Canada’s struggle for a National Identity
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Canadians have struggled with their sense of national identity for many decades, spanning from before Confederation to present day. Although the size of the country is massive, her population is not, and the whole of Canada is so culturally diverse that it can be difficult for the population to unite together as one. However, although important, this is not one of the main issues in the Canadian quest for a national identity, as her real problems lie in her past.
Although most Canadians feel independent of Britain now, they haven’t always, as even after Confederation in 1867 it was difficult for Canada to obtain identity as a separate country and not just as one of Britain’s colonies. Living in the shadow of one of the world’s most powerful nations, the United States, has never helped Canadians retain a sense of identity either. Great Britain and the United States played huge roles in not only Canadians’ sense of national identity but also in the country’s development, as both countries influenced her greatly as she took her first steps toward becoming the country that she is today. Between Confederation and throughout much of the First World War Canadians were overwhelmed with a sense of placelessness; however, it was participation in the war that helped Canadians to achieve a new sense of independence, as well as to grant recognition of the nation as a nation around the world.
When Canada finally became her own country in 1867, her population was ecstatic. At last they were going to be free of Britain and recognized as Canadians, real Canadians, and not as British subjects living in just another of her colonies. Much to their surprise, and disappointment, the Canadian population soon realized that in fact they were not free yet of Britain. Sure, they were no longer her colonial possession, but they were still one of her dependents, and they still had to be loyal to her as their mother country. Though many Canadians had wanted complete independence from Britain, like the Americans had achieved a century earlier, most were satisfied with this new arrangement, as they took it as a stepping stone in the right direction. Complete independence, after all, would have been somewhat frightful, as the United States looked on to Canada greedily just waiting for a chance to annex parts of her territory for themselves. Although the country had officially become the Dominion of Canada and no longer a British possession, many countries still thought of her as a British colony, which reduced Canadians’ sense of independence causing them to struggle for a sense of national identity even more so than before Confederation.
In 1867, the same year of Canadian confederation, the United States bought the territory of Alaska from Russia. This created a great fear among many Canadians as well as her government, as they feared that their powerful neighbor might proceed to annex the region of British Columbia, as it now separated the United States from their new territory. This fear increased during the gold rushes as it is estimated that as much as one third of the territory’s population were American prospectors. Although British Columbia was never annexed, it was an issue very much discussed within both countries, which led to a feeling of placelessness within many who populated the West.
Living next door to one of the world’s greatest economic giants during this time period was difficult for many Canadians. The United States overpowered Canada in practically every sense, especially when it came to national identity. Americans knew who they were, and were proud of their country’s heritage. The United States was recognized around the globe as a rapidly emerging superpower, with a population that was quickly surpassing that of many of the world’s most populous nations. Her economy was booming, and she already held a great majority of the world’s wealth within her country. Many Canadians were very envious of their neighbors’ success as the Canadian economy was growing at a much slower rate, thus Americans tended to be better off than they were. Although many of the Canadian governments during this period strived to copy American policies and govern as they did over the country, the Canadian economy still could not compete with the economic success of the United States.
Many Canadians left Canada, moving across the border to what they saw as “greener pastures”, or rather greater opportunities for success in not only the business world but also in the farming and agricultural field. This, of course, frightened loyal Canadians and the government even further, as they needed a larger consumer population in order for their industries to succeed. If their industries had no market to sell to, their economy could never grow or thrive like the American economy, which in turn would cause them to lose an even greater amount of inhabitants to the United States. As one can see it was very difficult for Canadians to achieve any sense of recognition when they lived in the shadow of such a prosperous nation as the United States.
Although the Canadian economy had some rapid growth spurts between 1896 and 1912, it wasn’t until after the First World War had broken out that Canadians were finally recognized as Canadians around the world, and Canada finally took its place as an actual country rather than just a colony. When Britain went to war in 1914, it didn’t take long for Canada to join on behalf of and in support of her “mother country”. Canadian soldiers, however, were sent off to Europe to basically “help out” British soldiers, and instead of the Canadian army fighting together as one, it was broken up and its’ regiments or battalions sent off separately to fight alongside the British. It wasn’t until 1917 that the Canadians made their mark in the war and on the world, when all four divisions of the Canadian army finally came together and single-handedly took the so called impregnable fortress of Vimy Ridge from the Germans, a very important conquest for them and for their allies.
Although this feat cost the Canadian army 10,000 troops, it gave them a new respect from other countries, and it gave them a sense of national identity that they had been striving for so long to achieve. Canada became a proud country, and she still to this day boasts over the victory at Vimy Ridge, a victory that not only helped the allies to win the war, but also a victory that gave Canadians a sense of themselves, a feeling of importance, as the world finally realized that Canada was more that what she seemed.
In conclusion, it has been difficult for Canadians to obtain a sense of national identity when her past identifies her as nothing more than a British colony; however, most Canadians at present day do feel independent of their “mother country” now. The reason that Canadians tend to feel without a national identity, more so than any other, is the fact that their country shares a continent with perhaps the most powerful nation in the world. Living in the shadow of such a huge economic giant is tough, still to this day, for many Canadians, not so much because of jealousy, but because compared to the United States Canada seems so weak and insignificant. Because of this Canadians will forever remember the First World War in which it was them, not the Americans, or the British for that matter, that rescued Vimy Ridge, and gave them their first step towards feeling a sense of national identity, a feeling that made them proud to be Canadian.