Can a nation be characterized? Is it possible, or at all reasonable, to ascribe traits and qualities to an entire people, as one would for individuals? Until recently, I thought the answer to that question was clearly “no”, and that attempts to do so were rather narrow-minded, fodder for advertisers and late night television hosts, but not worthy of serious consideration. A collective of millions, or hundreds of millions, one would think, is far too complex and multi-faceted to be understood with a few adjectives and pithy phrases.

Two events, recently very much in the news, have changed my perspective, at least with regard to the Canadian national identity.

The horrific murders of six men while at prayer in a Quebec City mosque have shaken our nation. Although we’re all too familiar with such tragic events around the world, we’re never truly prepared for such an occurrence so close to home.

It’s said for individuals that true character emerges in times of adversity. If so, this was surely a test for the Canadian national character. How would we, and our press, respond? Would current world tensions and the attitudes of the newly elected American president influence reporting or mute our response?

What did we see?

We saw the six victims described not primarily as members of a particular religious or ethnic group, but as fathers, husbands, friends, members and strong contributors to their communities.

We learned from CBC, our national broadcaster, ( that Azzeddine Soufiane was a 57 year-old father of three who worked as a grocer and butcher. He was a longtime Quebec City resident who often volunteered to orient newcomers to the city.

We learned that Khaled Belkacemi was a 60 year-old professor of agricultural engineering at Laval University, who earned his PhD at Sherbrooke. He was described by one of his colleagues as “a kind person, someone appreciated by everyone… a renowned scientist who was very well known…an enormous loss.”

Aboubaker Thabti was a 44 year-old father of two young children who worked in a local pharmacy. Friends said “he’s so kind: everyone loves him – everyone.”

Mamadou Tanou, 42, and Ibrahima Barry, 39, were friends originally from Guinea. Tanou, who worked in Information Technology, had two young children, aged 3 and 1. Barry worked in the Quebec Revenue Ministry and was the father of four, all under the age of 14.

Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, worked as a programming analyst for the Quebec government and had three daughters aged 10, 8 and 15 months.

Our collective choice, expressed through a press well attuned to the sensibility of its readers and ethos of the nation, was not to stoke discord and controversy, but to regard the victims with compassion and sensitivity. They chose inclusion.

We saw the leaders of our three major political parties express, jointly, our collective grief and sentiments in terms that reflect a society truly accepting of diversity, with nothing overtly political or varnished in their words or actions. They proved themselves to be decent people and dedicated leaders who were able to give expression to the Canadian character, because they truly understood and believed in it.

We saw a French Canadian Premier of Quebec engage the events and those affected not as a marginalized “minority” within his province, but as fully accepted members.

We saw people of all religious backgrounds express support and unity in any way they could imagine, from writing letters of support, to marching, rallying around their local communities, or attending memorial services. We saw $80,000 raised within 17 hours for the support of families of the victims.

We saw a common rallying cry against religious intolerance and terrorism of any kind. We did not see demonstrations in the street by minorities who felt themselves victimized.

At the same time, we are confronted with the American travel advisory prohibiting access to people on the basis of their nationality. Various stories emerge about terrible consequences of this decision. Again, adversity reveals character. This past week, our provincial Minister of Health invited one of our teaching hospitals to take on the care of children scheduled for life-saving surgery in American hospitals but now unable to enter the country.

Not only is this the right thing to do, but a decision entirely in keeping with Canadian values, and one that would get approval of virtually every Canadian, regardless of political or religious affiliation


We live in a troubled world, during troubling times, but can take pride in being part of a nation that has deeply held and noble values.

The world, now more than ever, needs Canada to stay true to those values.


Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)

Associate Dean,

Undergraduate Medical Education