, this is what it means to be Canadian. In 1954, coming back from Finland on my way home, I went through Holland. Through the Netherlands. They thought I was American. They were decent to me. Courteous. But when someone asked what part of the States I was from, I said, ‘No, not me, I’m Canadian.’ And they started to cry, the older ones, and they all ran and embraced me and took me inside and fed me and invited neighbours in to see me saying something like ‘hij is een Canadees.’ I’ve never forgotten sitting there proudly thinking this is what it is to be Canadian. This is what my cousin Lew, shot by a sniper not far from here two days after D-Day, was fighting for. For this, and for me.”

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Alanis Morissette
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Alanis Morissette on what it means to be Canadian

“It means one is conversational, curious, filled with self-deprecating humour, and internationally minded, if I dare generalize. Polite until we aren’t. And yes we say ‘sorry’ often enough for it to be noticeable… but we truly are an empathic bunch.”

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What does it mean to be Canadian
Photo: Shawn Goldberg/Shutterstock

Margaret Atwood, author and poet

“I have just come back from the United States, where Canada is having an unaccustomed moment in the spotlight. Once, Canada was the great blank space on the map above the 49th parallel where the cold weather came from. Now it is seen by many Americans as a beacon of light in a darkening world—a place you might escape to if things get too negative south of the border: still welcoming, still kindly, still pluralistic and committed to fairness. We need to remember that, and to hold our country to the standards it likes to believe it believes in—but nonetheless, at the moment it shines, at least by comparison. ‘As Canadian as possible under the circumstances’ used to be a joke. Now it’s a hope. Yes, Canada: be as Canadian as possible. Under the circumstances. And good luck.”

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Dan Aykroyd
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Dan Aykroyd, actor and writer

“Being Canadian really does mean always having to say: ‘I’m sorry.’ But I myself haven’t yet figured out why we do this. Perhaps Canadians apologize all the time because we live in a country that has so much more going for it than almost any other place on the planet, and it makes us feel a little guilty.”

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David Suzuki on what it means to be Canadian
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David Suzuki, environmentalist and activist

“I have never been more aware of what it means than when I was living and studying in the United States from 1954 to 1962. Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957 and triggered a space race between the two superpowers. The U.S. poured massive amounts of money and effort into NASA, universities, and research facilities, and even as a foreigner, I was offered several university positions without even applying. It was a golden time for budding scientists. Nevertheless, I decided to decline all American offers and returned to Canada, because Canada was different from the U.S., and for me, that difference was preferable. Canada to me meant the CCF, later called the NDP, could be a legitimate and respected political party. To me, Tommy Douglas, an idealistic politician, was a hero and role model. Canada meant equalization payments whereby the good fortunes of the wealthy provinces were shared with those less fortunate. Canada meant medicare and a society that tried to care for all instead of allowing Darwinian competition and survival of the fittest. Quebec, the National Film Board, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were also critical differences that appealed to me, and I have never regretted committing to Canada as my home.”

Excerpted with permission from “The World Needs More Canada” by Heather Reisman, 2017.

Next, find out what one recent immigrant wishes he’d known before coming to Canada.

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