The Current

From poutine to windchill: Which Canadian 'cultural intangibles' are worthy of UNESCO's recognition?

UNESCO's recent Intangible Cultural Heritage List added 33 new cultural practices to its list from all around the world. But there are none from Canada.
The art of Neapolitan pizza making is being honoured by UNESCO - the UN's cultural organization. But what about playing pond hockey? The art of making poutine? Or the classic way to measure cold with the windchill? (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
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The Neapolitan art of pizza making has joined UNESCO's list of "intangible cultural heritage." It is among 33 new cultural practices recently added to its list by the UN's cultural organization.

To make a pizza Neapolitan style you must be a certified pizzaiolo.

Naples is the birthplace of the classic Margherita. The mozzarella, tomato and basil topping was invented in the 19th century. (Ciro De Luca/Agnfoto/Reuters)

The UN's recognition means a lot to Danilo Lupo, a master instructor and head chef at Pizzeria Defina in Toronto. He agrees there's a true art to being a pizzaiolo.

"It's like playing an instrument, you know, you go out there and that's your music. And you know people are out there to listen to you. That's essentially what it is to me."

So what's involved in the this art of pizza making compared to regular pizza? Lupo explains it's the crust that really makes the difference, made in the fire burning ovens at 400 C (750 F).

Lupo estimates the tradition of making Neapolitan pizza goes back to around 1925. He tells The Current's Piya Chattopadhyay it hasn't really changed since, but the craft of spinning the dough is more of a modern thing.

"The old guys, they didn't have the craft that the new generation has, so they are very rustic how they use open the pizza and stretch the dough," Lupo says, adding that throwing dough up in the air has no real purpose.

"You do it for the show."

Surely, Canada has cultural quirks worth protecting too?

UNESCO defines cultural intangibles as "traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants." The list currently recognizes 468 cultural practices, from 117 different countries. 

But there's not a single intangible from Canada because, in fact, Canada is not a signatory to the convention.

Surely, Canada has worthy cultural quirks worth protecting under UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

The Current decided to gather a panel of Canadians go make our own list of worthy intangible heritage to honour.

"I think there's one thing that is uniquely Canadian that is a true cultural intangible and that's the feeling that you have after eating too much poutine," says Katherine Monk, a freelance movie critic for CBC Vancouver and author of Weird Sex and Snowshoes and Other Canadian Film Phenomena.

Monk tells Chattopadhyay that poutine is one thing, but there's something very unique in how it lingers.

"It's like a gut bomb that lasts like two days if you have the entire portion of poutine. So I'm going to go with that one — the stomach luggage."

A classic poutine includes crisp fries, hot gravy and fresh cheese curds. (Simon Charland/CBC)

Writer and English professor Randy Boyagoda adds that based on the UN's criteria, he suggests a uniquely Canadian advantage passed on from our ancestors to our descendants: "The Canadian capacity to identify Canadians in American film and television."

Boyadoa adds another intangible worthy addition that all Canadians face is the windchill.

"Windchill is a very strange thing, right?" 

Windchill speaks to what it means to be Northern people, says writer Randy Boyagoda. (CBC)

"This sense that we have as Canadians ... lived through this hard and demanding climate, and this presumption that no matter what it says in Fahrenheit or Celsius, 'Oh it's going to feel like - 48, - 49 windchill," Boyadoa says.

"I think it speaks ....  to what it means to be Northern people in some ways."

But how cold is it with the windchill? That's what Canadians want to know. (Canadian Press)

Monk agrees that cold weather is worth noting, specifically our ability to express "how many ways we can be cold and the different cultural expressions that it manifests."

"Like the bus shelter jitterbug when it's like - 40 ...  I mean, there's certain skills that are uniquely Canadian that are as a result of weather."

Playwright and novelist Drew Hayden, who hails from Ontario's Curve Lake First Nation, argues that "the constant search to define Canadianism" should be at the top of the list.

The quote 'Canadian as possible under the circumstances' came out of a CBC radio contest to identify a phrase for Canada equivalent of 'as American as apple pie.' (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

"What was that quote about as 'Canadian as possible under the circumstances?' You know this has been going on for decades. What does being Canadian mean to each individual? And I think that should be included in the list," Hayden says.

"Americans, I don't think, deal with this in the same level that Canadians do."

In response to culture passed on from our ancestors to our descendants, Hayden points to the jingle dress dance as a worthy addition to this list representing the past and present.

He says while the story behind the origins of the jingle dress dance changes, it was created out of a dream to save a daughter or granddaughter. 

"Dancing in this dress made from 65 cones ... actually saved this young girl," Hayden explains.

"You will see jingle dress dancers all over the place now, dancing and making beautiful sound, making beautiful movements."


Listen to the full conversation above for more Canadian intangible gems.


This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley and Samira Mohyeddin,