Canadian Studies

Athabasca University offers a concentration in Canadian Studies for students who want to focus their studies on Canada. The purpose of the concentration is to insure that students are exposed to a variety of disciplinary perspectives on Canadian issues and also that their overall program has both breadth and depth. Students who take this concentration will have learned a great deal about Canadian history, literature, geography, politics and government, and Native and ethnic studies as well as having opportunities to study other aspects of Canada's present and past.

Canadian Studies, Past and Present

What is Canadian Studies?

Most Canadian Studies programs, both in Canada and abroad, begin with an inward-looking search for a ‘Canadian identity.’ They attempt to answer questions like What does it mean to be a Canadian? Who are we? And, perhaps most especially, what distinguishes us as a nation-state from other nation-states?

Such questions were borne out of the particular historical context of the 1970s, a time when many Canadians were anxious about the nation’s identity, and especially how the face of Canada appeared to be undergoing a dramatic shift. What lay in back of these anxieties? Beginning in the late 1960s, Canada changed its immigration policy from one that was race-based and took into account potential immigrants’ country-of-origin to one that was based on a points system. This meant that Canada welcomed increasing numbers of people from Asia, from Africa, and from South and Central America even while Canada saw declining numbers of immigrants from the United States, western Europe, and the United Kingdom.

Canadians in the 1970s were also anxious about Canada’s increasingly continental orientation, and the coincident declining imperial connection with Britain. This was especially true as America’s corporate and media influence on Canada and Canadians appeared to be accelerating, with no signs of slowing down.

But Canadian Studies in the 1970s was as prescriptive as it was descriptive. It was in many ways designed to ‘teach’ new immigrants how to ‘fit in’ in their new home; how to, in other words, become Canadians rather than North Americans.

The 1970s, of course, wasn’t the first time Canadians had experienced profound anxieties over their self-identity. Perhaps beginning as early as the late nineteenth century, some Canadians—foremost among them a group calling itself the ‘Canada Firsters’—tried to construct Canada’s national identity as quintessentially ‘northern.’ In part, characterizing Canada as a northern nation served to differentiate it from its southern neighbour. But the Canada Firsters pressed the image further. The ‘north’ was more virtuous than the degenerate ‘south,’ they claimed. People who called the ‘north’ home had to be hardier, stronger, more self-possessed and composed than people who lived in the carefree, easy-living south.

Like the anxieties that characterized the 1970s, this iteration of a search for what it meant to be a Canadian had its own particular historical context. Canada in the late nineteenth century was, after all, little more than a loose collection of former British colonies. And Confederation itself was more of an economic arrangement than it was an outpouring of nationalist sentiment.

The search for the elusive Canadian identity continued into the twentieth century, and the government of Canada commissioned no fewer than five royal commissions mandated specifically to locate it. Was it in our print media (the O’Leary Commission)? Our radio broadcasts (the Aird Commission)? Our television programming (the Fowler Commission)? Our supposed two solitudes (the Bi- and Bi- Commission)? Our cultural output (the Massey Commission)?

These Royal Commissions, in many ways, left Canadians with more questions than answers about what it meant to be Canadian in a nation ever evolving, and in a world ever changing. New technologies like radio, movies, and television challenged Canadians’ notions of what being a Canadian meant, even while those same new technologies plugged Canadians into an increasingly globalized world. Such trends have only accelerated in the twenty-first century amidst the digital revolution. Similarly, the easy international flow of capital and labour has made our nation-states’ borders more porous than ever, and rising concerns over climate change transcend national boundaries. And Canada continues to re-examine its complex relationship with indigenous peoples.

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Updated December 21 2015 by Student & Academic Services