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Most Canadians consider speaking English, French key to national identity: Pew survey

WASHINGTON — Canadians are more likely than their U.S. counterparts to see language, customs and traditions as central to their national identity, a new survey suggests. 

Some 84 per cent of respondents to the Pew Research Center poll released Thursday said speaking English or French is very or somewhat important to being Canadian, while only 15 per cent said the opposite. 

In the U.S., however, only 78 per cent prioritized being able to speak English — the most common tongue in a country without an official language — while 21 per cent said it had little or no bearing on the American identity.

“Of the four dimensions of national identity included in the survey, language is by far the most valued,” Pew reported in its brief on the poll.

“In all countries where we asked about it, about eight in 10 or more point to language as important for true belonging in the country. And in 13 countries, at least six in 10 consider it a very important factor.” 

And yet, while a vast majority of respondents in all 21 countries surveyed on language considered it an important facet of their country’s national identity, the percentage who did was lowest in the U.S.

A large majority of Canadians surveyed — 81 per cent — also linked customs and traditions to their national identity. But that’s a nine-point decline since the last time the question was asked in Canada in 2016.

There again, U.S. participants were less inclined to make the same link: only 71 per cent said customs and traditions were somewhat or very central to being American, while 28 per cent said otherwise. 

Parse the results by political allegiance, however, and the picture changes. Fully 87 per cent of U.S. respondents who identify as right-leaning said customs and traditions were important, 34 percentage points higher than those on the left.

In Canada, 86 per cent of conservative-minded respondents felt the same way, compared with 68 per cent of left-leaning participants.

Similar gaps emerged on language. Ninety per cent of those on the U.S. right valued speaking English, compared with 58 per cent at the other end of the political spectrum. In Canada, the spread was narrower: 88 per cent and 79 per cent, respectively.

Stateside respondents were almost evenly split on the question of whether place of birth was an important factor: 50 per cent said yes, 49 per cent said otherwise. In Canada, however, 66 per cent deemed it unimportant, compared to just 33 per cent who said the opposite. 

Middle-income countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Kenya and South Africa, were far more likely to put value on being born within their borders, while Sweden and Australia led those who valued birthplace the least.

“Nations where immigrants make up a smaller share of the population tend to see birthplace as a more important component of national identity,” the study reported.

“Countries with a greater share of immigrants are more willing to accept those born outside of the country as true nationals.” 

The study’s Canadian segment surveyed 1,007 people across Canada by phone between February and April of 2023, and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2024.

The Canadian Press

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