Is Canada a nation?

In this post, I consider two authors who argue that Canada is not a nation.

Click to enlage. Source: Cyrus Dahmubed

Joel Garreau, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote back in 1981 that the USA and Canada were not actually nations, only a collection of regional cultures.

He claimed that their territories were actually divided among The Nine Nations of North America (shown in the left map above), of which only Quebec was wholly contained within the jurisdiction of Canada and Dixie within the United States.

His conclusions were based on travels and interviews in the late 1970s, and he concluded that there really were six Canadian nations, all but one of which had a metropolis in the United States.  They were:

  • New England (Boston), the U.S. New England states and the Canadian maritime provinces.
  • Quebec (Montreal), the actual province of Quebec.
  • The Foundry (Detroit), the industrial region north and south of the Great Lakes and including the U.S. Middle Atlantic States.
  • The Breadbasket (Kansas City), the agricultural U.S. Great Plains and the Canadian prairie provinces.
  • The Empty Quarter (Denver), the thinly populated, mineral-rich Rocky Mountain states and provinces and the Canadian north.
  • Ecotopia (San Francisco), the Pacific-facing region from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska.

Americans and Canadians within these areas, Garreau argued, had more in common with each other, economically and culturally, than they did with U.S. and Canadian citizens in other regions.

Colin Woodard made the same argument 30 years later in American Nations: a History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America, except that, unlike Garreau, he defined all of his “nations” except the Far West based on their cultural inheritance rather than economics and geography.

He divided Canada into six “nations”, at least four of which overlap with the United States.   They are:

  • First Nation, the newly autonomous American Indian nations in the Canadian North.
  • New France, the heirs of the original French settlers.
  • Yankeedom, roughly corresponding on the Canadian side to Garreau’s New England.
  • Midlands, which I will discuss below.
  • The Far West, roughly corresponding to Garreau’s Empty Quarter
  • The Left Coast, roughly corresponding to Garreau’s Ecotopia.

Woodard, who lives in Maine, described the sense of unity between New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces.  The Canadian Maritimes were settled from New England, he wrote, and Yankees and Maritimers were reluctant to fight each other during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

The provinces of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and New Brunswick were created after the Revolutionary War to provide a refuge for defeated Loyalists after the American Revolution.   Most of those Loyalists, according to Woodard, were pro-British fighters, neutral merchants and farmers and Quaker pacifists from the New York City and Philadelphia regions.

Some of them were loyal to the British crown.   Others were attracted by the offer of free land in Ontario—a forerunner of the U.S. Homestead Act.

British, Scots and Irish settlers came in larger numbers to the Maritimes and Ontario, but, according to Woodard, the settlers from the U.S. Midlands came first and it was they who set the tone for the culture.   That is why his hypothetical Midlands region has such a strange, looping shape.

The accepted version of English Canadian history tells a story of persecuted Loyalists who refused to renounce their allegiance to the British crown took refuge in Canada, how the Canadians heroically resisted the American invaders during the War of 1812, and how Canadians stood by the Mother Country during her times of peril in World Wars One and Two.

That story is a myth, Woodard wrote.  But it’s not a myth.  These things happened.   Woodard may think other things that happened are more significant, but that isn’t what defines a nation.   Nationality is based on allegiance, not folkways—even assuming for the sake of argument that the folkways of rural Ontario are the same as rural Pennsylvania.

The French thinker Ernest Renan said a nation consists of people who have agreed to remember certain things and to forget certain things.   If Canadians choose to forget certain things, the forgotten things are no barrier to Canada being a nation.


The reason some of us Americans think Canadians lack a sense of nationhood is that Canadian patriotism is not based on ideology.   Canadians don’t talk about Canadianism.   There is no such thing as an un-Canadian activities committee.

A Canadian friend told me years ago that the founding principles of Canada are not “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but “peace, order and good government.”

We Americans see our national identity as being bound up with certain fundamental principles, laid down by the founders of our nation, and we have spent centuries accusing each other of being false to these principles.   I do not mock this.   This is now I think, too.

Canadians, on the other hand, pride themselves on being sensible, pragmatic, open-minded and willing to compromise.   A survey once indicated that the most admired Canadian is Tommy Douglas, the father of Medicare, not a general or other wartime leader.

Beyond this, I’m not a brave enough or foolish enough American as to try to say what Canadian national identity is.

Maybe Canada is a federation of separate English and French nations.  Maybe a commitment to  multiculturalism makes Canada the first post-national country.   Maybe the problem with Canada is that they fret about whether they have a national identity and while we Americans are sure we have one, but can’t agree on what it is.

I’m fairly confident of two things.   One is that people in every region of Canada think of themselves as separate from the USA.   The other is that Canadians have a long history of hanging together, and there is no reason to think this will change.

And when I visit Toronto or Niagara Falls, Ontario, as I sometimes do, I never think, “This is just like Pennsylvania.”


Afterthought 8/4/2017.   Colin Woodard says Quebec, the French-speaking former Acadia region and southern Louisiana are all part of a common region he calls New France.   I’ve been to Montreal, and I’ve been to Louisiana, and I can see the French imprint on both places, but they are definitely not the same.

Afterthought 8/5/2017.  Another thing that Woodard gets wrong is to underestimate the radicalism of the change of early 20th century Quebec to the Quebec of today.   In the old days, the ideal of the Catholic Church and the ruling Quebec elite was a society that was rural. pious and tradition-minded—very similar to the ideal of Eamon de Valera in the Irish Republic.

As recently as 1963, the Canadian novelist Brian Moore wrote that Quebec was what France would be like if there had never been a French Revolution.

The novel, Two Solitudes by Hugh McLennon (1945) is a good picture of the English and French Canadian culture clash in the early 20th century, with the English representing modernity and the French resistance to modernity.   When a French aristocrat decides to stop being a loser and assimilate to the business-minded English culture, he begins his journey into modernity by reading works of Voltaire and Rousseau (!) .

I recommend Hugh McLennon’s novels both as good in themselves and as portraits of Canadian culture.  My favorites, in addition to Two Solitudes, are Barometer Rising (1941) and Each Man’s Son (1951), which are about early 20th century Nova Scotia, and The Precipice (1948), which is about the Canadian-American culture clash.

If you read any of those four novels, you will never think of Nova Scotia or Ontario or Canada as a whole as an offshoot of any part of the USA.

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6 Responses to “Is Canada a nation?”

  1. Kelly MacKay Says:

    Research Acadien Expulsion, before you rattle on about what you obviously know nothing about.


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