• Seth Van Camp

Canadian Exceptionalism

This piece was co-written by Ankur Pandit. Ankur is a writer with a passion for a wide variety of topics including public policy, tech, politics, branding, and culture. To see more of Ankur’s content, visit his blog at https://medium.com/@apandit.

The grass always seems to be greener on the other side. But that may not be the case when you live in Canada. You might think that your side is the greener one. Why is that? As Canadians, our news feeds are plastered with racism, police brutality, sexism, school shootings and the grassroots movements built to spar them. But nearly all of these issues are broadcasted as American, because as the dominant purveyor of global media, America becomes the world’s de facto soap opera. We tune in to watch every week, as debilitating or laughable it may be. But as America’s neighbour to the North, their strife is disproportionately represented in our media. Consumers have been transitioning from traditional means of receiving their news to digital ones, effectively breaking down geographical barriers, generalizing the news they receive, and putting more control into social media algorithms to determine what they engage with. Due to this, the importance of issues we face as Canadians can be minimized. Sometimes, it can distort their existence altogether. It’s not difficult to feel progressive as a nation when you place Trudeau and Trump next to each other. I know for myself, it fosters gratitude and pride. I think the same can be said perceptually from a global standpoint. Trudeau’s blunders pale in comparison to some of the berserk soundbites we’ve heard Trump hurl into the atmosphere. After all, aren’t we thankful Trump isn’t our leader? Doesn’t it make you proud to be Canadian when we think about how trivial our problems are in comparison? Isn’t it great that our country's stereotypes revolve around being too kind?

These feelings are likely even more powerful now in the middle of a global pandemic. While Trump’s ignored expert advice and publicly argued with governors, our politicians have largely deferred to the expertise of physicians, public health officials, and scientists. While Canadians are definitely worried about the nature of this pandemic, none of us are worried about losing our health insurance if we’re laid off or paying exorbitant hospital bills when we get sick. Times like this remind us of why we’re proud to be Canadians: our universal healthcare, our high quality of life, the relative civility in our politics, and the pride we hold in our diversity. The times have elevated our sense of superiority: we acknowledge that things are bad, but we recognize that they could be so much worse.

Yet, it’s these feelings that imbue both a sense of righteousness and complacency, pulling our focus outward onto others, instead of inward for ourselves. Our hubris causes us to project the feeling of contentment onto our surroundings. This is where the idea of Canadian Exceptionalism comes into play. This is the idea that Canada, whether consciously or not, has come to think of itself as better than others. That as a nation, we are the outlier amongst most of these global issues. Sure, we have unemployment and homelessness and problems like everyone else, but there aren’t really any major issues plaguing our country, right?

Unfortunately, it's this thought that has led to the denial about our own undercurrent of systematic bigotry and abuse. For a long time, we’ve turned a blind eye to the plight of our nation's original inhabitants, migrants and immigrants. We’ve normalized our behaviour while trivializing their suffering. We criticize the American justice system while failing to acknowledge that black and indigneous people are grossly overrepresented in our prison system.

I applaud our nation’s willingness to embrace gratitude. I am glad we can be appreciative of the situation we are given. But we must embrace the full reality of that situation and not the veneer of stability. Benchmarks and comparison are important, but sometimes gauging performance based on how somebody else is doing isn’t good enough. We need to stop hanging our hats on the fact that we are not as bad as the United States.

Canadian Racism in Regards to Indigenous People

Now although it may not seem like it, racism is just as present in Canada as in the United States. It’s often times just more subverted. Canada and America’s population breakdowns are much different. For example, their compositions are as follows:

*Stats Can & USA Census

In terms of proportionality, Canada’s black population is not even ⅓ of America’s and Canada’s indigenous population is nearing 4 times that of America’s. I think in some way, we’ve subconsciously tethered our definitions of racism to certain groups. In this case, that connection is largely to the plight of Black and African-American people, especially with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and further scrutiny around police brutality. Their institutional battle is one we are justifiably very aware of. It’s fantastic that the awareness is at a level in which we can begin to see change; not only in media representation, but in terms of policy and more tightly held accountability practices.

