Are white Canadians becoming conscious of their whiteness? -

Are white Canadians becoming conscious of their whiteness?

Terry Glavin: They’re less likely than Americans to identify as ‘white’—and long have been. But a new survey suggests that’s changing.

A large Canadian flag is waved during the Men's Gold Medal Hockey match between USA and Canada at the Canada Hockey Place during the XXI Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada on February 28, 2010. (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

(Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadians tend to cherish the idea that we’re not at all like Americans, particularly in matters of race and identity. We like to think we’re more open and welcoming, more content with the idea of living in a multicultural, immigrant-friendly society, and that we’re just, you know, nicer.

The results of a just-concluded opinion survey obtained by Maclean’s seem to confirm that it’s all quite true, that we are not at all like the fractious and irritable Americans. We may even be far more different from them than we thought. Although Canada is more homogeneously “white” than the United States, Canadians are only half as likely to identify as “white.”

But against the backdrop of a broad Euro-American cultural retreat into “identity politics,” Donald Trump’s increasingly race-fixated America and the spectacle of thousands of migrants showing up at random locations along the Canada-U.S. border all summer, that seems to be changing.

In a McAllister Opinion Research survey of Americans and Canadians carried out this month, Americans are twice as willing—41 per cent of them—to identify “white” as their ethnicity. If you include the response “Caucasian,” a peculiar 18th Century term that also means “white,” the proportion of Americans who identify their ethnicity by these terms rises to 54 per cent (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that “Non Hispanic whites” made up 64 per cent of the American population in 2010).

In the McAllister survey, only 20 per cent of Canadians identified “white” as their ethnicity, and if you add in “Caucasian,” only 30 per cent of us identify in that way. Contrast that with Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, which identifies 80 per cent of us as white people (more precisely, StatsCan identified 26,587,570 of Canada’s 32,852,325 non-Indigenous people as “Not a Visible Minority”).

So where did all the white people go?

Canadians and Americans were asked how they would describe their ethnic background. Here’s how they answered:

White/Caucasian “Canadian”/”American” Quebecois/French Canadian
British/European Mixed/Hyphenated Ethnicity Other ‘racial’ category


31% 21% 7% 8% 29% 2%

United States

54% 4% 7% 25% 11%

“It is weird,” Angus McAllister, the survey firm’s director, told me. “What it shows for sure is that Americans are way more obsessed with race than Canadians are.”

The McAllister survey was undertaken from August 13 to August 20—the immediate aftermath of the white-supremacist outrage in Charlottesville, Virginia. The ugly spectacle of marching Nazis and hooded Ku Klux Klansmen sent a great many Americans into paroxysms of alarm. Their despair was compounded by the gleeful allegiance the worst of Charlottesville’s racists pledged to President Trump, and by Trump giving every impression of being content with it. Canadians responded in unanimous revulsion.

McAllister polled a sample of 1,025 Canadians, leaving an error margin of plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The American sample of 835 Americans falls within an error margin of plus of minus 3.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

A couple of other points: McAllister, 56, is a good friend. He’s also Japanese, or “mixed,” or whatever the circumstances demand of him, as he puts it. He’s no stranger to the nuances and ambiguities that tend to get papered over in fashionable uproars about race and identity.

What worries McAllister is something in the survey results’ granular details that is only hinted at in copycat Canadian iterations of far-right American pseudo-journalism, and in the mimicry at work in transgressive Canadian school-renaming and statue-toppling shouting matches. Over time, we’re becoming more like Americans. Or at least some of us are.

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Older, well-educated Canadian respondents in McAllister’s survey were the least likely to claim “white” as an ethnic identity. Among Canadians older than 65 with only a university education, only eight per cent identified as white. Among Canadians in that same age bracket with only a high school education, 28 per cent identified as white.

Among Canadians under the age of 45 with a university education, 19 per cent identified as white—the national average. Among Canadians in that age group with only a high school education, 38 per cent claimed a white ethnicity —a proportion that tracks closest to the overall American average.

It’s not as though there’s a large bloc of Canadians who are becoming racists, McAllister cautions. The pull of the American cultural orbit and the mania for “identity politics” have a lot to do with it. An overweening preoccupation with race and ethnicity as identity markers can only exacerbate an unhealthy trend that over time will inevitably expand the number of Canadians who identify as “white.”

