Canada has always symbolically occupied a space between worlds, peoples, and empires. We are a frontier society—between the old world and the new, European and Indigenous, English and French, Canadian and American. Plenty of regions and peoples have been in-between spaces and buffer zones on the borders of empire, but Canada is similar to countries like Australia and New Zealand in that it does not have a shared ancient or pre-modern culture to contend with the empires around it. The unique inheritances of culture that we do have are forgotten or deliberately dismantled. This position makes it difficult to center an identity, which feels off-axis, as if one is on the periphery of their own culture. We also find our beginnings on the margins of survival, conscious of the destructive potential of nature. Much of our history has been directed towards subduing and conquering our environment.

In many ways we have always found it easier to define ourselves negatively—what we aren’t or don’t want to be is more apparent than what we are. In the words of philosopher George Grant in 1973, “Canada originally was put together by two groups of people who didn’t have much in common but didn’t want to be Americans… I think the French have gone on knowing why they are not Americans. I think it’s very hard for English speaking Canadians”.1This difficulty for most Canadians to positively define themselves without reference to the United States or some other negative identifier has only increased since Grant’s time.

In many ways this reflects how Canada is at the center of the modern meaning crisis. Some doubt that there is anything positive in our story worth remembering. Using words like “post-national” to describe ourselves shows hesitation to see Canada as a country at all. A way to tell how and why this has happened—or if maybe it was inevitable—is to look at our history and some of the symbols that have shaped us. If we resist the urge to define the past solely by the morals of today, we encounter complex symbolism, patterns, and meaning that gives us some sense of who we were and who we are now. Canada is both a space between worlds—of hybridity—the exploration of the unknown, moving between borders, mixing of identity, and a country that attempts to bring order, unity, and boundaries to disparate peoples and a hostile environment. These two dynamics are reflected in symbolism and patterns throughout our history.

Part One: Early Canadian Symbolism

The Explorers

Canada was borne in the age of explorers— the New World was “discovered” by a new Europe. The expeditions of the period were a culmination of technological barriers breaking down in European society. Cartography, navigation, and improved shipbuilding allowed for a mapping of limits of the world. This placed European man symbolically in the position of a creator—looking down and across his domain. The chaotic unknown of the oceans were the grounds for modern Europe’s imperial visions of expanding trade, conquests, and mastering human and non-human nature. Companies were founded which funded explorers to set out into the uncharted deep, occupying a position between borders, extending the physical world. This creative act enabled European man to act as Adam, identifying and subduing the unknown, putting it under his dominion on behalf of his imperial sponsors—and by extension—the authority of God.

A monolithic granite cross was erected in Gaspé, Quebec in 1934 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of French explorers in Canada. Jacques Cartier and his crewmen erected similar wooden crosses to act as navigation landmarks and claim the area for the King of France.

The imposition of order for Europeans through identification and claiming of land was often a categorical impossibility for the Indigenous peoples they encountered. Often neither group recognized one another’s definitions of ownership or sovereignty. For the Indigenous, the land functioned as an emergent source of meaning—it was an enchanted and wholly alive part of their world. Of course, Indigenous peoples fought one another over territory and named things like Europeans did, but they were not abstracted or detached observers of the land in the same way.

The river was the first deeper pathway into Canada for most explorers. For hundreds of years, the primary entry was the St. Lawrence River. The North America encountered by men like Cartier, Cabot, and Champlain was a place of pure chaotic potential. These early explorers entered a world that was unconstrained by size or distance—an endless frontier of rivers, forests, rock, plains, and snow. They had not been as fortunate as their predecessors in finding the bountiful, tropical coasts of the southern continent or a passage to Asia.

1681 French map of the New World above the equator.

New France

In the beginning of the Canadian story, the St Lawrence River was a symbolic point of separation—the still, bitter waters of the ocean gradually gave way to the living, flowing waters of the interior.2The colony of New France attempted to bring order and stability to this new world. The colony was filled with localized, miniature markers and signs of its mother country. The institutions of church and state were prominent and brought the laws and organizing principles of Europe to the frontier. This was a small enclave on the periphery of the habitable world, consisting of a smattering of French colonists and their Indigenous counterparts in the fur trade.