It is not my directive to downplay the importance or compare these issues, but it seems as though Canadian’s are to some degree unwilling, or at least too apathetic, to engage in a discourse about the plight of the Indigenous in Canada. I’ve found that primarily, at least in Alberta, the only time Indigenous issues are raised and discussed is when they oppose the placement of our pipelines, which often attaches a negative connotation. In these scenarios, since there isn’t proportional Indigenous representation in journalism, Indigenous communities lack the power to control their own narratives, sometimes leaving stereotypes and assumptions unchecked. There are an abundance of systems Indigenous people continue to fight every day to preserve their culture, heritage, and livelihood.

In speaking about these issues, I didn’t feel as though I was the proper voice to try and communicate the injustices put upon this group of people throughout history. Instead, I scoured various government and police reports as well as Stats Canada to use some numbers to try and tell the story. The following statistics help demonstrate the disadvantage in being born Indigenous. The reality is nothing short of shocking. Before reading the following statistics, the following definitions are important to know:

  • Indigneous is an umbrella term referring to various subsections including First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. In some statistics, the word aboriginal is used interchangeably with indigenous.

  • Gov’t referenced statistics will be listed in the terminology that the gov’t have decided to use. This means that they may not be completely politically correct. For example, some people oppose the use of the word Aboriginal.


  • As of the 2016 census, 1,673,785 indigenous peoples make up 4.9% of Canada’s total population, up from 4.3% in 2011. 977,230 are First Nations, 587,545 are Metis, and 65,025 are Inuit. Since 2006, the Indigenous population has grown by a staggering 42.5%. That is more than four times the growth rate of the non-Aboriginal population over that same period. Stats Canada projects that over the next two decades, the Indigenous population is expected to exceed 2.5 million people.

  • In 2016, 867,415 Aboriginal people lived in a metropolitan area of at least 30,000 people, accounting for over half (51.8%) of the total Aboriginal population. From 2006 to 2016, the number of Aboriginal people living in a metropolitan area of this size increased by 59.7%.

Incarceration to Correctional Facilities

  • As of 2016/2017, Indigenous people (both men and women as a total) account for 28% of total admissions to correctional facilities while only representing 4.1% of the adult population in Canada

  • In comparison, these numbers in 2006/2007 were 21%, showing this trend has been going upward

  • This incarceration statistic is further exacerbated for aboriginal women and aboriginal youth:

  • For aboriginal women, they make up 43% of total female admissions while non-aboriginal females make up for 57%

  • In comparison, for aboriginal men, they make up 28% of total male admissions while non-aboriginal men make up for 72%

  • Men make up 83% of all admissions (both men and women) to provincial/territorial correctional facilities and 92% of all admissions (both men and women) to federal correctional facilities

  • For aboriginal youth, they made up 46% of all admissions (both men and women) while only representing 8% of Canada’s youth population.

  • For aboriginal boys, they accounted for 47% of admissions with non-aboriginal boys making up 53%.

  • For aboriginal girls, they accounted for 60% of admissions with non-aboriginal girls making up 40%.


  • In 2018, although the total indigneous population made up nearly 5% of Canada’s population, they accounted for 22% of the country’s homicide victims - data has only been recorded for the last five years regarding race in the annual police homicide report, but each year the percentage of the countries total homicides attributed to indigenous people has sat between 20-25%

  • As of 2014, the homicide rate for indigenous women was almost 6 times higher than that of non-indigenous women. Of the total solved homicide cases of Indigenous women between 1980 and 2014, half (53%) were committed by a family member, a quarter (26%) by an acquaintance and 8% by strangers. The 2014 homicide survey found that fewer homicides of Indigenous women occurred in a residence (66%) compared to non-Indigenous women (88%). In addition, 17% of homicides of Indigenous women occurred on a street, a road, or a highway compared to 1% of non-Indigenous women.

  • It essentially means that for non-indigneous women, they are much more likely to be victims of murder outside of domestic violence, more directly related to their appearance and race

Human Trafficking


  • The suicide rate for indigenous females is 5 times that of non-indigenous women. The suicide rate for indigenous males is 2.4 times that of non-indigenous men, but a much more significant number of men die by suicide every year (29.6 per 100,000 people in Indigenous men vs 19.5 per 100,000 in Indigenous women).

