Is 'swagger' an inherently un-Canadian trait?

This week's passionate pride over Canada's swagger by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Question Period got The Current questioning the merit of this trait with the country's identity.

PM Justin Trudeau refused to apologize for 'swaggering' on the world stage during Question Period

Could a national swagger draw more attention to Canada's innovation and creativity? (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Read story transcript

Many consider humility, and a reluctance to boastfully applaud our personal accomplishments as fundamentally Canadian characteristics.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took an opposite track Wednesday during Question Period, refusing to apologize for swaggering on the world stage.

"Will the prime minister show some global swagger and take a public position in support of Taiwan joining the World Health Assembly, or will he remain silent due to his admiration for basic dictatorship?" asked Conservative MP Erin O'Toole.

It prompted a passionate response from Trudeau.

"Being confident about our investments in A.I., our investments in new technologies, our investments in the economy of the future are things to be proud of here in Canada. No! We will not apologize for swaggering when it comes to talking about Canada," he said.

It's a confidence that makes some Canadians uncomfortable, others beam with pride, and some are downright confused — does Canada even have swagger?

'I actually competed in 2006 at the Olympic Games with a list of 'I-knows' in my pocket.' 0:46

According to Olympian Jennifer Heil we sure do. In 2010, she says Canada's swagger transformed sport with the country's vow to own the podium.

"That was so not Canadian. [There] was a lot of discomfort around that. But we believed in that success and we built the institutions to support it," Heil told The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

On a personal level, Heil said she had a complicated relationship with swagger and referred to a sports psychologist to help build her confidence.

"It's something I had to learn to build. It didn't come naturally to me," she said.

Heil defines swagger as a belief in personal success and one's ability to complete objectives.

"[It's] this idea of knowing what you're capable of but it's because you put the work in," she explained.

"And it's this mix of joy and excitement and confidence to go out there and to execute on all that hard work."

Jennifer Heil won the gold medal in mogul skiing at the 2006 Winter Olympics, and the Silver in Vancouver in 2010. ( Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Michael Katchen, the CEO of Wealthsimple, an online investment platform, agrees with the notion that swagger is born from the will to win. It's how he sees building business from the ground up.

"What Canadians need more of when starting companies in particular is this concept of naive ambition. So the idea that we can build companies that change the world."

He argued that Canadians who were too humble to risk stepping on any toes need to catch up to the fast-changing business world.

"Canada, actually, is in a wonderful position today where we are a world leader in all sorts of fields like A.I. and machine learning, quantum computing. We have enormous amounts of capital flowing in to actually build really great companies," Katchen told Chattopadhyay.

"I think it's our time that we need to do something with that and it's incumbent on us to have this naive belief that we can do it."

PM Justin Trudeau responds to a question from MP Erin O'Toole by defending Canadian swagger on the international stage. 1:30

Canada's anti-swagger

As a relative newcomer to Canada, writer Emer O'Toole wonders if swagger is too far reaching.

She regards Heil's swagger as proper focusing on expertise but in general O'Toole argues Canada should focus on being confident on what we already own, which is anti-swagger.

"Watch Canadians dressing up to go for a night out," O'Toole said: In Europe, women are in heels, and men sport shirts and ties.

"Here it's Blundstones and jeans. The dress code is, could I jump from a galloping horse, hang onto a burning helicopter, save a baby and swim through an ocean? And if so, I'm prepared for my night out."

O'Toole said you wouldn't find a face compact or lipstick in a Canadian's handbag, either.

"No, it is an umbrella and a pocket of Kleenex and that is kind of Canada, right? It's not about the face, it's the fact that you're practical, prepared and understated. I don't necessarily think that amounts to a lack of capital."

O'Toole conceded that confidence, ambition and drive are important to the economy and personal well-being. But she added that Canadians' understated approach has a charming value.

"If every Canadian was getting up and blustering about how we'd need more swagger like Justin Trudeau did …. I think you'd lose something very fundamental about the character of this country."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith, Alison Masemann and Bethlehem Mariam.


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