| I am Canadian.
Three simple, deliberate words that manifest the Canadian identity. Or do they? In our day-to-day lives, it is difficult to clearly synthesize what it means to “be Canadian.” The national slogan leaves much open for interpretation beyond the fact that it probably involves beavers, canoes and, frequently, Wayne Gretzky.
Aside from these superficial icons, the question remains as to what exactly these icons are founded upon. Where is the underlying core to our unique identity that grounds the Canuck culture like a firm slab of Canadian Shield?
I hadn’t even conceived of these questions when I accepted a six-month internship at the Institute for Environmental Studies in Amsterdam. I was more concerned with delaying an inevitable job search until I figured out what to do with myself after university.
But during my time abroad, I learned more about being Canadian from the outside than I ever would have within its borders. Living abroad allows you to step away from the static that builds up in familiar surroundings—you separate the complacent white noise from the steady rhythm of a truer cultural identity.
And I’ve found myself moving in circles following that cultural rhythm, always coming back to one fundamental aspect of the Canadian character that influences our deepest values and ideals. Canadians are fundamentally defined—by ourselves and the larger global community around us—in terms of the most unique and precious characteristic of this wonderful country: the abundant wealth and beauty of our natural environment.
Our Canadian identity manifests itself in many ways: from the bold Rocky Mountains to the more subtle influences of Canada’s wide open geography, its untamed Northern landscape, and the spiritual history indigenous First Nations people share with the land. Unlike the tightly-packed, efficiently-engineered habitats of European countries such as the Netherlands, Canada is still somewhat at the mercy of its large, ungainly spaces and the broad swathes of nature that streak between our relatively isolated islands of humanity.
But we are currently engaged in a way of life that works at odds against the fundamental unit of our Canadian identity, and the outcomes of these actions have begun to show themselves, not just within Canada, but on an international stage across the globe.
With worldwide environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and water management receiving greater international attention, it is no longer possible to portray a green-washed Canadian image on one hand while pillaging with the other. The world is watching, and our environmental skeletons have finally found their way out of the closet: the toxic algae that have blossomed every summer for the past three years on Lake Winnipeg show like sick flowers on satellite images from space; the droughts and degraded farmland in southern Alberta have become crises requiring emergency supplies from neighbouring provinces; the fuel we burn for energy belches CO2 into the atmosphere, threatening the livelihoods of those primarily in coastal areas and small island states.
What can I say to my Dutch friends who view Canada as an environmental steward when, according to a report published by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in September last year, our country makes the third largest environmental footprint on the planet? How do you react when you discover that, despite Canada’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, greenhouse gas emissions have grown by nearly 20 per cent since 1990, making us the second worst per-capita greenhouse gas polluter among industrialized countries? Or how do you react when the OCED criticizes sustainable development in Canada, claiming there’s “much to be done” in implementing practical environmental policies?
In 2004, it became increasingly clear that Canadians could no longer support our image as environmental protectors. From the repeated failures of the Canadian government to adequately protect our ocean fisheries, to the precarious position of the Arctic and Northern communities in the face of global climate change, to the absolutely appalling state of sewage treatment facilities in major Canadian cities, it is now frighteningly certain that we as a nation have been tremendously negligent in environmental policy and protection.
This Jekyll and Hyde approach to serious issues affecting our natural environment must be resolved. Whether you live in Cross Lake or Toronto, each of us should be allowed to take pride in the strength and uniqueness of what it means to be Canadian. This identity is rooted in the health and quality of our environment; in the landscape that surrounds and supports our homes and cities.
We should be proud to cry “I am Canadian.” But before we shout it from the rooftops, let’s be secure in the knowledge that the actions we take with our environment are responsible and consistent with our values and the identity we portray to the world around us. If Canadians continue to forsake our role as environmental stewards, we risk destroying not just our international ecological image, but also an essential element of our collective Canadian identity: the land we live upon, the air we breathe; our proud cities and the wild spaces in between.
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Chris is a mechanical engineer with a strong interest in energy, environment, and sustainability.
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