Before we were Canadians, the colonial settlers of British North America were British and French. “White” only rarely came into the conversation, and the emancipation of “multiculturalism” allowed the rest of us to find a way to identify with the Canadian mainstream.

We all became used to identifying ourselves as “hyphenated” Canadians, or just Canadians. But unlike people lumped into the Visible Minority category, European immigrants lose their hyphenated old-country identities more easily as each generation supplants its predecessor. Eventually, people who fall within Statistics Canada’s cumbersome Not a Visible Minority category are gradually left with only “white” as an ethnic identity.

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In the United States, where “whiteness” makes most sense in the context of slavery, the generational pattern appears to have stalled. To be “white” in America – a political category that began mainly with Englishmen and gradually enveloped other groups, like the Irish, the Italians and the Jews – is to be “not Black.” It is to perpetually hover above the status of the slave, sometimes to the point of perpetuating black slavery by other means.

Among McAllister’s American survey respondents under the age of 45, roughly 45 per cent identified themselves as white. Among Americans 45 years old or older, 60 per cent identified as white.

North of the border, Statistics Canada’s awkward Not a Visible Minority Category works well enough as a signifier for people with comparatively pale complexions, but practically nothing else. It unhelpfully tends to associate “white” privileges and advantages with people whose only commonality is low skin pigmentation.

In small-town Canada, for instance, second and third-generation “white” boys tend to education and income levels far below the prospects for urban, first-generation immigrants in the Visible Minority category. Those rural white boys will all tend to enter the Canadian group in McAllister’s survey who are most likely to identify their ethnicity as “white.”

Even more absurdly, the Not a Visible Minority category is the just the flipside of a classification the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers to be quite possibly racist. Intended to protect and advance disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities along with women, Indigenous people and disabled people, it isn’t working out that way.

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For one thing, the term Visible Minority “seemed to somehow indicate that ‘whiteness’ was the standard, all others differing from that being visible,” as the UN Committee’s Patrick Thornbury puts it. For another, the category’s sweeping imprecision is liable to erect more systemic barriers against genuinely marginalized minority groups.

Canadians who have been getting shoehorned into Visible Minority status since the 1980s are by no means uniformly disadvantaged. They never were. East Asians tend towards income and education levels that exceed the Canadian average, for instance, while African-Canadian men face severe disadvantages and marginalization across the board.

The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination first pointed out these contradictions in an assessment of Canada’s Employment Equity Act a decade ago. In the attempt to bring Canada in line with the UN Committee’s criticisms, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government worked itself into a tizzy of professor-quizzing, workshop-convening and province-consulting, but ended up deciding to leave things as they were. It’s only now that Ottawa is revisiting the matter.

Statistics Canada is taking a lead role in the effort, examining ways to disaggregate data on visible-minority equality indicators like employment rates and income levels. This is long overdue, and mimicking the American custom by simply amending the nomenclature from “visible minority” to “people of colour” or “racialized communities” won’t do.

Over the past decade, in the language of common speech, the term “Indigenous” has almost thoroughly displaced “Aboriginal” to describe Canada’s constitutionally-described Indians, Metis and Inuit peoples. But these same peoples continue to suffer the most vicious extremes of poverty, outrageously high incarceration rates, the most disgraceful levels child suicide, joblessness, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Thinking and speaking more carefully about racism is vital to the purposes of basic civic hygiene in Canada. Mimicking the most dysfunctional American cultural habits will not heal any wounds, and neither will flattering ourselves with proverbs about the strengths to be found in diversity. Being “white,” out of either pride or shame, either as a boast or as a confession, will only wound us all.


Are white Canadians becoming conscious of their whiteness?

  1. Great one Terry. Very thoughtful. Thank you.

  2. This is an article that is about an issue that dominates all non-white who love nothing better than complain about how badly they are done by, if they can’t support it they will complain about those who supposedly perpetrated awful things on their kind who all have died a long time ago.
    In Canada, we have a majority of people who shout out politically correct slogans and feel today’s white population need to pay the non-whites for their long dead ancestors.
    In my view, it would be much better if all people try to achieve a better relationship with each other instead of this continuous harping.
    People who come to Canada to find a better life should stop trying to make Canada into a carbon copy of where they came from, learn that humans are humans and all the blame trying to be laid on whites was repeated ball people no matter what colour or religion.
    Change the world for the better people stop your useless finger pointing, if you do not like it here go find your paradise elsewhere.
    And media stop stoking the fires and research all situations in all locales and see what happened in history by all the natives to their kind.

