It pays to be nice: How corporations distort Canadian identity to make a profit

OPINION: Companies that trade in stereotypes of Canadian niceness are often not very nice themselves, writes Chantal Braganza
By Chantal Braganza - Published on January 19, 2018
Canadian companies such as Loblaw, Metro, and Sobeys illegally boosted their bread profits. (mikeinlondon/iStock)

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​You’ve likely seen a version of this ad before. A man in a quilted parka gets up before the crack of dawn to pry the ice off his windshield with a scraper. It’s cold; he takes generous gulps of coffee from a thermos. Perhaps he’s driving his daughter to hockey practice, or he’s on his way to the airport to welcome his wife and kids to their new home in Regina. Maybe he’s headed to a new neighbour’s house unannounced to string up Christmas lights for them as a nice gesture. Some small details — a flannel shirt or the slight shadow of a beard — might suggest that he works hard for his money, or maybe he’s just really into camping. Regardless, he’s nice, because that’s what Canadians are, and it is this identity marker above all others that’s used to sell things like doughnuts and lager and camping gear, things you can buy at Tim Hortons or Loblaws or Canadian Tire, things that make us Canadian.

What such commercials don’t show: a Cree elder who says he was profiled at a Saskatchewan Canadian Tire and relieved of his coat, phone, and cigarettes while being thoroughly searched during a Christmas shopping trip last month. Or an Indigenous man forcibly removed from another nearby location after being accused of shoplifting earlier last summer. We don’t see full-time Tim Hortons employees bullied into signing a document that strips them of such things as benefits and paid breaks. There’s no mention of the price-fixing scandal that saw Canadian companies such as Loblaw, Metro, and Sobeys illegally boost their bread profits.

Canadian niceness is a powerful resource, it seems; we’re consistently praised for this quality by our international peers. The problem with glossing this idea of Canada into corporate branding is that not only is it an incredibly low bar to set in defining a national identity, it’s often untrue. Nevertheless, companies have successfully been cashing in on it for years. Using patriotism to sell products may not be unique to Canada, but we sure do have a uniquely Canadian history of doing so. 

Take Eaton’s, which once billed itself as “Canada’s Greatest Store” and used to pride itself on locally produced lines of products and its status as a massive Canadian employer. But it fostered shockingly poor labour conditions in the interwar years, and from the Winnipeg General Strike at the turn of the 19th century to a years-long drive in the 1980s to organize more than 12,000 Toronto employees, the now-defunct department store retailer has a long history of resisting its workers unionizing.

Or Tim Hortons franchisees, who were coming under fire for a number of employment practices long before this recent minimum-wage debacle. For example, they’ve had a noted tendency to rely on the country’s troubled Temporary Foreign Worker Program for low-wage labour that offers workers few prospects for growth, and they’ve faced human rights tribunal cases over discriminatory treatment and firings in Ontario and B.C


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Of course, the practice of selling maple syrup niceness is profitable, and it has pull. Historians and branding experts have studied the 1999 “I Am Canadian” Molson beer ads, the Roots sweatshirt fever of the 1980s, identifying them as pivotal moments when brands were able to tap into the economic opportunities available in our history of handwringing over Canadian identity. In an essay on what she dubs “Roots nationalism,” Guelph history professor Catherine Carstairs refers to our “inability to create other meaningful forms of nationalism”:

“What is new is the degree to which Canadians have been willing to drape themselves in branded products such as Roots and Molson Canadian gear, embracing them as part of a Canadian way of life … by buying Roots, one could be proudly Canadian, while imagining an idealized Canadian life filled with summer camp, wilderness parks, successful athletes and celebrities, and urban fashion.”

Is niceness a meaningful form of nationalism? Is it an accurate one? Imagine thinking that unquestioningly celebrating something as slick and well-advertised as Canada 150 is a perfectly fine thing to do in the same year that some of the federal government’s biggest promises to the very peoples subjugated historically and presently in order to make such a birth date possible continue to go unfulfilled. Imagining uncritically celebrating Canada’s largest telecom provider for donating five cents to national mental health initiatives for each tweet or a text, even while the company allegedly sets sales targets so aggressive that employees have reported panic attacks and physical ailments, and commonly take stress leaves due to the pressure.

Brands sell ideas, not products, and those ideas don’t necessarily have to be true to make money. This is not new. The trouble with selling an idea of Canada, whether through an inoffensive montage of nice deeds or of people enjoying the rugged outdoors, is that this idea can end up informing more than just where you buy your coffee. You begin to believe that our essential niceness is true, and perhaps more damningly, that it is enough.

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