In the early years, New France was a dim jewel in the crown of Louis XIV, largely useful for resources to fund the king’s European ambitions of expanding territory and influence.3The early inhabitants were people displaced from their communities in France, “[they were] available to emigrate precisely because they were already dislocated… and most of them came because they were sent.”4The Acadians 5are another periphery people who were part of the beginnings of the Canadian story. They were an entirely separate colony from New France largely in what are today called the maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Missionaries were also an important early group, and acted as travelers between worlds. They often took considerable risk trying to bring Christianity to the Indigenous—living with them and learning their languages and customs.

The St. Lawrence River near Charlevoix, Québec.

The colony was almost a thousand miles from the open ocean, far greater inland than others in North America. The St. Lawrence was an intermediary chaotic structure which produced isolation as it froze, cutting off communication with Europe for most of the year. This remoteness at the edge of the world was a reminder of the encroaching unknown, “the river flowed past the doorstep of every house on every seigneury in the colony. Thus, it could hardly be said that New France has a frontier at all; that is, a line separating the civilized settlements from the wilderness. The environment of the frontier was, in fact, all pervasive in the colony.”6

The Fur Trade

The symbolic importance of the St. Lawrence as life-giving and vivifying became apparent with the growth of the fur trade. As time passed, the rivers symbolized the gateway to a new beginning, riches, and resources, and filled up with men who continued to navigate between worlds. The beaver often comes first as a unifying symbol for Canada, and it was the main prize for traders. It makes its own place in the environment, and takes on a creative role in constructing and ordering its habitat to survive. They are a hybrid animal, as very large rodents that go in-between water and land.

Historian Peter C. Newman talked about the transformative changes to Canada from the trade, and symbolism of furs, “ever since Adam and Eve, ejected from Eden, first donned the skins of wild beasts, fur has been a spectacular talisman… [it has] retained a savage symbolic undercurrent of potency, success and brute strength— bestowing on its wearer an aura of wild beauty, magic powers, and social cachet.”7

A 1937 sculpture of a beaver above the entrance to Centre Block at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. The shield is made up of five flowers representing the European cultures that played a prominent role in early Canada. A Tudor rose represents the English, a Fleur de lis represents the French, a thistle the Scots, a shamrock the Irish, and a leek represents the Welsh.

Journeys into the interior by state sponsored voyageurs, indentured engagés and independent coureur de bois (runners of the woods) became more common as the fur trade grew. The coureur de bois of the 17th century were an important symbol of New France. They came to represent perseverance and bravery, and were also dangerous, roguish libertines. They set themselves apart from the habitants of the colony, and looked down on them. They were hybrids who immersed themselves in the space between worlds, while at the end of the known world—straddling identities, merging the Indigenous and the European. They used the rivers to step into an alien culture and play a participative role in its practices. Goods and people traveled in and out of these different societies, and the coureur de bois were guided by the Indigenous to use their technology and map and expand the frontier, forging a new Canadian identity:

These coureur de bois, although in some ways an economic and social liability, were yet a unique group, purely Canadian in character, owing as much to the influence of the North American environment as to their French heritage. By roaming the forest and sharing the Indian nomadic hunter’s life they acquired his skill with paddle and snowshoe, his mastery over the raw forces of nature. They learned to speak the Indian languages, to live and think like the Indians, to understand them, and what was more, to respect them.8

“Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall”, 1869 by Frances Ann Hopkins.

The expansion of Canada westward brought a professionalization to the fur trade beyond the coureur de bois. The Hudson Bay Company and later the North West Company were composed of English explorers and traders, as well as another frontier people: the Scots. The Métis people were created through deep interior travels on the rivers by French and Scottish fur traders. The rivers acted as a place of change, instability, and renewal. The traders intended to use them as transport routes, setting up trading posts at strategic points to establish a system of control and efficiency. They were largely successful in this, but rivers also introduced change to both European and Indigenous identity.

