Drawing Canadian Identity

Over 500 Canadians, each with a different story, expressed what it means to be Canadian with a small drawing. The artist behind the Canada-wide art project, “Canada’s Self Portrait,” reflects on what he has learned so far about Canadian identity.

“I can’t draw.” The three words that artist Aquil Virani has often encountered during his many years of collaborative art-making. After more than 5 years of projects in local communities across North America, he has been working on his biggest project ever – a large-scale artwork that integrates 701 drawings from all 13 Canadian provinces and territories to express what it means to be Canadian.

This is the tongue-in-cheek video on aquil.ca/Canada that we put together with footage from across Canada to urge the public to participate in the project.

So how do Canadians represent the identity of their country with a simple sketch? With over 500 submissions so far, there are 3 distinct themes that emerge.

1. Diversity
The drawings include stick figures welcoming each other with open arms, people holding hands, puzzle pieces fitting perfectly together, and particular cultural symbols related to First Nations groups, Chinese Canadians, Indian Canadians, French Canadians and most other minority groups.

2. Nature
There are plenty of doodles of picturesque landscapes, cedar trees, sparkling lakes and loons going for a swim. Beavers build dams to inhibit fresh, flowing water. In the corners of the drawings are often small humans, innocently enjoying the scene.

3. Friendliness
Canadians, often new to the country, express an appreciation for the warmth of Canadian communities. In one sketch, a young girl is hugged by a Canadian flag. A drawing of a black backpack with a Canadian flag patched on it references a global expectation of polite and friendly Canadian travellers.

One must ask the question, “Are these themes particular to Canada?” Identity, after all, is related to distinction; an object must be defined by how it is different from others rather than a simple observation of characteristics.

1. Diversity
Canada’s openness and respect of diversity is represented by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Ottawa, the nation’s capital, houses the Global Centre for Pluralism. Canada is known colloquially as a “mosaic” rather than a “melting pot.” Among all this celebration of diversity is a troubled past similar to other countries, a dark shadow that tells the story of assimilated and impoverished First Nations communities, Japanese internment camps during World War II, and the Chinese Head Tax policy of the 20th century to name a few.

2. Nature
Banff, Alberta is a Canadian tourist treasure nestled in the Canadian Rockies. It’s a testament to the beauty of Canada’s wilderness. Towering mountains overlook luscious greenery. There are, however, numerous countries that celebrate a natural, jaw-dropping landscape. It’s not as if Canada is a pioneer of environmental sustainability either, at least not in terms of political commitments instituted by Parliament. Canada is beautiful, but its natural beauty may not be protected for long.

3. Friendliness
You’ll find openness and prejudice everywhere you go, whether it’s in Paris, France or in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. A recent attack in Ottawa has challenged Canadians to keep their openness while the media perpetuates fears of a looming threat.

At first, I thought the drawings could be misguided. They might be inaccurate characteristics resulting from a naiveté of the reality of Canada’s heritage and its neighbors’ similar qualities. How could someone draw a representation of diversity to summarize Canada, knowing its history with First Nations groups? If these were objective observations about what Canada is, they were debatable at best.

But what if these themes that emerged from the drawings were more than that? More about wishes? More about dreams? More about ideal targets that Canadians wanted to pursue? After all, we are defined not entirely by what we do, but also what we strive to do. We are defined by what we believe in. The common themes among the drawings pointed to a desired identity to continue to work towards.

Identity, in the end, is a choice. We ask individuals about their preferred pronoun given the spectrum of gender and sexual identities. We ask people how to appropriately pronounce their chosen name when we meet them, not what is written on their birth certificate. Even if Canada’s troubled history and imperfect reality lingers in the shadows, Canadian identity is defined by the light at the end of the tunnel. We are defined by what we aim for.

As a country of recent immigrants, Canadians have no common ethnicity, background or heritage. There are, instead, a shared set of values that compose our identity and bind us ideologically. Sure, there are still huge political disagreements and varying perspectives in Canada – like anywhere in the world – but our unique situation as a remarkably young nation showcases how an identity can be built not just on a past, but on a present and a shared vision for the future.


Aquil Virani is a Montreal-based artist, designer and speaker. He has been called “the people’s artist” with his collaborative art being featured in print, on the radio and online with NPR, CBC, Global News, CTV and many others. Learn more about his story at aquil.ca.