In Honour of the Winter Olympics, A Special Post on Canadian Nationalism

I get very excited when the topics I write major papers on appear in glorious technicolour on TV commercials. (Shockingly, this doesn’t happen all that often.) So I can’t help but write about the new Hudson’s Bay Company advertisement that is currently airing to foster a sense of national pride and sell $10 red mittens.

(You can also watch the video here, if you haven’t already seen it 800 times between biathlon and speed skating heats.)

The commercial is, in essence, a glossily-packaged 60-second breakdown of the major historical arguments for a Canadian national identity, as separate from an imperial one as a colony of the British Empire. Canadian nationalism always was very different from that in other parts of the Empire. In the “ruled” colonies (India, the rest of Africa, etc.), nationalism was often a much stronger and easily identifiable sentiment because the definition of nationalism usually presumes underlying ethnographic, linguistic, or racial difference as the basis for internal unity and distinction from empire. Easily identified differences like these make the articulation of a national idea anti-imperial and pro-national, two separate ideas that work very well together.

In the settlement colonies (Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc.), however, imperialism was usually a more subtle and nuanced affair because it wasn’t anti-imperial. In fact, Canadian nationalism is an unstable category of analysis, because many Canadians were in fact highly supportive of British imperialism. Exploiting foreign countries for resources? Check. Advancing a pure British race in new lands? Check. Hyper-masculine militarism? But of course – isn’t this the whole idea of the Olympics in the first place? Because long before the idea of cooperation between nations, sport was all about training for war, and proving that your soldiers were younger, stronger, and fitter than the next country’s. (Especially Germany. Everyone was always on the look-out for Germany. And with good reason – when East and West Germany’s totals are added in, they’ve won more medals in the Winter Olympics than any other country – by far.)

Therefore, since Canadians were, by and large, so supportive of imperial ideals, they needed to find some area of divergence from Britain. They found it in the land. It was the cold, harsh, bracing land that allowed Britannia’s children in Canada to take imperialism and advance it further than could ever happen in Britain alone. Canada’s nationalist argument was thus never anti-imperial; it was superimperial. The basis for differentiation was spatial.

I could write about this *at length* (in fact, I already have), but I will restrain myself and instead point out the supporting evidence that can so amusingly be found in the video linked to above.

“We arrived 340 years ago, to a land of rock, ice, and snow…”

I love the rugged, masculine “colonial” types that emerge from this boat (did they row from Britain? Across the Atlantic?) and immediately start running off to colonize people and, presumably, claim the land for themselves. Emigration was always promoted as a way to tame the wilderness and regain one’s sense of masculinity that had been lost in rainy, effeminate Britain. See how successful we were? Now we snowboard!

Note also, at the 0:14 second mark, the reinforcement of gender roles with the women doing laundry. How proper!

“…We didn’t just survive the elements. Together, we thrived in them.”

I love this too. See how we’ve tamed Mother Nature with our hyper-masculinism! See how we’ve bonded together, as a nation, to thrive in those elements! See what moral clarity and racial purity we have! (Note the vast quantities of snow, of course. And Caucasian people everywhere. It’s all very white.)

“We were made for this.”

Made for pioneering and exploring and skiing and running and rowing from Britain, of course. Against all of this, these Olympic Games are nothing! Hear our nifty fiddle music! See our toned bodies and hip clothing! (bonus points to HBC for so seamlessly blending their corporate history with Canadian national history. That may just be worthy of a whole separate post sometime.)

Hey, it worked. Canada is an independent nation, and we’ve also won almost six times as many Winter Olympics Medals as Britain. Go figure. Must be the red mittens. Now, if only we could figure out how to get those Olympic cauldron torches to work…

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11 Responses to In Honour of the Winter Olympics, A Special Post on Canadian Nationalism

  1. Tim says:

    I bought some mittens.

  2. Jeremy says:

    About those mittens: my mom wants to know if you could mail her some. She isn’t so hot at shopping online sometimes =)

    This was my first time seeing this HBC ad since it’s obviously not on in the US. I was immediately struck by a couple of things which you echoed in your post.

    Firstly, when I lived in Canada I noticed there was usually a strong subtext regarding the Canadian climate relative to Canadian nationalism. There seems to be an attitude that living in Canada is difficult, and that simply managing to exist in that part of the world is an achievement worthy of appreciation. If I may be so bold, I think I can claim some kind of geographic and historical parallel between Canada and my part of the world. Like Canada, my home is characterized by frequently cold temperatures, lots and lots of wind (sometimes tornadoes), the fact that we are the hail capital of the world (a major impediment to agriculture), and a rugged topography. The Rocky Mountain west was also explored by rugged men in fur hats and buckskin jackets looking around for beaver pelts. We’ve got a lot in common.

