“All of Canada is cheering.” Jean Chrétien, normally so inarticulate, chose just the right words when he telephoned Wayne Gretzky years ago in Salt Lake City. Canada had just won gold in men’s hockey at the Olympics, and the country was indeed cheering, from Digby to Clayoquot Sound. Gilles Duceppe knows the deeper meaning of hockey, which is why one of his opening moves in this election campaign was to float the puckish (heh heh) idea that Quebec should field its own teams in international competitions such as the Olympics. Cue mockery and outrage in the Rest of Canada, and watch the Bloc’s polling numbers rise.

TeamCanada1Like it or not, hockey plays a uniquely unifying role in this country, more than any sport ought to. This is because, relative to other countries, the Canadian state relies on a rather feeble set of nation- and identity-building tools. It doesn’t seem entirely surprising that the scandal that has dominated Canadian politics for well over a year was a poorly conceived program for marketing the country to itself.

The marketing of nations is hot stuff right now. On its end-of-year list of Big Ideas 2005 the New York Times Magazine included “nation branding,” a notion that has been heavily promoted by Simon Anholt, a marketing consultant who specializes in advising governments on the branding of their nations, regions and cities. Anholt’s proposal is that nowadays every serious country needs a ministry of branding, in charge of protecting and promoting the country’s image and identity.

While it’s all a bit creepy and Soviet-sounding, the basic idea is nothing new: behind every strong national identity is a successful marketing campaign. Many of the countries we take for granted today as legitimate, long-standing political communities were actually more or less invented not that long ago. Bismarck’s Germany, Atatürk’s Turkey, or, in a different vein, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe are countries shaped in large part through deliberate branding: the creation of unifying myths, new languages and symbols, and rediscovered customs and traditions. It is largely a testament to the success of these branding attempts that we take them to be more historically rooted than they really are.

But the architects of these countries also had heavier tools to work with. For serious national-identity engineering, there are four major instruments:

an official-language policy

– rules for immigration and the acquisition of citizenship

– the setting of school curricula, especially civics education and the teaching of history

– peacetime compulsory military service

Those states that have had successful nation-building projects have at various times aggressively employed most or all of these tools. France, for example, has a stated immigration policy of assimilation, while the United States instituted mandatory military service in 1940. (It ended during the Vietnam era.)

For fairly obvious reasons, this sort of stuff can make many people uncomfortable. Anholt pitches nation branding as a necessary part of a state’s “soft-power” arsenal, but there is nothing necessarily soft about any of this. The difference between marketing coffee and marketing countries is that while Starbucks or Second Cup can only cajole, a government can coerce. The really harsh forms of identity engineering have fallen out of favour in many established Western democracies, and the notion is no longer seen as legitimate, for instance, that in order for Spain to flourish the speaking of Catalan must be suppressed.


Yet no country can avoid nation building. Marketing itself to its citizens — engaging their sense of common identity and purpose — is one important way in which a state builds its legitimacy and engages the consent of the governed. How forceful a liberal state can and should be in doing so is an important question, and the answer will vary depending on contingencies of language, demographics and history.

Here, in Canada, every one of the big four nation-building tools is a site of friction and division, rather than unity. We are an officially bilingual country. Education curriculum is a provincial responsibility. We’ve never even been able to have compulsory service in wartime without tearing ourselves apart, while our current immigration policy has the effect (damaging, if you believe its critics) of undermining, not supporting, the historically dominant culture. Or is that cultures? You can see the problem.


This relatively relaxed approach to nation building makes some Canadians feel good about their emerging “postmodern” identities, but one consequence is that the federal government has to rely on weaker and more benign nation-building instruments, such as the regulation of the media (through the CRTC), the promotion of international sporting events, and the sponsorship of domestic culture and entertainment activities.

The saddest part of the sponsorship fiasco — and in some ways, the real scandal — is not that a few million dollars were stolen or misappropriated. It is that it has served to discredit the very idea of nation building in Canada. Something as common and innocuous as flying a flag is now greeted with skepticism or outright hostility.

The way Canadians like to obsess about their identity gets a bit tiresome, but it is simply a symptom of the deeper problem, which is that we have not figured out what things we want to do together, and what things we want to do separately. But we can’t begin to have that discussion when so many of us no longer even accept the legitimacy of the federal government’s role as the ultimate promoter and guardian of the Canadian identity.

Originally published in 2006. Reprinted with permission from Macleans.
“Know Canada” Image courtesy of Bruce Mau Design.
“Canadian Olympic Committee unveils new brand identity” image courtesy of Applied Arts Magazine.


Andrew Potter is the Managing Editor at the Citizen. He is a former professor of philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, columnist for Maclean's magazine, and is the author of The Authenticity Hoax, and the co-author of the best-selling book The Rebel Sell.

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