The Culture, Traditions, and Heritage of CanadaCanada is a very large and diverse country in North America, the second largest country in the world with a total area of 6.2 million square miles (9.9 million km2). The country, which consists of 10 provinces and 3 territories, is located in the far northern part of the North American continent, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and northward into the islands of the Arctic Ocean. Canada borders only one other country—its southern neighbor, the United States of America—with which it shares the world’s longest land border between two countries.
Records show that the region now known as Canada has been inhabited for thousands upon thousands of years by various indigenous peoples. In the late 1400s, British and French colonial expeditions explored the region, and later settled on Canada’s Atlantic coast. During the French and Indian War of 1763, France ceded nearly all of its colonies in North America to the British. In the decades that followed, the population grew steadily, the territory was further explored and additional self-governing colonies were established under the British Crown. On July 1, 1867, three such colonies federated, forming a federal dominion which established Canada. Today Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth of England as its official head of state.
Canada, which takes its name from the Iroquoian word Kanata, meaning “village,”is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations, one that for centuries now has welcomed immigrants from every corner of the globe. Its current population of roughly 35 million is made up of people with a variety of ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds, all of whom add to the wonderful culture that makes Canada such a popular place to live and visit.
The culture of Canada, similar to that of any country in the world, is a product of its history, geography, political system, etc. As a settler nation, Canada has been shaped and molded by waves of migration that have collectively combined to form a unique and pleasing blend of customs, rituals, traditions and cuisine; cultural characteristics that have marked the socio-cultural development of the nation. To gain a deeper understanding of Canada and the culture that defines it, below we will discuss a variety of the country’s most significant cultural traits, including language, religion, the arts, cuisine, sport, holidays and celebrations.
Culture of Canada: Language
Canada is a bilingual country, with both English and French listed as official languages. In matters of law and government, English takes precedence in all the provinces save for Quebec, with English versions of all statutes serving as the final arbiter in disputes over interpretation.Twenty years ago, the proportion of Canadians reporting English as their first language or mother tongue was just under 60 percent, while those reporting French as their mother tongue was around 25 percent. Today the numbers show there is an even greater percentage of English speakers in the country (and Fewer French speakers), largely due to the large influx of Americans taking up residence in Canada.
It is estimated that about 17 percent of all Canadians are bilingual—English and French—though these numbers are a regionalized phenomenon and do not necessarily represent the country as a whole. In those provinces with the largest number of native French speakers, such as Quebec and New Brunswick, the percentage of bilingual people is 38 percent and 33 percent respectively. On the other hand, the province of Ontario, which accounts for more than 30 percent of the total population, the English-French bilingual rate is only about 12 percent. These numbers are in part the result of the immigration patterns over time, which have seen the majority of immigrants gravitating toward Ontario, and in part because all official and commercial services in Ontario are conducted strictly in English, even though French is available by law, if not by practice. Simply put, for those living outside of Quebec and New Brunswick, English-French bilingualism is gradually becoming less important in their everyday lives.
In addition to the two official languages of Canada, there are also many minority languages spoken in the country. These languages can be traced back to the immigration patterns in Canada—patterns that have changed drastically over the years. Following World War II, for example, the majority of Canadian immigrants hailed from Europe, and only 54 percent of these people had a non-official mother tongue (something other than English or French). Of those that did not speak either French or English as their first language, about 25 percent reported that Italian, German or Greek was their mother tongue. In contrast, since 80 percent of all Canadian immigrants arriving between 1991 and 1996 spoke a language other than English or French, with over half of them hailing from countries in Asia and the Middle East. Chinese was the first language of just under 25 percent of these immigrants, while Arabic, Punjabi, Tamil, and Persian together accounted for about 20 percent.
Today the minority languages of Canada continue to reflect the immigration patterns of the country. Perhaps the biggest change has been the large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants who have recently settled in the country—over three-quarter of a million speakers who now represent the largest linguistic minority in Canada. After Spanish, the most prevalent minority languages in Canada today are Italian (661,000 speakers), German (622,650), Chinese (472,080), Punjabi (456,090), Cantonese (434,720), Arabic (365,000), Dutch (350,500), Tagalog (324,120), and Hindi (299,600). Studies show that while the number of non-official European-language speakers (except for Spanish) is gradually dwindling in Canada, languages such as Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Arabic and Punjabi are on the rise.
Many indigenous languages are still spoken in Canada, although they account for only a small portion of non-official language speakers. These languages are of great political and cultural importance in Canada, as First Nation groups assert greater and more compelling claims on political and cultural sovereignty. Of these languages, only Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway are prevalent enough to be considered viable to survive in the long term.
