“I drew a map of Canada
With your face sketched on it twice” – Joni Mitchell
I attended a small, liberal arts university in Atlantic Canada that drew students from all over the country, charmed by its ivy-covered buildings and its shiny #1 ranking in Maclean’s. Conversations amongst new students invariably included the question “where are you from?” and answers centred on regional identities – province by province, city by city. The size and diversity of the Canadian landscape shaped our identities, even as we sought to redefine ourselves during that post-adolescent, but not quite adult, phase of life.
It wasn’t until my first move abroad that I described myself as being “from Canada”. Suddenly, here was a sense of belonging I’d never felt before. In Canada, I’d called several provinces home, and it felt wrong to identify with a single one. I was a mostly-Albertan, not-quite-Québecoise, come-from-away-Maritimer.
Abroad, however, I had a firm identity. I was part of a culture that was more easily defined outside the borders of my country. I was Canadian.
This is the second article in a series on Canadian expats. Read the first here.
It’s a sentiment shared by many expats, including Tannis McNeil, who feels stronger ties to Canada for having lived abroad. An expat for over twenty years, she spent eleven years in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and now resides in Texas, USA. “If I’m in Canada, then I say I’m from Alberta,” she explains. “If I’m overseas, I just say I’m Canadian. Being away from your country brings out the patriotic side.”
This is partly due to the strong communities expats form. The day after their arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Tannis’ husband had to travel to inspect his job site. She was left alone with their one year old son in a country where she didn’t know anyone. Determined to make friends, Tannis joined the local Canadian Association. There, she says, she met other parents who gave her helpful advice. “You find out where to get the good milk and the Cheerios, and all the other things you might want as a new expat with a little kid.”
There was an increasing sense of belonging to the whole of Canada.
Many Canadian expats have similar experiences in Europe. François Bourque is a Trudeau Scholar who completed his PhD at King’s College in the United Kingdom. He says his inclusion in the expat community there heightened his sense of Canadian identity. “London was where I felt the most Canadian. I became friends with many expat Canadians and there was a stronger sense of community with the rest of Canada. So even though I’m French Canadian and it’s a distinct part of who I am, there was an increasing sense of belonging to the whole of Canada.”
He is quick to point out, however, that identity can and should have many layers. “I’m a proud Québécois,” he says. “I love Canada but I am well aware of my distinct identity, particularly since I’m of Acadian origin. My ancestry is very important to me. I come from people who were part of the founding of Canada and who were deported by the British.” (The Acadians were some of the first Europeans to settle in Canada, and were exiled in the Great Deportation of 1755.)
Living outside his country made him feel more Canadian in some ways, but François was, he says, “always confronted with my accent and people not necessarily knowing that much about French Canada.” Strangers generally assumed he was from France and would have to be corrected.
Canadians are often mistaken for other nationalities while abroad. Francophones for the French, anglophones for Americans; our anti-identities shadow us overseas, taunting us with cultures more tangible or better known. Add to this the fact that our multicultural society means anyone can look Canadian, and many expats find they’re constantly reaffirming their nationality.
Perhaps it’s this effort that leads expats to identify more with Canada as a whole. And they aren’t the only Canadians who have worked to shape, or reshape, their identities. Results from Statistics Canada’s survey on the “sense of belonging to Canada” show that immigrants are more likely than non-immigrants to report a very strong sense of belonging to Canada. Immigrating to Canada requires an incredible amount of patience, effort and money, and this investment helps to build a solid bond with an adopted country.
Canada is enormous and enormously diverse. It doesn’t lend itself to boxing its citizens into the confines of a single identity. Regional versus national, adopted home versus birthplace, emigrant and immigrant. Far from fracturing our sense of belonging, the act of juggling multiple identities works to strengthen our bonds – with our country and with each other.
This is the second article in a series on Canadian expats where we will explore topics on Canadian identity and emigration.