    Yet instead of constantly depicting our environment as a major hurdle that made survival a chore, people in Colorado seem to have left that past behind and take a more positive outlook. Ask any Coloradan about our environment and they will probably tell you that we are fortunate to be blessed with such natural beauty, and that it’s a large component of our *quality* of life. The adversarial man vs. nature outlook is totally absent.

    I think I’ve noticed a similar absence in New England during my stay here. I’m not one of the locals, but it seems to me like New England’s regional sense of identity has little to do with the environment which, after all, is not that different from large parts of Canada. Rather, New Englanders seem to identify based on human characteristics and a kind of self-aware, charming insularity which makes the New Englander a breed apart. To put it bluntly, it might sound something like “Haha! We talk wicked weahd and nobody from south of Connecticut can undahstahnd what weah sayin! Let’s all go get a frappe at Dunkin’ Donuts!”

    So, the apparent Canadian attitude that just living in your country is a challenge but that you’re all too tough to quit still seems unique to me.

    The second thing is the seeming Canadian aversion to competition. When the NHL rules changed after the lockout to forbid ties and instead end deadlocked games in a shootout, I heard from friends and the Canadian media that it was an attempt to placate Americans, because we Yanks just can’t stand ties. To an extent I can see that point of view. Baseball forbids ties, and when the totally meaningless 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie when the teams ran out of players, the outcry was tremendous. Basketball games cannot end in ties, and neither can college football games. NFL games can end in ties but this is so rare nobody thinks about it.

    You probably haven’t been able to watch American coverage of the Olympics, but if you look around in our media there seems to be an attempt to explain why Canadians have to be expressly told that it’s okay to cheer loudly for their athletes. Stephen Harper has been extensively quoted here for that purpose in some address to Parliament (which I thought was not in session?)

    I think this is kind of contradictory. I mean, I have been told time and again by my Canadian friends and professors that a great deal of Canadian identity depends on being not-American. You have a grudgingly respectful adversarial relationship with the very land you inhabit, apparently. Yet the obverse side of Canadianism involves openness and friendliness to such an extent that you think it’s off-putting to yell “GO CANADA!” too loudly. Or so we are told by NBC.

    Obviously this is not a problem we have in the USA. We love to win. If there’s a competition, you need to win or go home. Personally I can’t understand why anybody would get excited over a silver medal. Nationally, Americans know there is no substitute for victory. That is why during the Olympics we suddenly put aside or aversion to boring events like curling and effeminate charades like figure skating. We know it’s game time and that once every four years this stuff matters. Winning even in boring or “artistic” “sports” adds to that all-important medal count. The hell are we losing out to some small European country like Switzerland or Austria. (Note: the preceding paragraph contains sarcastic and satirical content. Nobody fly off the handle.)

    I guess I don’t know where I’m going with this. I think a path between the Canadian aversion to compete and America’s obsession with it might be a good idea. On the one hand, I think our desire to compete has impelled us to greatness in many fields, maybe most notably the space race. On the other hand, the idea that anything and everything is a grounds for competition has been harmful in other respects, such as our decrepit health care system.

    But if being a friend means being brutally honest sometimes, I have to say this: the Canadian attitude toward your own Olympics, or at least the way it is being conveyed in the American media, is case in point for why so many Americans scratch their heads when it comes to understanding Canada.

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      The idea of conquering the climate is unique – probably because Canadians do associate themselves with their North. I read a fascinating perspective in the Globe and Mail recently about how we see our Arctic as a colony – and that’s true. No large cultural centres (only people there are for resource extraction, really — except the native populations), no real acknowledgement of the native populations as relevant to society at large, no attempts to bring Canadian services out to them at the level we enjoy in the “South,” etc. etc. Yet the North plays a powerful role in the archetypal “Canadian” self. It was critical in cementing the unity of British and French Canadians, who were thought to both be equally Canadian by virtue of successfully colonizing, settling and multiplying on the land. (Something the English and French agree on? NO!) I would say that the whole “rugged” idea is sometimes in harmony with nature too, though. I’ve never been to Vancouver, but from the people who have, and Olympic coverage, I always get the sense that they, like your Colorado folk, feel very attuned to the outdoors and feel that Nature is essential to their quality of life as well.

      No comments re: Parliament. Everyone just needs to leave that one alone.