These hybrid characters of explorers and the fur traders used the oceans and rivers to travel between worlds and create something new. The writer G.K. Chesterton spoke at the Canadian Literary Society about his transformative experience of entering Canada through the St. Lawrence, “that most magnificent and glorious of all entries to any civilization or domain, a thing that truly opens a new world. And then, I knew that the Canadians had the foundations of all literature and culture in them, because they had truly and indeed a country… anybody sailing up the St. Lawrence will see where the legend of Canada begins.”9

Part Two: Clash of Empires

Wolfe and Montcalm: Unity in Sacrifice

Montcalm’s officer’s views of the Indigenous and Canadians serving under them show how the interactions of the fur trade brought change. The French thought the Canadians who had taken Indigenous wives were chaotic and unsettling hybrids who had shattered categories and confused identity. Therefore, they were deserving of worse scorn than even a traditional enemy, “[they] regarded the Native Americans with at best suspicion, but usually utter disdain. As for the Canadians who served alongside them, men who chose to live like the ‘savages’ even when presented with the opportunities of Christian civilization, they were worse than the ‘savages’ themselves.”10

Wolfe shared many of the same opinions about the Canadians as Montcalm, and was much more at home on the battlefields of Europe. He did not have high hopes of success for the future and found it difficult to adapt to the new warfare and culture of his Canadian and Indigenous allies. Wolfe was a sickly man, and this influenced a resignation to his fate. Sensing that his end was near, he wrote home, “If I have health and constitution enough for the campaign, I shall think myself a lucky man; what happens afterwards is of no great consequence.”11

This fatalism and sense of martyrdom deeply resonated with the British public. In a fitting coincidence, both men had their battlefield deaths depicted in the style of The Lamentation of Christ.

“The Death of General Wolfe” 1770, by Benjamin West.

“The Death of the Marquis de Montcalm” 1783, by Juste Chevillet. The palm tree shows just how foreign, exotic, and unknown Canada was for the French back in Europe..

The Wolfe-Montcalm Monument remembers and celebrates both men and is a key symbol in building the legend of the battle. It is an obelisk in the Governor’s Garden of the Château Frontenac, next to the St. Lawrence. The monument was unveiled in 1828 and bears the names of both generals paying equal reverence to both the victor and the defeated. This dual commemoration makes the monument a uniquely Canadian memorial. Removed from home, on the periphery of the war at large, they symbolically serve as small parts of Britain and France that were sacrificed in the creation of Canada. Facing the river there is an inscription in Latin,  the uniting language of modern Europe, which reads, “Their courage gave them a common death, history a common fame, posterity a common memorial.

Wolfe’s side of the monument.

Montcalm’s side.

British Victory and the Two Canadas

The victory of the British had major symbolic implications. The colony of New France was a relatively stable place of French identity in the new world, and it was now under the control of foreigners. A shift in leadership meant a reorientation of values and borders. The British Empire had its “Annus Mirabilis” (Wonderful Year) in 1759 after a string of victories over the French, and they had their sights set on expanding their new colonial possessions, “the effort involved in the conquest of Canada was important to a reconceptualization of the British Empire towards a more territorial idea of power. Canada would be British by conquest, not trade.”12Historian Richard White characterized the period from 1650 to 1815 in the Great Lakes region as a ‘middle ground’13where European and Indigenous interests enabled a steady cooperation and mixing of cultures and peoples. At this time, the Europeans did not have the means nor the inclination to impose or settle in great numbers in this area—but this was about to change. British reorganization and focus on territory meant English Canada would increasingly focus on western development, and the French would have their own corridor of the St. Lawrence.

The phrase “peace, order, and good government” appears in many Commonwealth countries to denote the areas in which the federal government may have authority over areas not explicitly under control of the provinces. In Canada this phrase served as a guiding principle extending beyond legal concerns to the overall goals and purpose of the state. The contrast with the American ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” helps to bring out major differences between the two countries. One is focused on instilling a sense of normalcy, decency, and restraint. The other is much more poetic, romantic, and unbounded. These different points of emphasis were instantiated in the founding and development of each nation, and can be seen through symbols and patterns.

Part Three: Nation Building and Development

Order on the Frontier

For the west, the personification of order was the Mountie. The Mountie is a sentry, guardian, and exemplar of the law. The Mountie on his black horse evokes a harmony14of the rider and his horse— a union of the lower earthward animal giving strength and vitality to the rider, who in turn raises the horse to participate in a higher purpose, and forms something greater for both. The Mountie travels on the borders and in between worlds, but is immune to the effects of change or uncertainty in these spaces. Unlike the coureur de bois, he never loses himself or his identity, as he is an enforcer of identity and borders.

1950’s depiction of a Mountie by Arnold Friberg

The American cowboy presents a strong contrast to the Mountie. There is plenty of overlap in the symbolism between nations in the west, but the typical hero of the American west is the mysterious, shifty character on the edges of the law and civilization. He strives to impose his own identity and shuns the conventions of society. The faster pace of American development of the west is responsible for some of these differences. In Canada, there was still a struggle to entice widespread settlement at the turn of the 20th century, and an identity focused on enforcing order and safety was needed.

