Welcome to Canlandia

As the United States descends into a vicious culture war, Canada has become a beacon of tolerance and, dare we say, coolness

Illustration by Matthew Hollister
Illustration by Matthew Hollister

“Congratulations on moving to Toronto,” said the FedEx guy, looking down at the job contract I was scanning. There we were, surrounded by bars, clothing stores, and coffee shops full of people working on Macs—exactly where you would expect a young New Yorker to want to be. The city to which I would be returning, in contrast, had always felt a bit like a holding pen for the people waiting to get to the Lower East Side.

You have Drake,” he said.

The rapper and former Degrassi star—and one of GQ’s most stylish men of 2016—would likely be a singular figure anywhere. But he is also the first international entertainment star to make Canadianness an overt part of his identity. Drake’s 2016 release, Views, an unofficial tribute to his hometown, has given Toronto a new nickname—here and abroad, we’re known ironically as “the 6” (an insider’s reference to the city’s area codes and boroughs). Drake represents a departure from the longstanding practice embraced by most Canadian celebrities: downplaying their origins. (Most of the world still doesn’t know that the likes of Joni Mitchell and Rachel McAdams were born here).

“Why isn’t he embarrassed, like everyone else?” I have been asking the Drake fans I know. His latest album cover featured him perched on the edge of the CN Tower; it quickly became the inspiration for a series of satirical memes, one of which depicted the artist as the Ikea monkey. Drake was in on the joke. Another friend pointed me to a 2004 episode of the celebrity documentary series Unscripted in which a seventeen-year-old Aubrey Graham (Drake) confidently tours a reporter around his middle-class home. Drake may be the first Canadian to have authentically high self-esteem.

The Canada of 2016 is quite different from the Canada of 1986, the year Drake was born—but it is also quite different from the Canada of 2015. Thanks to a favourable combination of the runaway US election, pop-culture successes, sports triumphs, and some form of ineffable goodwill from the rest of the world, the country has entered a new era of popularity that is being referred to—by those able to remember the time of Pierre Elliott Trudeau—as a golden age. Our new self-confidence, though, may call into question what it means to be Canadian: If Canada becomes cool, can it still be . . . Canadian? As Mike Myers writes in his new book, Canada, a tribute to his home country on the occasion of our coming sesquicentennial: “Fame is a real experience, but it’s not a Canadian experience, and nothing about growing up in Canada prepares you for a public life.” In a sense, that’s where every one of us is today.

As with many Canadian success stories, validation came from the outside first. There were stories in the New York Times referring to us as “hip” and commending the country on its welcoming of Syrian refugees. The presidential campaign in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom have produced a wave of pro-Canada jokes; the heightened anxiety around the U.S. election results literally crashed our Citenzship and Immigration website. There has never been a better time to possess a Canadian passport.

Some of the most significant evidence of our newfound status can be found at the margins of water cooler conversations and social media: the kind of appreciation you can’t manipulate. Pinterest boards on both sides of the border shared a panel from a 1991 Archie comics strip in which Veronica, her hand lifted in a classic primping motion, poses against the skylines of cities from Halifax to Vancouver: “I thought I was the coolest thing in North America . . . until I visited Canada!” After the election of Justin Trudeau, and his subsequent appearance in Vogue, some Americans saw a reflection of their own history and made reference to “Canada’s Camelot.”

An image of the country has emerged that is—not quite Canada, exactly. This mythic, cartoonish version is more Canadian than the country any of us knows: call it Canlandia. Canadians realize that falling oil prices are having an impact on housing markets in the West, that signs of global warming are evident in the North. In Canlandia, though, the prime minister is on it. In Canlandia, people sleep peacefully at night, arms wrapped around one other, expressing a love that is gender- and colour-blind. Canlandia is a nation of working lumberjacks, but also sensitive movie stars. In Canlandia, a Toronto TV channel flashes a breaking-news update amidst items about police investigations and car accidents: GORDON LIGHTFOOT HOPES DRAKE WILL VISIT HIM ONCE THEY ARE NEIGHBOURS. (Actually, that is a real thing that happened over the summer, in Canada.)