Culture of Canada: ReligionIn Canada, as with many developed countries, religious affiliation is much more prevalent than religious observance, although official statistics vary by ethnic and religious group. The majority of Canadians claim some type of religious affiliation, most often Christianity, although the number of people claiming no religious affiliation has steadily risen since the 1980s. Nonetheless, Canada is home to practitioners of many different faiths and belief systems.
While there is no official religion in Canada, the preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms refers to "God", and the monarch carries the title of "Defender of the Faith” Moreover, Christianity seems to be recognized, if not promoted in Canadian statute, with such practices as swearing on a Bible during legal proceedings, and with official functions opening with a Christian prayer of some kind being very common.
According to the latest available census data, 67 percent of the Canadian population self-identifies as Christian—38 percent Roman Catholic and 29 percent Protestant. The most prevalent Protestant denominations in the country, listed in order, are United Church of Canada, Anglican Church of Canada, Baptist, Lutheran and Presbyterian.
Those with no religion affiliation whatsoever comprise the second-largest religious bloc in Canada, representing 24 percent of the total population. These individuals include both Agnostics (people who claim no religious affiliation) and Atheists (people who do not believe in God or a higher power).
Due to its wide diversity of people, Canada is also home to several minority world religions that are practiced by small, yet significant proportions of the population. In order of prevalence, these minority religions include: Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism. Additionally, there are several aboriginal religious practices that still continue among the groups that claim this indigenous lineage.
Over the last several decades, religious observance among the Canadian people has gradually declined, a trend similar to that found in many other industrialized countries. This appears to be mostly a Christian phenomenon, as practitioners of some of the other world religions tend to make special efforts to maintain their religious observances as part of the process of retaining their original ethnic or cultural identity. Some Christian religious groups have grown in membership, such as evangelical Christianity, but as a whole, the trend in Canada has been toward increasing secularism in both the public and private lives of the Canadian people.
Most of the religious officials in Canada are associated with the mainstream religions/churches they represent, although there are some ethnic differences. For example, specialist religious practitioners, such as healers, are common in Portuguese communities such as the one in Toronto, as they are in many of the minority African faiths that are practiced sparsely in the country.
Most Canadians believe in the Christian model of the afterlife, of heaven and hell. Burial practices vary by religious group, but for the most part funeral observances and burying procedures are the responsibility of the deceased’s family.
Culture of Canada: The ArtsJust as they are in the United States and Western Europe, most artists in Canada are “self-supporting,” although only a small minority draws their entire income from their artistic efforts. There are, however, several tax-funded programs, at all levels of the Canadian government, designed to support the arts and provide financial assistance to artists of all types. The Governor General’s Awards are presented each year to artists, writers, musicians, and other performers. There is also a federal National Art Gallery, and most provinces have one major tax-funded art gallery, usually in the provincial capital.
Unlike Europe and the United States, Canada does not have a single national literary tradition, but participates instead in the wider English world of literature. Of course there are many internationally renowned authors from Canada, but in general there is no single canon yet of Canadian literature as a whole. One exception to this rule is the province of Quebec, where there is a venerable “national” literature renowned for its social criticism and experimentation.
In the last 30 years, the number of published Canadian writers has increased dramatically, and as a cultural point, the Canadian community buys and reads more books than those in most other industrialized nations. Nonetheless, no special preference has yet to be given to Canadian literature.
Canada boasts a legion of artists working across many different artistic disciplines. Most of the country’s smaller cities (and all of the larger ones) have many art galleries where citizens can peruse and purchase art, including several galleries funded by tax payers. Several artist cooperatives exist in cities across the country, providing artistic and financial support for members. Be that as it may, there is no single model for artistic presentation operating across the country.
There are hundreds of theaters and performing arts centers scattered throughout Canada. Larger cities, such as Toronto, have one or more professional theaters in which elaborate plays and operas are staged, while most of the smaller cities feature community theater companies. Several specialist companies or events, such as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the Shaw Festival also exist in the country. Held annually, both of these Ontario-based festivals consistently draw thousands of people, including scores of international visitors from around the world.
Toronto, Canada is recognized as one of the world leaders in the arts. The city has the distinction of hosting more theater openings per year than any other city in the English-speaking world.Its theaters include large commercial venues offering mostly musical theater, several large venues for other kinds of musical performance, and a diverse range of theaters and theater companies offering both new works original to the company and works from almost every linguistic and cultural tradition.
As is the case throughout the world, attendance at theater productions in Canada tends to follow class lines, with most events catering to the country’s most affluent members. There are, however, a few exceptions. Small community theaters tend to draw a wide cross section of Canadians, particularly those hosting new, experimental or political types of theater.