Friberg, an American illustrator and artist, was made an honorary member of the RCMP.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was another step in the process of providing order and security. It was a major extension of the body of the nation— an imposition of order and identity through technology. This connection brought unity and communication across a man-made path. It was also marred with controversy and corruption, and became an infamous symbol of workers abuses and mistreatment of primarily Chinese laborers. Towards the Last Spike by E.J. Pratt is a prose poem in the epic style which tells the story of the railway as a clashing of worlds, with  the primordial monster of the Canadian Shield yielding to man’s collective will. Northrop Frye thought it brought out central themes of Canadian imagination:

the real hero of the poem is a society’s will to take intelligible form; the real quest is for physical and spiritual communication within that society … There is the contrast between the desperate, quixotic, east-west reach from sea to sea which is the vision of Macdonald … and the practical, short-sighted vision of Blake, which sees the country realistically, as a divided series of northern extensions of the United States.15

The connection of east and west helped to fortify a Canadian identity and make settlement more attractive. To the government and settlers, the prairies went from a sea of undeveloped potential and uncertainty to a space with defined borders and purpose. The railway shows in a practical way the balance of order that ties things together, that we do not notice until it is not working as intended.

Squaring the Circle

These symbols of order and unity for Canada were the inverse for much of the Indigenous population. These differences can be seen in basic symbolic terms. The drawing of borders and boundaries limits and defines an unknown space. Just looking at a map of the prairies today shows the simplicity of this —with the United States border providing a basis for square and uniform shapes to take the place of circular patterns of seasonal migration and roaming. This meant that at the same time the European settlement expanded, the traditional home of the Indigenous shrank. This process produced a sort of internal exile for many as they were separated from their lands, languages, and customs. Treaty making, reserves, and the Residential school system all contributed to this process.

A focus of the Canadian government at the time was the removal and prohibition of traditional Indigenous practices and symbolism. The Sun Dance16was a major traditional ceremony for many plains people and was outlawed in 1895 under the Indian Act. There was likely no explicit intention behind the outlawing of specific practices, but a focus on large community events, to overall disrupt and replace the ritual behaviour which binds a people toward a common purpose. The symbolic implications17of the outlawing of the Sun Dance in particular is striking. The cyclical patterns of the sun, the seasons, rebirth, sacrifice, and renewal are all expressed through circular dance and ceremony. The Canadian authorities symbolically attempted to impose a squareness into the space —of order and uniformity to direct the land and its people on a new path and purpose.

View from above of farms surrounding a branch of the North Saskatchewan River near Edmonton, Alberta.

The Dominion Land Survey System, which divided the prairies into townships that measured 6 by 6 miles, each of which was divided into 36 1-square-mile sections. Each of those sections was then further subdivided into fourths, many of which had been available as free homesteads.

Anyone that has flown over or driven through the prairies has seen the expansive flat grid of farm land that stretches to the horizon. Agricultural communities remade the space into one of relative stability and rapid growth. Many groups who were already on the margins and in-between spaces filled in. Religious minorities like Mennonites, Doukhobors, Hutterites, and French Catholics, came to see life on the prairies as a place of religious freedom and tolerance—a New Jerusalem in many ways.18Other frontier and periphery peoples like the Irish, Scottish, Germans, Ukrainians, and Scandinavians saw the chance to settle in a new world as a brighter future for their families.

Hockey grew into Canada’s national sport during this period of national development and expansion at the turn of the century. Frozen lakes, ponds, and roads of the desolate winter landscape were transformed into communal spaces of competition and comraderie. These games symbolically serve as a sort of recreation of the initial encounter and conquering of the unforgiving environment. Today it is one of the few Canadian symbols that has endured relatively unchanged. The danger and violence allow for acceptable expressions of masculine activity in a defined space. The rugged and unforgiving nature of hockey even today is evident as it is the only team sport that allows for fighting as a consistent component of the game.

A small-town rink similar to those found all over the country, The Logan Schatz Memorial Arena in Allan, Saskatchewan, named after the former captain of the Humboldt Broncos. On April 6, 2018, a bus carrying the Broncos junior hockey team collided with a semi-truck which resulted in 16 fatalities.