In a sense, none of us here had to do much to earn this Canlandian cred. At a time when the rest of the world is falling apart, we have benefited from not doing anything hugely wrong: so far, we haven’t had a financial crisis such as the 2008 subprime mortgage crash, or the rise of Trumpian-style political conservatism, with its calls for a wall and the deportation of current residents. With our progressive policies on immigration and human rights, Canada has become something of a democratic model—a reflection, perhaps, of the way other countries wish they could be. The widely circulated image of the prime minister clutching two infant pandas on an otherwise unremarkable occasion (the public had been invited to help name the first pandas born in captivity at the Toronto Zoo) gave rise to the hashtag #meanwhileincanada, which was used to provide tongue-in-cheek commentary on international crises from natural disasters to gun violence. The memes included geese “politely” crossing the road in single file, Minion-themed hay bales cropping up across Alberta, and a Speedoed man joyfully diving into a bank of snow. They confirmed the idea that Canada was a land of wholesome possibility—a country with its heart in the right place. In the midst of the world’s ills, we are sufficiently on top of things that a police officer of one race can salsa dance with a passerby of another in Ottawa on Canada Day (to a Justin Timberlake song, no less).

When I was a high-school student in Richmond Hill, Ontario—a spiritual cousin to the town satirized by Mike Myers in Wayne’s World—such international recognition for the country would have been inconceivable. After an itinerant childhood that took me from Saskatoon, where I was born, to Montreal, my family settled in the Toronto suburbs when I was thirteen. Richmond Hill was the country’s fastest-growing community at the time; a grey, slippery strip of two-for-one pizza joints and auto dealerships fluttering with sale flags. Music, TV shows, and fashion came from the US—magazines tantalizingly described such wonders next to ads for lipstick colours that we could never buy up here. This was the ’80s, decades before the arrival of a critical mass of international retailers—Sephora, Victoria’s Secret, J. Crew, Nordstrom, Uniqlo—and online shopping. The main disseminator of pop culture was MuchMusic, which featured CanCon bands that might not have enjoyed such prominence otherwise (not long ago, a visiting screenwriter from Los Angeles asked me, with concern: “What is Glass Tiger?” A passing Canadian had mistaken him for the long-defunct pop band’s hirsute lead singer).

When I wasn’t working at the Yogen Früz, I killed time by walking through gritty slush down streets without sidewalks—it had not occurred to the developers that anyone would need them. I read Sassy magazine for its coverage of grunge bands and thrift-store shopping, repeatedly watched Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, and puzzled over John Fowles’s The Magus. I knew I would have to wait for my “real life” to begin. America, and, specifically, New York—with its restaurants, dominant cultural industries, and streets so filled with people that loneliness was impossible—was the place to be. Along with many of my friends, I spent my twenties pursuing work that would make it more likely that I’d get a Green Card. I dreamed of shoes that were not black flats.

Over the last few years, that began to change—never more poignantly than in this past week. The lights of Toronto as seen from an airplane window began to evoke a sense of recognition and relief. The world itself had gotten smaller—in the era of Twitter and Slack, it matters much less where you come from. But the trend cycle had also swung around to us. After the rise of fast fashion and the democratization of luxury brands a decade ago, a growing demand for authenticity caused people to look beyond the traditional fashion capitals of Paris and New York to fresh locales. Excited by a new culture of artisans, insiders started carrying hand-tooled leather satchels and investing in seating derived from reclaimed tree stumps. Canadian chefs were among the first adopters of farm-to-table, locavore dining, and restaurants such as Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon drew acclaim from the world’s foodies.

The stock rose for commodities in which Canada abounds naturally—beards, plaid shirts, high-quality woollen blankets, maple syrup, and smoked bacon. Peter Buchanan-Smith, a designer born in Guelph, Ontario, created a line of artful hand-painted axes under the name Best Made Co., selling the creations to collectors from Tribeca to London. Around this time, I was hired by Hudson’s Bay, headquartered in Toronto, as part of a small team dedicated to turning around the 346-year-old company. Wherever I travelled, the company and the country it came from drew recognition; as one of my friends put it, “It used to be that when you told someone from New York you were from Canada, their eyes would glaze over. Now they look at you as if you know something interesting.”

It was at a Toronto Raptors game last year that I first came to appreciate how cool Canada had become. There was hip-hop pumping out over the court, everyone had dressed for a night on the town, and the $200 seats were filled with couples on dates. The city that had long fought for a spiritual raison d’être was showcased at its best: urban, inclusive, culturally relevant and—it seems oddly Canadian to have to say this—having a good time. All of the essays I had read over the years from the likes of Pico Iyer and Richard Florida—cosmopolites who promote Toronto’s values of multiculturalism and opportunity even as they are able to parachute back to Tokyo or New York—flitted through my mind. In the gift shop, I bought the last remaining We the North T-shirt from the collection produced in collaboration with Drake; I now wear it on visits to Brooklyn, where it draws nods from the more insiderish NBA types.

