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Culture and Community Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Americans/J.m. Bumsted

The settlement of the New England planters in Nova Scotia and the Loyalists in the loyal colonies of British North America helped establish an Americanized culture in what would become Canada. This culture was quite different from the French-Canadian culture of Quebec or the British culture of those coming from the British Isles.

In architecture, the Loyalists contributed the colonial-style wooden farmhouse and occasional early Georgian mansion to the Maritime landscape; more profoundly, they helped to popularize American housebuilding techniques employing wood-frame construction, something unknown in timber-starved Europe. With respect to language, the Loyalists were partly responsible for solidifying an American-style variant of English in British North America which half a century of massive British immigration between 1815 and 1865 could not erase. Travellers in the years before the War of 1812 frequently commented on the Americanized pronunciation, vocabulary, and usage so commonly found in the British colonies from Nova Scotia to Upper Canada. Meeting one man in Upper Canada in 1792, Patrick Campbell noted, “He answered in a twang peculiar to the New Englanders, ‘I viow nieu you may depn I’s just-a-coming,’ adding to a query about distance, ‘I viow nieu I guess I do’no – I guess nieu I do’no – I swear nieu I guess it is three miles’; he swore, vowed and guessed alternately, and was never like to come to the point, though he had but that instant come from it.”

The question of culture has been an obviously complex one for the American-born and their descendants in Canada. There can be no doubt that there has been and still is an identifiable culture in the United States and that American immigrants to Canada have brought this culture with them. At the same time, Canada has embraced so much of American popular culture that the American-born often do not feel that there is anything culturally distinctive about themselves. Many of the war resisters who came to Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s were struck by the absence of a Canadian culture clearly distinct from the American one and, oddly enough, their calls for Canadian cultural independence were disparaged by Canadians for being “Americaninspired.” Canadians watch the same television programs, cheer for most of the same sports teams, and eat at the same fast-food restaurants. Among young Canadians, the regalia of American sports teams – T-shirts, sweatshirts, varsity jackets – is currently as fashionable (or even more so) than it is south of the border.

The vast bulk of the American-born in Canada have always spoken English, although according to the 1931 census 12.6 percent of the American-born (mainly the children of French-Canadians) spoke both English and French, and, according to R.H. Coats and M.C. MacLean, “only 68.72 p.c. [percent] of the Americanborn in 1931 spoke English as mother tongue and 13.72 spoke French, while 17.56 p.c. spoke other than English or French.” Mother tongues other than English were then quite common in rural Manitoba and rural Saskatchewan. In recent years, however, English has increasingly been the mother tongue of the American-born, even of those of French-Canadian ancestry. Moreover, the homogenization of pronunciation across North America has tended to reduce the distinctiveness of the accents of the American-born.

The commercialization through American popular culture of various aspects of American folk culture has meant that the folk culture has tended to lose its meaning both at home and abroad. Characteristic American gastronomy such as “Kentucky Fried Chicken” and “Big Macs,” have become the standard fare of fast-food chains on both sides of the border. American folk songs, including Woody Guthrie’s patriotic “This Land Is Your Land,” have been given Canadian lyrics. Because of the extent of cross-border exchange in settlement of the North American west, the identifiably distinctive costume, dance, and music of the “cowboy” have never really been solely the property of the United States or of Americans. Western garb (boots, jeans, cowboy hats) is commonly worn by western Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds, and one of the homes of “country and western music” has been the Atlantic region of Canada. American folk culture has not disappeared so much as it has been transformed into North American popular culture and disseminated by a media that pays little attention to the border. Finally, given the size of the immigrant group and the length of its history, Americans in Canada have produced surprisingly little self-conscious ethnic scholarship about their history or development.

Although there are some geographical, social, and occupational patterns for the American-born in Canada, their most common characteristic is to blend as much as possible into the host society. This blending is possible because of the relatively narrow cultural gap between the United States and Canada, the ubiquity of things American, and the proximity of the United States border to most people resident in Canada. The Americans are thus an ethnic group without an easily definable identity. They do not establish distinctive organizations or associations, since most of their most familiar associations have Canadian chapters or branches (usually described as “international”). In the 1920s one of the most distinctive American organizations – the Ku Klux Klan – was brought to Canada by American promoters as the “Ku Klux Klan of the British Empire,” converted into an imperial organization for Canadian consumption.

The American-born may have consumer and leisure preferences that are subtly different from those of Canadians – baseball is preferred to hockey, for example – but they can normally be served within the Canadian milieu without standing out as different. The majority of consumer goods available in the United States can also be obtained in Canada, either manufactured by Canadian branch plants or imported, and for the occasional item not usually available, substitutes can be found or the item purchased after a short excursion across the border. There is no shortage of American news in Canada, with American television, American newspapers, and journals easily imported and generally sold. In short, there is no need to organize an “American community” in Canada in order to “feel at home.” The American is quite able to maintain his or her traditional lifestyle or culture in Canada without any demonstrable effort.