Canadian Pop Culture

Depending on who’s talking, Canadian popular culture can mean at least three different things:

It can refer to the various forms of pop culture entertainment most Canadians enjoy in their leisure time, such as movies, music and television shows, the vast majority of which are American (and to a lesser degree, British) in origin.

It can also refer to a foreign pop culture product that has a significant “Canadian connection,” such as a Canadian actor, director or musician, which makes it uniquely notable in the eyes of Canadians.

Or it can refer to a pop culture production which is entirely Canadian-made, probably government-subsidized, and in all likelihood, not very popular. The clashes of pride, ego and fandom between these three competing realms of entertainment define the culture of pop culture in Canada.

Leisure Time in Canada

While Canadians spend a lot of time playing sports and having adventures in the great outdoors, they also spend a lot of time inside sitting in front of glowing screens. The typical Canadian is said to watch an average of 27 hours of television a week, visit the movie theatre at least five times a year, and spend tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime on cable subscriptions, video games and digital downloads.

The vast, vast majority of television shows and movies that Canadians watch are American-made, and Americans and Canadians have largely similar tastes. A side-by-side comparison of TV ratings or box office attendance generally indicates Canadians like what Americans like and vice versa, the predictable result of two very similar peoples sharing a common continent, common language and broadly common culture and lifestyle. In most cases, a Canadian can watch an American production and completely forget that he’s even watching something “foreign” at all.

It would take a whole other guide to summarize the full scope and history of American pop culture, which is obviously a tremendously rich subject in its own right. Suffice it to say that the cultural history of the United States is very much the cultural history of Canada as well, with the most dramatic rise of creative innovation in filmmaking, television, and various popular music trends occurring in the aftermath of World War II (1939-1945), particularly since the 1960s and 70s.

Canadian Stars

Since the United States is the home base of the North American entertainment industry, Canadians who aspire to significant levels of pop culture fame and fortune usually have to immigrate to Los Angeles or New York to really get their careers going. And they often succeed.

Canadian immigrants have been dubbed America’s “most successful minority” because of their many high-profile achievements in the world of American entertainment — a success that’s quite disproportionate, considering the U.S. has more than 10 times Canada’s population. Canadians love to memorize which famous American actors, comedians, musicians or TV personalities were born in Canada, and share this trivia as often as possible. Since Canadians tend to blend in so seamlessly with Americans (and are often explicitly taught to do so, in order to help their careers), learning that a major pop culture star is, in fact, a Canadian can be a fun moment of national pride.

The complete list of Canadians who have achieved pop culture icon status in the United States is seemingly endless, but some of the most notable living stars include: Christopher Plummer (b. Toronto, 1929), William Shatner (b. Montreal, 1931), Dan Aykroyd (b. Ottawa, 1952), Michael J. Fox (b. Edmonton, 1961), Jim Carrey (b. Newmarket, 1962), Mike Meyers (b. Scarborough, 1963), Pamela Anderson Lee (b. Ladysmith, 1967), Samantha Bee (b. 1969, Toronto), Rachel McAdams (b. London, 1978), Ryan Gosling (b. London, 1980), Seth Rogen (b. Vancouver, 1982), Ellen Page (b. Halifax, 1987) and Michael Cera (b. Brampton, 1988).

Many of Canada’s biggest stars have worked primarily in comedy, and a lot of Canadians take pride in the role their country has played in defining modern American humor. The so-called “Golden Age of Canadian Comedy” remains much romanticized to this day, and refers to the period during the 1970s and 1980s when Canadian comedians were particularly dominant in leading comedy shows like SCTV (1976-1981), The Kids in the Hall (1988-1994) and Saturday Night Live (1975- , run by Lorne Michaels, b. Toronto, 1944).

Made-in-Canada Entertainment

According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the government-appointed body which regulates Canadian media, a movie or TV show cannot be considered fully “Canadian” simply because it has a Canadian director or a bunch of Canadian stars. Under the terms of the CRTC’s certification process, the designation of “Canadian content” (also known as Cancon) can only be awarded if the entire production meets certain strict criteria, including:

  • The producer, director, and scriptwriter are all Canadian.
  • At least one of the two lead actors is Canadian.
  • 75 per cent of all paid production and post-production staff are Canadians.

These are quite high standards, and they exist in party because the Canadian government has agreed to subsidize, or help pay for, Canadian film and television programs in order to create Canadian jobs and encourage the development of a distinctive Canadian culture. The challenge, however, is that since so many ambitious Canadian actors and directors tend to immigrate to California or New York the talent scene left in Canada can be a little thin in comparison. Canadian movie and television studios are all significantly smaller than American ones, with less money, less high-tech equipment and less access to highly skilled actors, writers and directors. The stereotype, therefore, is that most “made-in-Canada” media tends to feature low budgets and no-name casts — with predictable levels of quality. Canadians do not tend to watch a lot of made-in-Canada movies or TV shows, which causes a lot of concern for the people who make them.

Canadian Television

Canadian television is a relatively thriving industry, and at any given hour a Canadian can reliably turn on the TV to find a made-in-Canada show on the air. Part of this is due to CRTC rules that force Canadian television stations to spend at least 60 per cent of their airtime showing Canadian-made programs, including 50 per cent in prime time (8:00-11:00 pm).

Successful Canadian shows have been produced in all genres, with some of the most notable including sitcoms Slings & Arrows (2003-2006), Corner Gas (2004-2009), and Trailer Park Boys (2001- ), reality shows Kenny vs. Spenny (2002-2010) and Dragons’ Den (2006- ), dramas Due South (1994-1999), Heartland (2007- ), The Tudors (2007-2010), and Orphan Black (2013- ), children’s cartoons ReBoot (1994-2001), Ed, Edd, ‘n’ Eddy (1999-2009), and Paw Patrol (2013- ), as well as the long-running teen drama franchise Degrassi, which has existed in some form since the early 1980s.

