The180

Is Canada really about the 'great outdoors'?

The Prime Minister said recently that "people always talk about nature, parks, and enjoying the great outdoors" when they talk about Canadian identity. But 180 producer Kathryn Marlow isn't so sure.
For many Canadians, "outdoors" means a patio in the city, not a campsite in the wild. (Cory Edel/CBC)
Listen8:21

"You know, when I talk to people about what it means to be Canadian, this Canadian identity, there are a few things that are echoed right across the country. People always talk about nature, parks, and enjoying the great outdoors. Living, playing, and growing up in the open air. Camping, hiking, and swimming with friends and family." 

Those are the words of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking at an event in a Toronto park this month. 

The 180's Kathryn Marlow heard those words, and wondered if the "great outdoors" is the most accurate description of Canadian identity in the 21st century. 


I love nature. 

I love looking at mountains, gazing upon the ocean, and walking through parks in my city. 

But would "living, playing and growing up in the open air" be my definition of being Canadian? Is that the definition of the 27 million Canadians who live in cities? I'm not so sure. 

As I spoke to Canadians across the country, I got the sense that they're not so sure either. Some said multiculturalism and diversity are what they think about when it comes to being Canadian. Others said hockey. And yes, some said the outdoors. 

Jennifer Gold counts herself strongly in the not-outdoors camp: "for me, and a lot of people I know,  that really doesn't factor in to our daily lives, and in fact we would rather go to the dentist than get into a canoe, or have to sleep in a tent overnight with the bugs."

We would rather go to the dentist than get into a canoe, or have to sleep in a tent overnight with the bugs.- Jennifer Gold, lawyer and author in Toronto

Gold, a lawyer and author in Toronto, says she likes nature, from afar. Her version of outdoors is more of a patio than a picnic site. Plus, she points out that for some of her friends, whose parents are immigrants, heading into the great outdoors just seems weird. 

But Hassan Iqbal is thrilled that Canada met his expectations as an outdoor culture: "When I was coming to here I was thinking I'm going to a country where people love to go outside for hiking, and the outdoor activities, and that will be an opportunity for me also to benefit from the overall society's culture." 

Iqbal, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus in Kelowna, B.C., takes part in outdoor activities wherever he lives, but he says it definitely feels more part of the culture here. If he were to describe Canada to family at home in Pakistan, Iqbal says he would say "a beautiful place for camping, going outside, outside activities, nice place to live close to nature."

Paddling through the "great outdoors" is certainly a part of the Prime Minister's Canadian identity, but is it part of yours? (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

So where does that leave us? Are the great outdoors at the heart of Canadian identity or not? 

For a good ol' Canadian compromise, let's turn to Kashif Pasta. He's a South Asian Canadian living in Surrey, B.C. Camping is most definitely not part of his culture, but being outside is: "I think we interact with the outdoors differently. You know, when I go out to...parks with my family, we do see a pretty diverse group out there, but we're not necessarily there to camp. You know, it's the classic South Asian dad at the beach in his button up shirt and dress pants and everything you know, it's just a different way of experiencing it."

It's the classic South Asian dad at the beach in his button up shirt and dress pants and everything you know, it's just a different way of experiencing it.- Kashif Pasta, Dunya Media in Surrey

For Pasta, being outdoors is part of life, even if it's more urban than wild. 

And, he points out, there aren't a lot of things Canadians have in common. But living in a big country with a lot of outdoor space is one of those things. 

Which brings me to this: are the great outdoors at the heart of Canadian identity? 

I say no. We're past the idea of Canada being the sum of its national parks and vast open landscapes.

But there's still an element of the outdoors in us. It's just that they may be the "near" outdoors, or the "neighbourhood" outdoors, instead of the "great" ones. 

-Kathryn Marlow 

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