  • Significant factors that further inflated these ratios were both age and whether the individual lived on a reserve or not. Using a non-age standardized rate, you’re twice as likely to die by suicide as an Indigenous person if you live on a reserve compared to not living on one. For female Indigenous youth aged 15-24 living on a reserve, the rate of suicide becomes a staggering 15.8 times that of non-indigenous female youth in the same age category.

  • If you identify as Inuit, these suicide numbers are even further enlarged:

  • As an Inuit youth aged 15-24, you’re more than 30 times more likely to die by suicide than a non-indigenous person (363.2 per 100,000 in Inuit boys vs 11.9 in non-indigenous boys and 108.9 per 100,000 in Inuit girls vs 3.9 per 100,000 in non-indigenous girls

  • In between 2011-2016, 1180 indigenous people died by suicide

Sexual Assault/Violence

  • Self-reported rate sexual assault for indigenous women (113 per 1000) is more than three times that of non-indigenous women (35 per 1000)

  • Self-reported spousal violence for indigenous women is three times that of their non-indigenous women counterparts and the proportion of self-reported spousal violence against Indigenous women was almost twice as high in the territories (19%) than in the provinces (10%E)

  • Studies show that on average 25% to 50% of Aboriginal women were victims of sexual abuse as children compared to a 20% to 25% average rate within the non-Aboriginal population (Collin-Vézina et al 2009)

Lack of Resources

  • Only 5% of all shelters are reported to be on reserves, 63% of shelters reported offering culturally relevant services and 21% of shelters reported providing services in at least one indigenous language

Unemployment & the Labour Market

  • Despite gains in education attainment, the Indigenous population is still underrepresented in the labour market

  • As of 2016, the unemployment rate for Indigenous people across Canada was 15.2% while the unemployment rate for non-indigenous people was less than half of that at 7.4%. These unemployment rates starkly rose for Inuit people and those on reserve.

Foster Care & Youth Poverty

  • While 7.7% of the population 14 or under are indigenous, as of 2016, they made up 52.2% of the population in foster care are indigenous (14970 out of 28655 foster children)

  • 38% of indigenous children live in poverty vs 7% of non-indigenous children


  • In 2006, 35% of Aboriginal women aged 25 and over had not graduated from high school, whereas the figure was 20% among non-Aboriginal women

  • More than half of Inuit women aged 25 and over had less than high school (53%), compared to 39% of First Nations women and 27% of Métis women

  • In 2006, 29% of Aboriginal teenagers aged 15 to 19 were no longer pursuing a formal education (29% of Aboriginal teen boys and 28% of Aboriginal teen girls). This was higher than the average of their non-Aboriginal counterparts (19%) in Canada. Compared with the youth populations of other countries (Indigenous and non-Indigenous combined), the percentage of Aboriginal 15- to 19-year olds not in education in Canada was almost double the average of 15% across the 31 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2008.

Realistically, I could keep going. I could cite comparable health conditions between indigenous and non-indigenous, the likelihood of interacting with a physician, access to mental health services, etc. We could posture about the reasons why these issues aren’t high in the Canadian consciousness, but it would merely be speculation. What is important is realizing that the issue of racism is much more widespread than we may think. It’s not just taking place abroad, but it’s here in our homes as well. It may not be as blatant, but that doesn’t make it any less significant. These problems will only become more prevalent as Indigenous peoples’ population continues to grow. Sure, it may not have been our generation that directly inflicted the initial trauma upon this group, but we’ve benefited from it. The absolute least that we can do is become aware of the issue, acknowledge it, and further educate ourselves on how we can help if that's what is asked of us.

The “Mosaic” vs. the “Melting Pot”

Despite the issues we’ve discussed thus far, foreigners still see Canada as a tolerant, progressive, and inclusive society. Much of this stems from Canada’s approach to embracing immigration. We can compare Canada’s approach with countries like the United States by using the metaphor of a melting pot vs. a mosaic.