It feels strange to characterize the success of Canada in such consumer terms. But for so long, what separated this country from the US and other world powers was not simply our TV shows, our distinctive language, or our mannerisms: it was stuff. The arrival, over the last few years, of an increasing number of American and international chains has been a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it has made Canada more like everywhere else; on the other, it has leveled the playing field. There is also an implicit glamour in the fact that Canadians now dominate the charts—and awards—in music, film, art, and literature. This year, Canadians dominate Spotify’s global playlist and the American Music Awards; we had two authors up for the Booker Prize. For so long, we have been cross-border shopping with our hearts. Now, as I observed at the Raptors game, there is a homegrown scene that is not just satisfying, but site-specific: it could not be happening anywhere else.

The King of Canlandia is Justin Trudeau. Since the election last November, he has captured the world’s imagination with a series of civic gestures such as an overt parade of the diversity in his cabinet (“Because it’s 2015”) and with his welcome of 35,000 Syrian refugees. There were also those images of the prime minister in his shirtsleeves, holding the peacock yoga pose at the edge of a desk; striding out with the presidents of the United States and Mexico (the unfortunately named “Three Amigos” conference); and, yes, the shirtless photobomb of a tourist’s vacation shot—although that had more of the feel of a paparazzi photo than a staged political message. Marvel released a comic featuring the prime minister in boxing gear. Canlandia had found its leading man—or, as one of my friends put it in archly Canadian terms, “He’s like our general manager and our mascot.”

Trudeau draws criticism for what some interpret as excessively self-promoting moves, such as a selfie he snapped during Barack Obama’s visit in June. (The PMO’s exuberant caption: “One for the road!”) At Toronto’s Pride Parade, during which the prime minister was duly sprayed by water guns, journalist Martin Patriquin challenged Trudeau on his priorities. Responding that he spends “an awful lot of time” behind a desk, Trudeau argued that he had been elected to represent the country’s core values, one of which is accessibility: “That is, quite frankly, one of the things that democracy is evolving into.”

Trudeau does represent a new kind of democratic leader: in a world where most of them keep the citizenry at arm’s length, he walks among us. It is a model we began to see emerge with Obama, whose candid after-hours photos with his staffer’s children and on the basketball court, coupled with his personal social media presence, humanized the politician’s role from the hands-off stereotypical bureaucrat to Democratic poster boy. If Trudeau and Trump have one thing in common, it is that they both belong to a more advanced breed of celebrity politician. (Trump could be the proof point for a new breed of post-party politician, one whose rise to power is enabled through the digitally-enabled cult of personality.) Of the two, it is Trudeau who inhabits the role with more credibility. In truth, with all the candid, selectively chosen and yet multi-dimensional images of him that we see—the executive; the father; the neighbour; the athlete—he is something much closer to an Instagram star than a conventional politician. One wants to know what he is putting in his smoothies.

Digital marketing professional Tara Hunt, who set up Trudeau’s first official social-media platform during his run for the leadership of the Liberal party, says she was inspired by Obama and by the example of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean—the American politician whose grassroots approach to campaign fundraising pioneered a new kind of engagement between politicians and the public. But Trudeau—coming as he does from a generation that grew up online, and living in a country less inclined to put its leaders under a microscope—has taken that ideal to another level. “He embodies everything that social media stands for,” says Hunt. “Transparency, accessibility, inclusiveness.”

Trudeau’s political policies are beginning to be challenged, but there is no question that he has helped advance a new vision of Canada internationally, one shaped in his image: cosmopolitan, articulate, and with on-point social values. He even knows how to dress—in the rolled-up sleeves and slim-fit suits of the venture capitalist, a look that stands in stark contrast to the traditional image of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, as well as that of his new counterpart to the south, a man whose Whit Stillman-esque hair and overall aesthetic are a throwback to the ’80s, the decade in which he clearly feels most comfortable. Canada, at least from what we’ve seen over the last year and even more so in the last few days, is shaping up to become something of an idealized twenty-first-century brand: a mixture of Google’s head office and Scandinavian minimalism that nevertheless has something unique to us (an inclusive identity, perhaps).

The world’s most-admired nations are often associated with some form of consumer shorthand. It’s hard not to equate Sweden with the low-cost, high-design ethos of Ikea (“Swedish for common sense”). France has the Eiffel Tower, romance, and cheese—three pillars of a sensual society. When people consider this country, what do they imagine?

For many years, the answer would have been icons associated with the outdoors: Mounties, beavers, that ubiquitous maple leaf. None of these has ever been in big commercial demand. To run through New York’s SoHo now is to see, intermingled with Moncler and Nespresso (Switzerland), Muji and Uniqlo (Japan), storefronts for Lululemon and Lolë—part of a growing crop of Canadian activewear brands. Canada Goose is now the category killer in a global market for luxury parkas. Meanwhile, a handful of niche beauty brands such as the non-toxic Bite and the start-up Deciem, which is run out of a Toronto warehouse, have found a place in the handbags of the world’s beauty editors. Our new commercial promise can probably be traced back to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when the world was exposed to that beautiful state-of-the-art city populated by a lot of athletic people with great teeth. The fashion world’s current turn to activewear and wellness is creating new opportunities for Canlandia chic: imagine a nation where everyone is doing yoga in their designer leggings, faces perfected by cruelty-free cosmetics (“Made in Canada” has become a selling point).

