Maple Leaf Forever


In spite of everything that divides us, Canadians, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, still rally around the same national icons, a new survey has found

Amy Husser
Canwest News Service
Published: Friday, June 27, 2008

OTTAWA – When Canada became a country 141 years ago, it was a long and gradual process. Months of negotiation, numerous amendments to the Constitution and threats of separation played a part in forging together the 10 provinces and three territories we know today.

Yet, in spite of it all, Canadians, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, still rally around the same national icons, a new survey has found.

A recent poll by Ipsos Reid – the largest of its kind ever undertaken – found that although there are distinct differences in the way Canadians across the board define Canada, we ultimately still identify with the same things.

“When you look at the overall numbers, you find out that there's two stories that come out,” said Marc Chalifoux, executive director of the Dominion Institute, who commissioned the poll alongside Citizenship and Immigration. “One that ties Canadians together regardless of where they are from and one that's more closely associated – regionally and provincially.”

The ways we get there, however, highlight our differences.

More than 3,000 Canadians were asked, in an open-ended manner, to describe the most important people, places, events, innovations and symbols that define our country.

Pierre Trudeau came out on top in the people category, more than 1,000 votes ahead of No. 2, Wayne Gretzky. Trudeau was most popular in every region but Alberta and Quebec, where Gretzky and Celine Dion led those packs respectively. Other notable Canadians included Terry Fox, Tommy Douglas, David Suzuki and our first and current prime ministers, Sir John A. Macdonald and Stephen Harper.

Places showed the most contrast; Niagara Falls beat out The Rocky Mountains for the No. 1 spot by just over 300 votes, with a strong divide between the western and eastern halves of Canada. Atlantic Canada put Charlottetown and Halifax on their list, while Quebec included both Quebec City and the province itself. Saskatchewan and Manitoba touted Fort Garry and Alberta pointed to Banff.

Canada Day was found to be the most noteworthy event, along with Confederation, the First and Second World Wars, the Calgary Stampede and Vimy Ridge. The Canadarm was found to be our greatest accomplishment, beating out peacekeeping, universal health care, the discovery of insulin and the telephone. The broad concept of “freedom” and the never-realized Avro Arrow rounded out the list.

The Maple Leaf – which brought in the highest number of responses over all, by a ratio of three to one – was the most important symbol of Canada, followed by hockey, the flag, the beaver and the RCMP.

“We want to find some national symbols or unifiers, but we tend to forget how difficult it is to find them,” says Jonathan Vance, who wrote Building Canada: People and Projects that Shaped the Nation. “The Maple Leaf is so generic, which is maybe why it is so appealing.

“A symbol comes to have force because it's simplified . . . you get rid of all the contradictions and the confusing bits.”

Urban sociologist Harry Hiller, from the University of Calgary, agrees.

“There are no maple trees in the West but it's still part of the mythology.”

Alberta and Quebec showed the most variance; la belle province put seven Quebecers on their Top 10 people list, and Alberta included oil as a noteworthy accomplishment.

Quebecers learn at an early age the differences between their province and the rest of the country, says teacher and Historica committee member, Fernando Perent.

“We emphasize Quebec over everything else . . . We see it as an element of survival here,” he says. “Language, culture, tradition; everything that is part of our history we relive over and over again.

Every region “brings its bias to the table” when transmitting identity, says Halifax teacher Barrett Khan.

“Often times kids (in Atlantic Canada) like to do things around the Halifax explosion, the Bluenose, logging – some of the more (local) things,” he says.

“But our traditional narrative, our traditional symbols and icons, they are there to stay . . . These things have a deeply etched place in our society.”

For the survey, a randomly selected sample of 3,114 Canadians – including 721 immigrants, 522 educators and 274 members of the Order of Canada – was interviewed online during the first three weeks of April. The results are reliable within 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, but the margin of error will be larger within each sub-grouping.