Hockey’s growth as a national symbol was aided by radio and television broadcasting. The CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” brought nationwide viewing and helped to create heroes of the sport for children to emulate. Learning to skate and participate in the game at a young age began to spread as a ritual or rite of passage into a Canadian identity. Town rinks became important centers like churches or schools, acting as social venues, bringing neighbouring communities together. On the global stage, hockey remains as a point of national pride and unity even when most other inheritances and unique markers of identity are rejected.

Canadian soldiers during the Korean War in 1952 constructed a makeshift rink which they named “The Imjin Gardens” on the frozen Imjin River, bringing a touch of home to the war.

Part Four: Iconoclasm and the Transition Between Worlds

Breaking the Dichotomy

Marshall McLuhan often characterized Canada as a frontier society. In the 20th century, new forms of media reduced the spaces between societies and redefined their symbols. McLuhan believed Canada could function as a “counter-environment” to the United States as it formed the center of a new “world environment” brought about by these changes. To McLuhan, the rapid growth of technology and mass communication meant that Canada could take on a role of great importance. We could act as a close observer to the new global community but be removed enough to artistically make this space centered in the United States perceptible to those within it.19This was an optimistic view overall, that we could remain separate enough to not be wholly absorbed and benefit from remaining on the outside looking in.

In the post-war era, Canada seemed ready to step into this role— the victories were won over nature, the unknown mapped, and a small, orderly society was perched on top of the greatest superpower in the world. But the institutions and symbols which produced this order were directed towards new objectives. Canada began to do to itself what it had done in instilling order on the borders between worlds and identities. In an orderly and abrupt fashion, the symbols and markers which traditionally defined Canada were altered and replaced.

This was spearheaded in Québec, with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s largely directing itself towards the Catholic Church. In only a single generation, the most Catholic place outside of Vatican City underwent a rapid exodus from religious life. Very quickly this gap in meaning and community was filled in by renewed nationalist sentiment and calls for separation from English Canada entirely. One response was the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism conducted from 1963-1969. The federal government passed the Official Languages Act in 1969 as a result, which laid the foundations for federal bilingual laws and rights. It also had an unexpected federal response of “a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework,”20which was most strongly opposed in Québec as a new threat to the nationalist cause. Almost immediately the ties of language and ethnicity proved to be shaky substitutes to the traditional religious bonds.

Through flags and arms, we can see some of the changes made over time to Canadian symbols, and what they represent and emphasize.
The Canadian Red Ensign was never designated as the national flag, but was used interchangeably with the Union Jack, which was flown officially. It was in widespread use as a national symbol from 1892-1965. England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Canada are represented.

The Coat of arms of Ontario and Québec show the incorporation of British, French, and Canadian symbols. The red cross of St. George and the golden lion represent England, the maple leaves represent Canada, and the fleur de lis represent France.

Arms of Ontario.

Arms of Quebec


To calm the divide between English and French Canada and discourage calls for separatism, a new type21of nationalism at the federal level based on multiculturalism was created, with its own symbols and markers. These were amplified and spread through the creation of arts councils, film boards, and broadcasting companies. This process also involved replacing symbols associated with Britain—over several years the Red Ensign was replaced with the Maple Leaf, Dominion Day was changed to Canada Day, and the Constitution itself was repatriated and amended with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Symbols were emphasized that broke away from the English and French dichotomy towards a multicultural framing of the Canadian story. This process ensured an accelerating movement out of Britain’s sphere of influence into an orbit around the United States.

In the 20th century, the Trans-Canada Highway became another major pathway which was formed parallel to the United States and allowed for increased travel between the two countries. The automobile became a central part of the Canadian way of life, and much of the environment was molded around it. It was another major east-west connection to follow and usurp the railway. Terry Fox is recognized as a Canadian hero that used the nation’s highway as a unifying symbol. The Terry Fox Run has become a staple across Canadian communities as a participative ritual to act out his journey.

There are many similarities between Canada and the United States in the kinds of communities and travelers that are found along the highways. One of the most common is the truck driver, who is a traveler, transporter, and mover between borders22 Much of their time is spent in-between worlds, as a part of the landscape, of the in-between itself. We have seen recently how the highway was used by truckers in Canada to gather support and focus attention. They were the characters who symbolically were able to give body to discontent along uniting routes in space.23

New Origins

Finding an origin for any country or people is crucial to instill a sense of coherence and logic to its narrative and symbols. All that was there before is not connected— it does not fit the story. To a certain extent, this before period is the potential out of which the origin feeds, organizes, and grows, but it is also chaotic and dangerous because we are not able to properly place it.24The Fathers of Confederation understood this, and many of them connected the founding of the country directly to the respective empires out of which it grew. It was a continuation of identity and order by the same people in a different place. Today this view on the origins of Canada is still largely accepted, but the value judgements made about it have flipped.