    • Robertvan
      Yes, we become more conscious of our colour (white) when we are in the midst of people talking about their colour (eg black) and how they have been discriminated against for being that. But colour is only one aspect of the difference problem, and I don’t know why that is the emphasis in this article. Perhaps Terry has only recently become aware that he is not black.

      20 years ago it was common for black people to brush their hand down their arm, saying, Yes, it was this that turned landlords, bosses, etc against them. and yet I have been discriminated against too, and I am one of those white people.

      When one talks about this issue, of discrimination, all one has to do is mention something and people turn against you, claiming you are racist for saying something similar to what I have said, above. I should make it clear that a person’s colour has nothing to do with any feelings I have about someone, but I do not like it when they treat our (my) culture with disrespect and refuse to discuss it – and that goes for white people or any colour people who just don’t want to discuss such things. So let’s just pretend Sue McP is racist. It’s easier that way that trey to understand our different cultures and what ought to be acceptable or tolerated, in our view, and what ought not.

  3. What? Good lord, no.

    Don’t go around thinking of myself as a female either. Or an atheist. Or a Canadian.

  4. Whites have always been aware but are a lot are more humble, confident and hardworking than those who jump up and down about their race/color while bashing Whites!! Whites have really become fed up with that so now we are fighting back and we have strength in numbers. It will only become more of an issue and we are on the march to recognition and end hating, racism and discriminating towards us!!!!!

      • Shhhh! Glen, Someone might think you’re a white supremacist.

  5. White males are the ONLY group officially discriminated against with the public policy of affirmative action.

    Then we’re called racists.

    Keep it up and own that you reap what you sow.

    • Divine retribution for going against the male order of things?

    • Robmisek,

      Or you might be called misogynist, as Marc Lepine was who blamed feminists for blocking him from getting into engineering polytechnique in Montreal in 1989. I’m pretty sure he came up against some nasty feminists while trying to get accepted, for him to have reacted the way he did. See my website the Montreal Massacre.

      There’s all sorts of starting points for these kinds of discussions about different groups in society, based on race, or gender, age, or sexuality, for starters. This one about whiteness must be for people who have never given it a thought before. At the very least I would rather have seen it be about culture – the culture of the white or black person’s background – their country of origin, because it is that, not colour, that is probably going to affect Canada more.

      • Those who want to oppress must also censor truth.

        That’s why free speech is a constitutional right in any civilized nation.

        Look around the world and throughout history.

        Monuments are made to honour those who fight oppression and were demonized by fascist propaganda.

      • Maybe Lepine didn’t get into an engineering school because his marks weren’t high enough.

        That is the admission criterion in most engineering schools.

  6. I’d like to see a regional breakdown. Are people in, say, BC and Ontario MORE likely NOT to use the “white” identity compared to, say, Manitoba or Saskatchewan? What about the Atlantic provinces? It would be interesting to find out.

    I agree with the author on this statement: “North of the border, Statistics Canada’s awkward Not a Visible Minority Category works well enough as a signifier for people with comparatively pale complexions, but practically nothing else. It unhelpfully tends to associate “white” privileges and advantages with people whose only commonality is low skin pigmentation.

    In small-town Canada, for instance, second and third-generation “white” boys tend to education and income levels far below the prospects for urban, first-generation immigrants in the Visible Minority category”

    I grew up in a Toronto suburb. I went to good schools. I had all the advantages kids around me had, regardless of ethnicity. I feel like I’m oppressed or disadvantaged in this sense and really don’t like it when media imply that I do. So an under-educated “white boy” as the author puts it, is MORE privileged than someone like me, who has a master’s degree in EVERY way, shape or form?

    • Cynthia,

      People generalize, and that includes the media and minority groups, and feminists, and various nationalities. So, it makes sense to take stats that indicate more black people will end up in jail because of their colour. But it is generalizing, and even black groups, or any group, will generalize to make a point – and some will even keep harping on it until every single person of their race is treated fairly in this society of ours, even though we know it’s not true that that can happen. Some people of every race are at the bottom. I have an MA too, but in Sociology, which I take it you don’t. But I was a victim of ageism, and of not getting opportunities others did because of my cohort, and age, and marital status. I had been married and started too late, trying to have that elusive career after higher education at midlife. And I am white, a feature that doesn’t seem to have done me any good at all.