Canadians, History, and Google Trends: Is Canada Becoming a “Warrior Nation”?

In their provocative book Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, historians Ian McKay and Jamie Swift argue that the Canadian myth of a peaceful, peacekeeping country is being replaced by that of Canada as a warrior nation. We can see this, they argue, in our commemorative strategies, the decisions made in the new citizenship guide for new Canadians, and several other facets of Canadian society (as if on cue, today sees the release of the new Canadian $20 bill – with the Vimy monument prominently displayed). The response has been divided: a positive review in the Globe and Mail by the Walrus‘s founding editor, for example, and for a counter-example, a negative one by a historian implicated by the authors.

Could we use computational tools to look at a cultural shift in Canadian society? There is one quick and dirty way to do so. Google Trends tracks how often a given search is carried out, as compared to the number of searches worldwide (or in a region, depending on the options you put in). Let’s first of all do a simple search to see how it works: “remembrance.”

The whole Google Trends dashboard for “remembrance.” Click through to play with it yourself.

What can we learn from this? First of all, we see that these searches are clustered around a specific time: Remembrance Day (this upcoming Sunday, so we are currently in the midst of a spike right now). For what it’s worth, this sort of search clustering is found in other events in Canada, such as the First and Second World Wars. The most interested Canadians, per capita, in this are in the north, and then Atlantic Canada, and then Manitoba and Saskatchewan; as opposed to lesser numbers coming out of Alberta, Ontario, and British Columbia. Yet it is the peaks that are most compelling. Searches for “remembrance” in Canada peaked in 2006: the same year that our casualties in Afghanistan peaked (with 32). They slowly reduce until 2008, when they begin crawling back upwards again. Indeed, right now, “remembrance” is almost at the same level of searches as it was in 2006 – and the war has ended!

Could this be linked to ongoing commemoration of wars in our past? The Canadian government is currently engaged in an aggressive War of 1812 commemoration strategy, highlighting certain aspects of the war (and downplaying others). We ought to give them a pat on the back, because there has certainly been renewed Canadian interest in the War of 1812:

A Google Trend for the War of 1812 in Canada. Click through for the full data.

So there seems to be some sustained interest in remembrance, and the War of 1812. On its own, however, this information isn’t terribly informative. What if we begin to plot these findings against other search terms. Could we see a shift towards the Warrior Nation and away from the peacekeeping nation?

The Google Trend for the War of 1812 and Peacekeeping, as Canadian search terms. Click through to explore the data in depth.

Turns out we can. War of 1812 and Peacekeeping are positively correlated until 2011, to at least some degree; this ends after that point. More interesting, the peacekeeping topic is trending downwards since the beginning of the data in 2004. Canadians are less interested in peacekeeping, at least on Google, than they were eight years ago.

As if to bear this out, we are less interested in Lester Pearson than we were eight years ago, in a steady downward trend (the full name is important, as Canadians are interested in searching for the airport named after him!). That said, there hasn’t been a resurgence in interest in John Diefenbaker, the current government’s historical prime minister of choice:

The Google Trends for Lester Pearson (blue) and John Diefenbaker (red). As always, click through to play with the data yourself.

Google Trends isn’t everything, but it does give us a little window into the search engine habits of Canadians. In some ways, some of the old symbols of Canada: Pearson, Peacekeeping are being reduced, in favour of increasing interest in remembrance, and the War of 1812. Yet other topics have been reduced: same-sex marriage doesn’t seem to preoccupy Canadians as it did before, as the debate seems settled; health care seems to be slowly lowering as a topic of inquiry; and important topics like residential schools continue to interest (climate change and global warming, not so much).

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