Attitudes towards historical figures and institutions connected to the founding of the nation have changed as well. Recently, Catholic and Anglican Churches across Canada were targeted with arson attacks and vandalism for their role in the running of Residential schools. John A. Macdonald is the central figure of Confederation and Canada’s first prime minister. He is in many ways more symbolically important to the creation of the nation than anyone. As of late, statues of his likeness— as well as Queen Victoria who gave Royal Assent to Confederation— have been defaced, removed, or destroyed for their roles in the assimilation of the Indigenous.

A statue of John A. Macdonald is toppled at Canada Park in Montreal on Aug. 29, 2020.

A statue of John A. Macdonald is toppled at Canada Park in Montreal on Aug. 29, 2020.

The destruction and removal of statues is not a bad thing in itself. As a rule, statues tend to depict people and things from before us, so their destruction is usually a strong symbolic act against the past. Targeted at a nation’s founders, it is a way of rejecting its origins and identity. If the very idea of nationhood is antiquated, depictions of founders of that nation are an unwelcome intruder.

A statue of Queen Victoria is covered with red paint and torn down outside of the Manitoba Legislature on Canada Day, July 1, 2021.

“The removing of images will happen necessarily at the transition between two worlds. When one world is changing into another, one of the things that is going to happen is a type of iconoclasm—the destruction of the memory of the ancient world.”25 This transition between worlds does raise the question of what type of new world is going to replace the old one.

One way to think symbolically about how the founding of the Canadian nation is viewed today is through the story of King Saul, and the notion of a tyrannical king. In the book of Samuel,26King Saul attempts to concentrate power by usurping the spiritual authority of the prophet Samuel. God therefore revokes Saul’s kingship, and replaces him by telling Samuel to anoint David. There are several scenes of David evading and resisting Saul’s attempts to pin him down. David represents the informal, unfixed, and unnamed. He presents a challenge to Saul because he is always on the edges of his authority and perception. Saul shows the negative aspect of naming, identifying, and controlling. By attempting to totally identify and “fix” David, Saul believes he can remove his chaotic influence on the kingdom, and control him.27

This excess naming leaves no room for the exception. Everything is a part of the whole and has its “proper” place, after what made it stand out has been removed. The founders of Canada are often viewed today as having acted similar to King Saul. A part of implementing order is a naming and “fixing” of people that do not fit into the new paradigm. The Indigenous were most profoundly impacted by this in Canada. The attempt to assimilate them into European ways of life is viewed today as having the same implications as Saul’s actions. Overwhelming order controlled their lives to make them a part of the new whole. With controls on dress, language, religion, and other cultural practices, the hope was to totally identify and “fix” them.

Establishing Orthodoxy

Today, forms of naming, identifying, and expression have been flipped to attempt to remedy this. Symbols have also been created and emphasized which were suppressed. Some examples include the use of the name Turtle Island to refer to North America, the preservation of Indigenous languages, rituals in schools and at public events naming and identifying Indigenous land claims, traditional territories, and treaties, and the “National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.” People view these as helpful to reverse the excess imposition of order and identity of the past, and to help properly name and identify themselves.

“Orange Shirt Day” started in 2013, and became a statutory holiday in 2021. It coincides with “The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation”. Inspired by the accounts of Phyllis Jack Webstad, whose personal clothing—including a new orange shirt—was taken from her during her first day of residential schooling, people are encouraged to wear orange in solidarity.

In Quebec we can see this flipping of excess naming present in laws about French signage and advertising—rules which some believe are necessary to assert a minority identity and symbolically mark public spaces. The French language industries of radio, television, and film have also tried to slow the onslaught of American media dominance and preserve a shared linguistic community.

