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Being as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances Add to ...

One of the late Peter Gzowski's most amusing contributions to the never-ending search for Canadian identity was his contest to find this country's equivalent of "as American as apple pie." The winning entry, you may recall, was "as Canadian as possible under the circumstances."

So what are "the circumstances" under which we feel and become most Canadian? This is an important question as we continue to search for ways and means of maintaining unity and harmony in a country distinguished by great regional and demographic diversity.

Over the past year, I have heard three individuals - a recent university graduate, a former premier and a former federal cabinet minister - all address this question. And although the backgrounds of each were very different, all three had come to roughly the same conclusion.

The McGill graduate, Nicholas Gafuik, who is now director of program planning for the Manning Centre, puts it this way: "I never feel more Canadian than when I'm out of the country. My sense of Canadian identity becomes stronger the farther and longer I am away."

Former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon told me something similar. He observed that Canada's premiers, who find it so hard to speak with one voice or to find common purpose when they are assembled at federal-provincial or premiers conferences at home, had little difficulty doing so when they were abroad together as part of the Team Canada trade missions.

And just recently I heard former foreign affairs minister Pierre Pettigrew say the same thing in an even more graphic way. "When I am in Quebec, I'm from Quebec City; when I'm in Toronto, I'm from Quebec; but when I'm in London or Tokyo, I'm from Canada."

My own experience is similar. When I'm in Alberta, I'm an Edmontonian or Calgarian; when I'm in Ottawa, I'm an Albertan or westerner; but when I'm in Washington or Singapore or Sydney, I'm Canadian. This is not only how others tend to think of me; it's how I think of myself.

What are the implications of this outside-in approach to defining what it means to be Canadian?

First, activities that take Canadians abroad - international business and trade, scientific colloquiums and projects, peacemaking and peacekeeping, development and humanitarian work, study and student travel, tourism, cultural and sporting exchanges - all provide opportunities for strengthening our sense of who and what we are as Canadians. We should take maximum advantage of these activities abroad as opportunities for nation building at home.

Second, if we can't all physically travel outside the country, we can still be taken outside Canada and encouraged to "look back from outside" in our imaginations - by Canadian-produced novels, travelogues, movies, plays and music that encourage and help us to do so. Our cultural community should make this one of its missions.

And third, we must recognize that this means of strengthening our sense of identity is not necessary or sufficient for all Canadians. Recent immigrants do not need to go "outside Canada" to appreciate Canada; they have been "outside." Most have evaluated Canada from afar as a desirable place to make a new home, and are coming here with that appreciation already a reality.

In my experience, the circumstance in which new immigrants feel most Canadian is on the day they acquire their citizenship - a process and a day of ceremony and celebration that the federal government is rightfully trying to make more substantive and meaningful.

"To be as Canadian as possible under the circumstances ..." Not a bad citizenship objective, despite its self-deprecating modesty. But let us then pay greater attention to defining, expanding and appreciating "the circumstances" under which we become "most Canadian."

Preston Manning, a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute, founded the Reform Party.

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