Though literally hundreds of Canadian television shows have been produced over the years, most have struggled to compete with similar American ones and many have flopped after a single season (if that). Even the CRTC’s efforts to level the playing field can now be easily undermined in an age where many Canadians subscribe to dozens of American cable channels or watch shows through on-demand services like Netflix or online digital downloads — none of which have to obey CRTC content quotas.

Canadian Movies

In contrast to Canadian television stations, Canadian movie theatres are largely free of government regulation, and most simply don’t show Canadian-made movies, since the demand to see them is low and the cost to get in is high. Many Canadian-made movies go directly to DVD or have only very limited runs in select theatres.

Deciding what “counts” as a Canadian movie can be fairly subjective, and a lot of Canadians will use standards a bit more forgiving than the CRTC’s official rules (see above). A conventional list of successful and popular Canadian films would include Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006), a police comedy about French-English relations, two dark comedies about modern French-Canadian life by Quebec director Denys Arcand (b. Deschambault, 1941) — The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and its Oscar-winning sequel, The Barbarian Invasions (2003) — the goofy geek-comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) — a film adaptation of a popular graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley (b. London, 1979) — and the romantic comedy Men With Brooms (2002) set against a backdrop of the obscure Canadian sport of curling.

More subjective would be films like Meatballs (1979) or Juno (2007) which don’t take place in Canada but were filmed in the country with mostly Canadian actors, or movies like Porky’s (1981), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) or Mama (2013) which were produced by Canadian studios but otherwise had nothing to do with Canada. Additionally, some will consider anything made by a Canadian-born director such as Norman Jewison (b. Toronto, 1926), David Cronenberg (b. Toronto, 1943) or James Cameron (b. Kapuskasing, 1954) to be a sufficiently “Canadian” film.

The more well-known role of Canada in the modern motion picture industry is as a set location for major Hollywood productions. Particularly since the 1990s, American producers have increasingly shot films set in New York, Chicago or San Francisco in places like Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton, as a way of escaping the high cost of American unionized labour, as well as to take advantage of the persistently low Canadian exchange rate. Seizing on this trend, a number of Canadian provinces and cities have created special filmmaker tax breaks and other incentives to attract studios, helping turn foreign film production into one of Canada’s most lucrative international industries. In many big Canadian cities, blocked-off streets filled with cameras and catering trailers are a familiar sight and common annoyance.

Surviving members of The Band are inducted into the Canadian Walk of Fame in downtown Toronto.
Cambria Quartz/Flickr

Canadian Music

Canadian popular music is by far the most commercially successful realm of Canadian pop culture, experiencing few of the struggles for attention and success that have defined Canadian television and film. This is largely because the overhead involved with recording an album is considerably lower than what’s required to make something for TV or the movie theatre. Canadian music and musicians have proven able to transcend international borders quite easily, with a vast array of Canadian-born stars achieving global fame and fortune in a vast array of genres, particularly rock, indie, folk and pop.

As they do with television, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission requires Canadian radio stations to play a certain quota of Canadian-made music (in most cases, 35 per cent) in order to keep their broadcasting licence. Unlike television shows and movies, however, CRTC standards of what constitutes “Canadian” music are considerably generous; as long as the main singer is Canadian and she’s singing her own lyrics, that’s usually good enough.

Assembling a comprehensive list of major Canadian music stars is almost as daunting as compiling a list of Canadians in Hollywood. Nevertheless, any major list would be sure to note The Guess Who, RUSH, The Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, Nickelback and Arcade Fire among the most successful Canadian bands of the last few decades, and solo acts like Leonard Cohen (Montreal, 1934-2016, Los Angeles), Paul Anka (b. Ottawa, 1941), Neil Young (b. Toronto, 1945), Shania Twain (b. Windsor, 1965), Celine Dion (b. Charlemagne, 1968), Sarah McLachlan (b. Halifax, 1968), Alanis Morissette (b. Ottawa, 1974), Michael Buble (b. Burnaby, 1975), Feist (b. Amherst, 1976), Nelly Furtado (b. Victoria, 1978), Deadmau5 (b. Niagara Falls, 1981), Avril Lavigne (b. Belleville, 1984), Drake (b. Toronto, 1986) and Justin Bieber (b. Stratford, 1994) as among the country’s most successful singers and musicians.

Other Canadian Entertainment

In recent years, Canada has become well-known for producing a number of famous graphic novelists, including Dave Sim (b. Hamilton, 1956), Chester Brown (b. Montreal, 1960) and Bryan Lee O’Malley (b. London, 1979), as well as successful web cartoonists like Ryan North (b. Ottawa, 1980, Dinosaur Comics) and Kate Beaton (b. Cape Breton, 1983, Hark! A Vagrant).

Per capita, Canada has the largest domestic video game industry in the world, mostly based out of the tech-savvy cities of Montreal and Vancouver. Canadian branches of major American, Japanese and European video game firms have independently produced many extremely acclaimed titles and series, including the Assassin’s Creed franchise (produced by Ubisoft Montreal) and the Mass Effect series (made by BioWare Edmonton), as well as a variety of Canadian sports games produced by Electronic Arts’ large Vancouver branch.

The rise of the Internet has also produced a number of Canadian success stories, including blogs like Boing Boing and DiplyYouTube channels like Matthew Santoro (b. Welland, 1985), Lilly Singh (b. Scarborough, 1988), and Epic Meal Time, and podcasts like Stop Podcasting Yourself.