Much like Canada’s relationship to the United States, these attempts to assert identity and new symbols are in the context of, or explicitly in opposition to, the surrounding culture—and therefore are defined and framed in relation to it. Changes to Canada’s symbols and attitudes towards itself have been influenced by similar changes made first in the United States. Across the West, countries have embraced what philosopher Roger Scruton called oikophobia, “the repudiation of inheritance and home… the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture, and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours’”.28

Much like ancient provincials of empire, to impress, stand out, and try to outdo the capital, we eagerly embrace these ideas and symbols sometimes more than their places of origin. French Canada may not have embraced these ideas as strongly due to a different understanding of who ‘us’ and ‘them’ are. For English Canada, these attitudes of negation and rejection have the irony of being a positive marker of unity and “Canadian-ness” itself. Modesty and self deprecation have been inverted into another way to separate ourselves from the United States.

Conclusion

Canada has always been a place between a homeland and exile—with order needing to be implemented to contend with different peoples living in an unforgiving environment. The United States often provided an impetus to implement an identity, to conform in order to be different. The intertwined histories of the English and French produced a wealth of symbolism as they created order and coherence across the continent. For much of the Indigenous population, this order produced an internal exile—where they found themselves serving strangers, unable to speak their languages, and their history and identity not matching these changes.

The order which supported and encouraged a unique Canadian identity and dismantled others has now been directed inwards. It is through the very mechanisms of “peace, order, and good government”, that we have gotten to the point of being “post-national”. This order is still implemented to target the remainders who do not adapt to the changing reality, and borders and controls on behaviour and freedoms are accepted by most as being reasonable to keep peace and order.

Canada has always walked the line between hybridity and order in a thoroughly modern way. The effort to hold onto old symbols and motifs in our culture has always been an uphill battle, and one that many do not see worth fighting. Some view the country’s history as only reflecting economic expansion—creating a coast-to-coast company town or branch plant. In trying to incorporate or hold onto older symbols into a changing culture, the connections of meaning between signifiers and what is signified are often lost, and these symbols do not match the changing reality.

However, this does not mean that all these symbols and history should be entirely discarded. In the book of Genesis,29there is a scandal when Noah is about to found the new world. Symbolically, this story shows that it is important to avoid overexposure to the negative aspects of our origins, founders, and identity as a people.30Noah gets drunk and falls asleep uncovered in his tent. One of his sons sees him and mocks him, calling to his other brothers. In response, the other brothers take a garment and—walking backwards to not see him—cover the nakedness of their father.

“Shem and Japheth cover their father’s nakedness; Ham has already witnessed it.” Etching by Clément Pierre Marillier.

There are no nations, families, or people who are free from scandals and secrets—this is a basic aspect of the brokenness of humans. There are limits to what is acceptable to cover, and if the negatives of the past are too great, then they should not be covered. In many ways, we have always been in a liminal state that makes it difficult to find our place and center of identity, and our search for meaning often focuses on the negatives of the past and defines the future as a time to right these wrongs. But in the present, it has become evident that there can be no purpose in any group of people moving forward if only the scandalous and sinful are what unites them.

It is not a coincidence that Canadians are well represented in instantiating meaning and symbolism today. The flux and stagnation from a lack of discernible identity has long produced in-between thinkers and public figures on the margins. In many ways, McLuhan was correct that Canada could take a role of the artistic observer who makes one aware of their own environment. Symbolic World readers will be familiar with the widespread interest in Canadians like Jordan Peterson, John Vervaeke, and Jonathan Pageau who travel between disciplines and domains to largely American audiences. There is an ideal mix of order and hybridity in Canada which is still alive and well in many who walk on the borders of order and chaos, providing the perception and knowledge that the space between worlds can bring.

 

