WAGNER: Are Westerners really Canadians?

What is a Canadian? One answer would be, any person with Canadian citizenship. That is probably a sufficient answer for most people. On that basis, almost every Western Canadian qualifies as a real Canadian.

But what if the question – “What is a Canadian?” – was asked, instead, about the country’s national identity? Do Westerners qualify as Canadians under the criteria of Canadian national identity? The answer to this question is more problematic.

A nation’s identity refers to the way in which its citizens see themselves as being distinct from citizens of other countries. In his book about America’s national identity entitled “Who Are We?”, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote, “Identity is an individual’s or a group’s sense of self. It is a product of self-consciousness, that I or we possess distinct qualities as an entity that differentiates me from you and us from them.” He adds that, “Identities are imagined selves: they are what we think we are and what we want to be.”

Identity, in other words, is how we think of ourselves in relation to others.

It should not just be assumed that since Westerners live in a geographical part of Canada that they automatically embrace Canada’s national identity, or national myths. Instead, this matter requires careful analysis. The person who has done the most thinking on this question is political scientist Barry Cooper of the University of Calgary. As it turns out, he believes that the political identity of Westerners is different from that of Eastern Canadians. In his view, what is commonly referred to as “Canadian identity” is actually a concept that is primarily derived from – and relevant for – southern Ontario.

In 1984, Cooper wrote a groundbreaking academic article addressing this issue – “Western Political Consciousness” – that was published in the book “Political Thought in Canada” edited by Stephen Brooks. In my opinion, this article should be required reading for all serious students of Canadian politics.

To understand the question of national identity, it is essential to look at Canadian history. The first major wave of English-speaking settlement into Canada consisted of colonists who had supported British imperial authority in the American War of Independence. These colonials wanted to continue to live under British rule and therefore migrated to southern Ontario (formerly Upper Canada) and the Maritimes. They were known as “Loyalists.”