Language: The Canadian Identity

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by William Bedford

I often wonder what new-Canadians must think of our constant debates on the meaning of a distinct Canadian identity. You must be baffled by it all, as, I’m sure, you see a distinct Canada in almost everything around you. Besides, many of you are used to being mistaken for nationalities other than your own, so you probably can’t see why we make such a fuss over being mistaken for Americans when we travel abroad.

While every ethnic group has a distinct identity to themselves, some groups are forever being taken for similar, but larger groups. Austrians are often mistaken for Germans, Portuguese for Spanish, and Australians for English, to give a few examples. Canadians are so much like Americans, on the surface, that it will take a while before you’ll be able to see the difference.

If Americans had not spread their culture around the world everyone whose first language is English would be taken for British. French speakers are usually presumed to be citizens of France, though in many cases they are Belgian or Swiss. Spanish is spoken widely enough to ensure that those speaking it are not automatically classed as Spanish. Yet, people as different in culture as Mexicans, Cubans and Argentineans are all labeled Hispanics in the United States.

An Afro-Canadian man, whose forbears came here via the Underground Railway in the 1860s, tells me that he is often asked by white people how long he has been in Canada . Many of these people are recent immigrants and with the accents to prove it. In an odd switch, Indians, who make up the vast majority on the Asian sub-continent, are commonly referred to in Canada as Pakistanis.

In the story that follows, there are several “Canadian” terms. The more of them that you understand, the more “Canadian” you are becoming.

A reporter attended a press scrum (news conference) in Ottawa , then took time out for a skate on the Rideau Canal (the longest skating rink in the world) before going on to the GG’s (Governor General’s) award presentations. After skating, he went into a small café and ordered a coffee and a butter tart (a pastry found only in Canada ). While eating his snack, he overheard a guy in the next booth telling his companion that he was getting off the pogey (unemployment benefits) at last, and going to work in Hogtown (Toronto). And, he continued, now he could resume putting the baby-bonus (federal child payments) aside for a new chesterfield (couch). As for that bunch of hosers (losers) who used to show up at his place for the Saturday night hockey game, but had given him the cold-shoulder (avoided him) when he was out of work, it would be a frosty Friday (a long time) before they’d get another loonie’s worth of suds (beer) out of him. Then there was the kindly Newfie (Newfoundland) waitress who had treated him to many a peameal on a kaiser (a type of bacon and bun found only in Canada ). He wouldn’t forget her, either.

As the reporter left the rink, it struck him that a non-Canadian wouldn’t have been able to make heads or tails (any sense) of what that guy had been talking about. So, as you can plainly see, even though Canada is a multicultural country, it is being built on bedrock that’s distinctly Canadian.

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