Culture of Canada: CuisineAttempting to identify a particular cuisine of Canada is not an easy proposition, as the multiethnic and multicultural makeup of Canada has resulted in a wide range of food preferences and cooking styles. When most people think of Canadian cuisine, they no doubt focus on items such as Canadian bacon and maple syrup, and while these foods are seen as uniquely Canadian, they only scratch the surface of this delicious and rather quirky gastronomy.
Canadians are fiercely proud of their culinary traditions—traditions steeped in imagination and an endless number of delicious ingredients and spices. From the smoked deli meat of Montreal to the world-renowned potatoes of Prince Edward Island, Canadians have a colossal choice of local foods with which to experiment, many of them available year-round.
The culinary styles of Canada were once merely a fusion of those brought to the country by the English and French, but today they reflect the best the world has to offer, with influences from Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. So what makes a food uniquely Canadian? Being invented here is a start, but it can also be the result of tweaking recipes from other parts of the world to suit the palates of the new Canadian people.
One truly Canadian food is “poutine,” thought to be invented in Quebec during the 1950s. In its original form, poutine consisted of a mixture of French fries generally slathered in gravy and cheese curds. Since its inception, however, the recipe has been regularly embellished and adapted in many odd and tasty ways, from the gourmet versions with lobster and foi gras added, to the quirky “donut” version of the recipe. Many restaurants and snack shops throughout Canada specialize in this traditional—and traditionally delicious—Canadian food.
Although neither sushi nor pizza can be labeled as Canadian dishes, when you put them together you have something that is truly unique to the country of Canada: Sushi pizza. It’s true. Sushi pizza, which is extremely popular in the city of Toronto, has become an absolute staple for the city’s sushi lovers.
Like their U.S. neighbors to the south, more and more Canadians are striving to eat a healthier diet these days, one often consisting of more ethnic foods, while balancing their love for baked goods and other comfort food items. In addition to Canadian bacon, maple syrup, Poutine and sushi pizza, a few of these favorite foods include:
- Ketchup Chips. Chips slathered in ketchup are just one of the guilty-pleasure snacks enjoyed by Canadians.
- Butter Tarts. A butter tart is a classic Canadian dessert made with butter, sugar, syrups and eggs, all filled in a buttery pastry shell that often includes raisins and nuts.
- Beaver Tails. Before you shriek in disgust, Canadian Beaver Tails are merely a trademarked type of pastry widely distributed throughout the country. The fried dough treats are shaped to resemble a real beaver’s tail and are often topped with chocolate, candy and fruit.
- Game Meat. Game meat makes up a significant part of the average Canadian’s diet, and is abundant in the country’s restaurants and butcher shops. Among other popular Canadian game meat is wild boar, bison, venison, caribou and rabbit.
Culture of Canada: SportSports are very popular in Canada, from both a participation and spectator standpoint. Canadians hold many sports dear, particularly the country’s two national sports: ice hockey and lacrosse.
Referred to as simply “hockey” in Canada, ice hockey is the most popular and prevalent winter sport activity, and Canada’s most successful sport in terms of international competition. Many Canadian boys (and some girls) learn hockey at a very young age. Competitions are held for almost every age group, including high school and college, where participants dream of one day skating for their favorite team in the National Hockey League (NHL), which draws millions of Canadians spectators each year.
Similar to hockey, lacrosse is a sport with Native American origins and the official summer sport of Canada.
Canadian football is also popular in Canada, the second-most popular spectator sport in the country after hockey. Thousands compete in the Canadian Football League (CFL) each year, and its annual championship, the Grey Cup, is the country’s largest annual sports event.
Other sports gaining in popularity in Canada, particularly from a participation perspective, include Association football (soccer), golf, swimming, basketball, baseball, volleyball, skiing, cycling and tennis. As you might expect based on its colder climate, Canada has enjoyed greater success at the Winter Olympic Games than it has at the Summer Olympics.
Culture of Canada: Holidays and Celebrations
The people of Canada enjoy a number of important holidays and celebrations. Some of these are uniquely Canadian, while others have their roots in English and French traditions.28 Some of the most significant holidays and celebrations include:
- Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Celebrated every August 15th by the Canadian religious group known as the Acadians, this feast day is one of the most important observances of their religious calendar.
- Boxing Day. Deriving its name from the 19th century English, Boxing Day occurs on December 26, when it was customary to give boxes or money to servants and family. The day used to be known as St. Stephens Day.
- Canada Day. Canada day is the celebration of the nation’s birthday. The first Canada day (once known as Dominion Day) was celebrated on July 1, 1867.
- Icelandic Festival. Also known as "Islendingadagurinn," the Icelandic Festival, a Viking-themed carnival day, has been celebrated in Canada since 1890.
- Remembrance Day. Celebrated every November 11th, Remembrance Day is a holiday designed to honor the war veterans of Canada who were lost during the two World Wars.