      I think Canadians have to be encouraged to cheer loudly because the whole “rah rah my country is awesome and better than yours” is behaviour we associate extremely strongly with Americans, who, as you mention, we are trying so hard to be different from. YET – we appear to be shocking everyone by being so competitive. Hello! Canadians are tough and fearsome! Don’t people remember that from World Wars I and II? I’m also not going to comment on your sarcastic derision of figure skating with is all about precision and athleticism as well as artistry. Don’t knock Evan; he’s awesome and I was proud of him. (That’s goes for anyone else out there dissing figure skating!)

      Thank you for you always-thoughtful comment. It must be neat to have a perspective on both countries from having lived in both for a while – thanks for sharing it.

      • Jeremy says:

        I’m not dissing figure skating! The sarcasm was about other peoples’ derisive attitudes toward figure skating. Hell, I couldn’t do any of that despite the fact that, as you know, I am extremely graceful.

        Nobody is more sorry than I that people don’t remember enough about WWI and WWII. When I tell Americans that Canadian identity owes a lot to WWI because it was the first war in which Canadian forces participated independently of the British, they all act surprised… surprised that anybody anywhere even cares about WWI at all.

        I think that the core issue lies in our national approaches toward the concept of modesty. Canada seems very modest about pretty much all of its accomplishments. The US has an attitude that if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Expressions of this can be seen everywhere from NYC and Hollywood to our proud possession of the world’s largest ball of twine. Yes, really! Tying this back to the Olympics, Americans figure that if you’ve got someone to cheer for, you should do it. Now’s your chance, Canada! Don’t be self-conscious. This is the time and the place to get really, really loud!

        Of course, in America, it’s always the time and place to get really, really loud =)

        How do I attach a little picture of myself along with these posts? I like yours and I’d be interested in getting in on some of this face-time.

  3. dtrasler says:

    I have to say, as an immigrant to Canada, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Canadian pride in being Canadian is a quiet but ever-present thing. We landed here a year ago, well before the olympic buzz got under way, and the flags are flown, the maple leaves displayed, every day in every place I’ve been. I didn’t see anyone being given permission to cheer their athletes, but I did notice they cheered brave efforts by other countries’ competitors too. Canadians are pruod of their rugged heritage, there’s no denying that, but now the environment is an asset to be proud of, not something to be conquered.

    My sister-in-law in America says the coverage of the Winter Games has been spotty at best, not even showcasing the US medal winners that much. We’ve enjoyed watching more sport as a family than w’ve ever seen before, and cheered the Canadians, the British and plucky athletes f every nation competing.

    Did I wander off-topic? Sorry. I don;t think it’s fair to try and nail a population down as a type, especially when you’re talking about the US and Canada. Is a Californian the same as a New Yorker? These are, I have learned, big countries.

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      I would agree – we love nature now and being “one with it” seems to be a large component of our modern identity as Canadians. I think that’s because we identify with both the urban and rural past of Canada and are quite in tune with it. Many countries privilege the urban (except it’s hard to train Olympic athletes in a city without mountains around…) to their detriment, I think.

      I really like your comment about national types being varied and even having a hard time trying to find a good stereotypical “American” or “Canadian”! Huge countries with many identities…I was thinking of doing a follow up post (I still might!) about the different types of “Canadian” image that are being projected just through commercials in these Olympics. Check out the new Timmy’s one – it’s all about “new” Canada and “new” immigrants – not the old type of rugged dudes struggling against the driving snow. Also look at the Canadian Tire commercial (we’ve been enjoying the commercials about as much as the sports, apparently) which is about parents who are not Canadian by birth and don’t know how to skate – and skating is a stereotypical Canadian thing. Very interesting stuff.

      Thanks for your great reply!

  4. dtrasler says:

    Talking about skating – Me and Mrs Dim were complaining that the Men’s figure skating was way too technical-based and no dance…and we were sooo wrong! Loved that, and then we got to cheer another Canadian Gold in the pairs ice dance. Shame about the Hockey, but I can’t get so worked up about that. Must be because I’m English – we’re used to being stuffed at our national sport…

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      Oh, no – please don’t start with the football! As a long-suffering England fan myself I’m holding out for something at LEAST better than the last time…and hoping we don’t play Portugal. Don’t get me started.

      And as a native Mancunian, I’m not all that impressed with club sport this year either!

      P.S. I loved Evan Lysacek. My favourite thing was his feathered cuffs. 🙂

  5. […] most fascinating to me, as a student of nationalism and empire, was the language they used. I’ve written before about how the Olympics brings out the very best/worst in our jingoistic selves and allows the media and advertising to fall back on hoary old national tropes (the whole […]

  6. […] write a lot about nationalism, because it is one of the ways we identify as part of a group, with shared […]

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