COVID-19 and the Unravelling of Canadian Identity

Canada’s failed pandemic response further undermines foundational ideas of what the country is, how it works, and what it stands for.

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Canadian identity does a lot of heavy lifting in this country. It holds people together stretched across a vast geography. It props up politics, economics, and culture. In a significant way, it makes the country exist.

The term Canadian identity indicates the character, values, and aspirations of the nation. Canadian identity is bound up with notions of humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and collective care. It is grounded in universal healthcare and peacekeeping, representative individuals like Terry Fox and Roberta Bondar, and cultural elements of Canadian arts and sport.

However, something to keep in mind about Canadian identity is that it is just an idea, a story we tell ourselves and others about who we are. It only exists because people believe it.

The country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for people to believe in Canadian identity, and threatens to unravel the narrative altogether.

Catalogue of faults

It is not as though Canadian identity was uninterrupted before the pandemic. The country’s colonial history and ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples disrupts idyllic notions of Canadian identity. Recent revelations of mass graves at residential school sites across the country make many people question their belief in Canadian identity.

Then there is the yawning inequality and growing poverty, run-away inflation pushing working people to the edge, an out of control housing market, and perpetually stagnant wages. These economic factors disrupt Canadian identity, too, in the sense that egalitarianism is shown to be a myth. 

Now, with COVID-19, Canadian identity is reaching a breaking point.

More than 35,000 people have died of COVID, with more than half that number being vulnerable older adults and people with disabilities. As though that was not bad enough, there are some indications the true number may be twice the official figure.

The pandemic disproportionately affects racialized communities, in terms of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, and also with respect to vaccine inequity.

Politicians and decision-makers of all kinds repeatedly fail in the duty of care, choosing to prioritize economics over the lives and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

On the level of the community and the household, social relations have never been so strained in recent memory. Protesters picket hospitals, occupy major cities, and enforce armed blockades of strategic chokepoints. Provincial and federal governments work at odds, foreign influences connive and destabilize, and in recent weeks the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act.

Who can look around, after two years of the pandemic, and see the vision of Canada they grew up believing in?

Going forward

Taking the original idea of what it means to be Canadian and laying it against the country as it is right now, the two pictures do not line up. There were already enough contradictions in the idea of Canadian identity, but now it is too much to hold together.

COVID-19 shattered Canada. The damage to social relations and to the idea of what it means to be Canadian may be the worst impacts of all, because so much relies on those things that a huge vacuum is opening up in their absence. The country is entering a situation that is inherently unstable and dangerous.

Going forward, things do not look good. There are sure to be more difficulties around COVID-19, which it seems the country has little capacity to address. Then there are all the other problems the country faces—things like reconciliation, inequality, and climate change, which at present seem well beyond anything that could realistically be dealt with.

This is not just an academic concern, since Canadian identity has for so long provided unity and common purpose, along with the stability that brings. With that identity slipping away, the future of the country becomes troubled and uncertain.

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