  1. Grant, George. “George Grant, Canadian Philosopher,” at 0:32. CBC.ca, 1973. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2633505783[]
  2. Pageau, Jonathan. “The Symbolism of Rivers”, at 0:25. YouTube, April, 2020.The Symbolism of Rivers | Jonathan Pageau[]
  3. Raudzens, George. Empires: Europe and Globalization 1492-1788, at 134. Sutton Publishing. May, 1999. Empires: Europe and Globalization 1492-1788: Raudzens, George: 9780750919869: Books []
  4. Cole Harris, R. and Warkentin, John. Canada before Confederation: A Study in Historical Geography, at 21. McGill-Queen’s University Press. April, 1991. https://www.amazon.ca/Canada-Before-Confederation-Historical-Geography/dp/0773521275[]
  5. See Griffiths, Naomi. From Migrant to Acadian: a North American border people, 1604–1755, McGill-Queen’s University Press. December, 2004. https://www.amazon.ca/Migrant-Acadian-American-Border-1604-1755/dp/0773526994[]
  6. Eccles, W.J. Canada Under Louis XIV 1663-1701, at 67. McClelland and Stewart. January, 1968. https://www.amazon.ca/Canada-Under-Louis-XIV-1663-1701/dp/B001GIFRNA []
  7. Newman, Peter C. Company of Adventurers Volume 1, at 42. Viking Canada. September, 1985. Company of Adventurers: Newman, Peter C: 9780143051473: Books – Amazon.ca []
  8. Eccles, Canada Under Louis XIV, at 68.[]
  9. “G.K. Chesterton Introduces Rudyard Kipling — Canada”, at 8:30. Youtube. July, 2011. https://youtu.be/8xsX-xNXiJU?t=509[]
  10. Snow, Dan. Death or Victory: The Battle for Quebec and the Birth of an Empire, at 46. Allen Lane. September, 2010. Death or Victory: The Battle For Quebec And The Birth Of An Empire[]
  11. Wilson, Henry Beckles. The Life and Letters of James Wolfe, at 418. Cornell University Press. June, 2009. The Life and Letters of James Wolfe: [1909] Paperback — June 25 2009[]
  12. Black, Jeremy. Crisis of Empire: Britain and America in the Eighteenth Century, at 87. Bloomsbury Academic. January, 2011. https://www.amazon.ca/Crisis-Empire-Britain-America-Eighteenth/dp/1441104453[]
  13. See White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region<. 1650-1815, Cambridge University Press. November, 2010. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 : White, Richard[]
  14. See Boyd, Gareth. “The Horse, And The Rider”, The Symbolic World, May 2021. The Horse, And The Rider – The Symbolic World []
  15. Frye, Northrup. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, at 13. House of Anansi Press. August, 2017.The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination : Frye, Northrop, Moore, Lisa: Books – Amazon []
  16. See the 1960 documentary “Circle of the Sun” by Colin Low about the Sun Dance and its symbolism. https://www.nfb.ca/film/circle-of-the-sun/[]
  17. See Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis, 2018.
    for an overview of the symbolic significance of these shapes in biblical cosmology.
    The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis: A Commentary: Pageau, Matthieu: 9781981549337: Books – Amazon.ca[]
  18. See Smillie, Benjamin G. Visions of the New Jerusalem: Religious settlement on the prairies, NeWest Press. January, 1983. Visions of the new Jerusalem: Religious settlement on the Prairies Paperback — Jan. 1 1983 []
  19. The McLuhan Institute. “Marshall McLuhan: ‘Canada — A Borderline Case’ with introduction by Eugene McNamara,” at 48:28. YouTube. November 19, 2021. Marshall McLuhan: ‘Canada–a Borderline Case,’ with introduction by Eugene McNamara[]
  20. See Jedwab, Jack. “Multiculturalism,” theCanadianEncyclopedia.ca. June, 2011.
    https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/multiculturalism[]
  21. See Heath, Joseph. “The new nationalism,” The National Post. April, 2014.
    https://nationalpost.com/opinion/joseph-heath-the-new-nationalism[]
  22. Pageau, Jonathan. “The Symbolism of the Canadian Trucker Protest”. YouTube. February 1, 2022.
    The Symbolism of the Canadian Trucker Protest | Jonathan Pageau[]
  23. Ibid.[]
  24. Pageau, Jonathan. “The Symbolic Role of Lilith in Christianity,” at 2:10. YouTube. May 17, 2020. The Symbolic Role of Lilith in Christianity | Jonathan Pageau[]
  25. Pageau, Johnathan. “Casting Down Images,” at 4:38. YouTube. June 23, 2020. Casting Down Images</a[]
  26. 1 Samuel 15 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Samuel%2015&version=KJV[]
  27. Pageau, Jonathan. “King David: How to be a Conservative Rebel,” at 1:18. YouTube. February 14, 2022.
    King David: How to Be a Conservative Rebel[]
  28. Scruton, Roger. A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, at 24. Bloomsbury. May, 2007.
    A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism: Scruton, Roger: 9780826496157: Books – Amazon.ca[]
  29. Genesis 9:20-23 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+9&version=KJV[]
  30. Pageau, Jonathan. “Casting Down Images,” at 6:02. Casting Down Images []