And the biggest market for a rebranded Canada may be Canadians themselves. When I was working at Hudson’s Bay, we came up with the hashtag #stripespotting to capture the emerging international street style—which incorporated our blankets and jackets—that was showing up in Brooklyn, in Tokyo. Our feed was quickly overtaken by Canadians themselves sending in pictures of their dogs and babies at home—it had created a platform to talk about something that nobody had articulated before: a form of patriotic consumerism. My suspicion is that part of the overall popularity of Hudson’s Bay is due to a sense of identification Canadians feel with the historic brand—in supporting the company, they were also supporting the country, and their own identities as well.

The Tragically Hip’s final concert, which took place on August 20, marked both a summation of and a turning point for the Canadian identity. In the outpouring of emotion for ailing singer Gord Downie—a troubadour in the spirit of Woody Guthrie who spoke to this country of factory towns and beer gardens—there was pride in the singer’s immense spirit, in the values he represents. I was in a Cineplex that August night, and everyone drifted away from their Hollywood blockbusters and gathered around the lobby TV, which was broadcasting the Kingston concert. People were doing the same all over the world—weighing in on Twitter and on Facebook, as journalists were preparing the testimonials that would be appearing over the following days in The New Yorker and the Guardian. (Kaari Sinnaeve, partnerships and marketing manager of Canadian Art, inventively referred to the phenomenon as “Cansplaining.” *) In that moment, we became a consciously Canadian country.

It is one of the first times I can remember Canadians characterizing themselves as a people other than in beer commercials and during sporting events. Canadians tend to be cautious when making assumptions about what their neighbours are thinking, even when their neighbour is in the next seat at a baseball game. But when the opportunity arises, we do, like the tribe we are. And our heroes emerge. Joey Bautista, riding home alone on his scooter after the historic bat flip last year, was a harbinger of the Canada to come: he had done his job well, he was badass, and he was wearing cool headphones.

Is Canada simply late to the party—a young country just coming in under the wire of nationalism, even as the doctrine becomes increasingly problematic? Or are we a new model for the twenty-first century—a nation built on a multiplicity of voices and a policy of inclusion?

“My feeling about what’s happening in Canada now has a good deal to do with—for want of a better word—luck,” says Robert Wright, a professor of Canadian history at Trent University. Events such as the terrorist attacks in Nice and in New York this past year have underscored the fact that no country can take its security for granted. Canada, with its underdog status, may simply have been protected for a bit longer than some.

Nations are bundles of contradictions. It may make more sense today to think of them as brands, assemblages of meaning whose relevance may rise and fall, and whose characters evolve. To draw an analogy from fashion, Prada, which initially made leather goods for the Milanese gentry, has since become the world’s leading women’s fashion label. Certainly, it may be less advantageous to be a country that is smugly sure of itself—and thus more likely to lose touch with the values that made it admired—than to be a country that can adapt. To put it in a Canadian context: if we are going to brand ourselves, being cool may end up being more limiting than simply being nice. The America that once loomed so large over us, and that we are looking down on now, is a concept that is being virtually run into the ground by the powers that shaped it: internet democracy.

A long-standing joke in my family is that we’re not a real family. It comes from something my sister said when she was a teenager. “I thought we should be more like the Mosses,” she recalled, when I reminded her about it recently. The Mosses lived down the street from us at one point. Their house was perfectly decorated, their meals were served on time, and they (at least as far as we could make out) never fought. The joke is one we all return to, when gathered around a dinner table at Christmas or sitting in a living room strewn with the detritus of a gift exchange: “Too bad we’re not a real family.”

The Canada we know now might not be a perfect country—and in another 100 years, it may have grown into a nation we wouldn’t even recognize. But maybe we’ve spent so much time worrying about how we look from the outside that we’ve overlooked what a strong family—what a real country—we’ve become.

This appeared in the December 2016 issue.

April 5, 2019: An earlier version of this story stated that Nespresso is an Italian company. In fact, Nespresso is based in Switzerland. The Walrus regrets the error.

* An earlier version of this article misattributed the term “Cansplaining.”

Jessica Johnson
Jessica Johnson (@ejessicajohnson) is a former editor-in-chief of The Walrus.