The United States is often seen as a melting pot - a nation where individuals from all across the world are welcomed but are subsequently expected to assimilate into the American way of life. You could be from India, from China, or the Philippines, but once you land on American soil - you’re an American first.

In Canada, we’ve tried to do things a bit differently. Beginning in the 1950s, we thought about our immigration process as one of integration as opposed to assimilation. As immigration became more diverse in the coming decades, we saw multiculturalism as a social good instead of a barrier to integration. The result of all this was a society that resembled a mosaic - where individuals from distinct ethnicities, racial identities, and nationalities were encouraged to retain their cultural heritage while also sharing in a unified Canadian identity.

You can see this mosaic in cities like Toronto - where over 51% of the population is foreign-born, or Metro Vancouver, where people of colour represent almost ½ of the population. As a nation, we have the 2nd highest proportion of immigrants of any large country, at 21 percent. And as Canadians, we’ve built a brand around this image of a diverse mosaic. It’s something our Prime Minister has emphasized repeatedly, stating that “diversity is Canada’s strength” and that we've succeeded “not in spite of our differences, but because of them”.

While this is a powerful message, it’s also a simplified one, one that fails to acknowledge how difficult it is to engage in anti-racism or balance seemingly conflicting topics like secularism & religious freedom. These are the sorts of challenges that diverse societies struggle with and Canada is no exception. You want proof? Simply take a look at two of the biggest issues in last fall’s election: Trudeau’s Brownface & Blackface moment and Bill 21.

Canada’s History with Brownface and Blackface

In late September, multiple photos and videos were released to the media showing our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, donning both brownface and blackface. The images led to a media frenzy, both domestically and abroad. Up until this point in his tenure, Trudeau was seen as a progressive icon, known for his bold stances on feminism and refugees. These images called both Trudeau's brand and Canada’s reputation into question. It also forced us to do some soul searching and dig into our own history.

In the aftermath of the incident, several think pieces came out exploring blackface’s roots in Canada. The practice originated in minstrel shows in the 19th century, where white people would wear blackface in order to portray black people. According to black culture Professor Charmaine Nelson, these depictions would emphasize hurtful stereotypes and were far from flattering:

“It was never meant to look like the range of brown colours of people from Africa; it was meant to be a grotesque mask,” Prof. Nelson says. “How ugly, how uncivilized are black bodies – that was the supposed humour for these white performers and their audiences.”

The practice fell out of favour in films and theatre in the late 60s, largely as a consequence of the civil rights movement. However, despite receding from the public eye, people never stopped donning blackface. Instead, the practice simply moved into “more private, elite, and predominantly white spaces”.

According to a McGill University study, the majority of the cases seen in Canada since 2000 were at universities during Halloween or Frosh Week events. Esteemed institutions like the University of Toronto, Dalhousie University, and McGill University have all seen incidents, with an incident occurring at McGill as recently as 2015. The data here reveals an important insight about racism in this country: the culprits aren’t often who we think.

While the prototype in our head of those who wear black or brownface might be people we perceive as “red-necks" and “hicks", the evidence suggests otherwise. The evidence suggests that the educated and privileged elite are the ones at fault here. Privileged elites like Justin Trudeau, the son of a former Prime Minister, who donned blackface and brownface in his past, thinking there was no harm to the practice.

Reflecting upon Trudeau forced us to have an uncomfortable conversation about race in this country. Progressives had to reconcile with the fact that a man who had advocated so fiercely for these values while in office, had also donned brownface on not one, but three separate occasions. People of colour had to reconcile with the fact that well-intentioned allies had been victims of their ignorance. And the overtness of the incident forced us to recognize a fraught reality; that despite our status as a multicultural utopia, incidents like this were happening every day. We just weren’t paying attention to them.

Bill 21: The Conflict Between Secularism and Religious Expression

Thankfully, one positive consequence of this whole ordeal was the light it shone on issues of diversity and pluralism in Canada. And one issue that gained a great deal of this attention was Bill 21: a law Quebec recently passed that prohibits people who wear overt religious attire from occupying specific public-sector jobs such as judges, police officers, and teachers. Quebec justified the law with the principle of secularism - a separation of the church and state. In Quebec's eyes, this law treated everyone equally regardless of religion.

Now despite Quebec’s justification, I would argue that the law disproportionately impacted three religious groups: Sikh men who wore a turban, Muslim women who wore a headscarf, and Jewish men who wore a yarmulke. Followers of other religions can hide their religious symbols underneath their clothing or perhaps choose to not wear them at all. But the state mandated a choice for these groups of people - your right to religious freedom or your right to pursue your current career.

The bill set a dangerous precedent. It meant we lived in a nation where a turban-wearing Sikh man could run for Prime Minister (Jagmeet Singh) but couldn't work as a judge, teacher, or police officer within Quebec. And despite this bill being wholly unconstitutional, Quebec was able to protect itself from legal challenges using something called the "notwithstanding clause".

The bill's popularity also shielded it from political challenges as 63% of Quebecers were in favour. And with Quebec being an important swing province for federal election voting, the major parties were paralyzed to take a strong stance on the issue. Leaders like Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh, and Elizabeth May all publicly spoke out against the law but stated that they wouldn't intervene if elected. Only Justin Trudeau said that his government might intervene, but even his statement hinged on the term maybe.

What can we learn from Bill 21 & the Blackface/Brownface scandal?

In reflecting upon Bill 21 and Trudeau’s past transgressions, we have the rare opportunity to see Canada’s struggles with diversity at both an individual and systemic level. Trudeau’s incident reminded us of what some Canadians, especially privileged Canadians, deemed to be socially acceptable behaviour. It allowed our nation to have a dialogue about why these images hurt and how each individual can learn from Trudeau's past transgressions.

Conversely, Bill 21 gave us a glimpse at how policies can affect people at a systemic level. It showed us how the government could use a narrow definition of secularism to justify discriminatory practices. The Bill also serves as a great learning opportunity - about what secularism should and shouldn't entail.

Secularism shouldn’t force individuals to abandon parts of their identity to participate in the public sphere. Our governments shouldn’t coerce us to give up our religious liberties in exchange for our right to practice a specific profession. Instead, we should strive for a society where individuals of multiple faiths can peacefully coexist within the public square. Where someone will never have to choose between practicing their religion or serving the public good.

And when we fail to live up to these ideals, it's our responsibility as Canadians to speak up, no matter how uncomfortable that conversation may be.

So What Does This All Mean?

Canada has a lot to be proud of. We’re a meritocratic and well-educated society, ranking #1 in the OECD for social mobility and education. We are world renowned for a high standard of living, with three of our cities ranking among the top 10 most liveable cities globally. And compared to most countries, we’re doing pretty good at this whole immigration thing; more than 1 in every 5 Canadians are immigrants, and their contributions have enriched our communities and bolstered our economy.

But because of our proximity to the United States, I find we’re too often comparing ourselves to our neighbours down south. I mean, it’s hard not to when it seems like everyday we’re hearing about another shooting or another Trump tweet dominating the media. This is especially true right now in the middle of this pandemic. While cities like New York are seeing record levels of EMS calls, things just don’t seem as bad here. It makes it too easy for us to chat with our friends and think “gee, aren’t we glad that we’re in Canada?”

And comparatively, while we may be better on certain indicators, we have our own problems to worry about. For far too long, we’ve ignored the plight of our indigenous people and brushed over how systemic discrimination has affected them. We’re disgusted by the Flint Water crisis but fail to acknowledge the poor living conditions on reserves. We’re angry about the systemic policing of blacks in the states, but are unaware of the same issues within indigenous and black communities here. We’re quick to call out institutions like Fox News or Breitbart yet act shocked when we hear people are still wearing blackface in Canada. We boast about how tolerant we are, and yet, our 2nd biggest province was able to legally discriminate against religious minorities under the guise of secularism.

I’m proud to call myself Canadian. I think we live in one of the greatest countries in the world. And that’s all the more reason why we can’t settle for comparative superiority. Because it’s easy for us to accept Canada’s polished image at face value. What’s difficult is recognizing that there’s nothing exceptional about our problems and putting in the work to address them.