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This is what it means to be Canadian

I stepped off the plane and looked around me.

There were blocks of ice near the runway.

It was mid-summer.

We’d just landed in a place so far north there was not a tree to be seen.

The air was fresh and sharp but this was about as warm as it ever gets here.

And so began my first visit to Canada.

It was June 2017 and I was in a town called Iqaluit, on the edge of the Canadian Arctic Circle.

It was my introduction to the vastness of this country.

The second biggest in the world, with more lakes than every other nation put together and the longest land border to be found anywhere on earth.

But not so many people.

This was my very first visit to Canada. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Canada is geographically North American and, from our side of the Atlantic, it often looks and smells very American.

Yet, on my first visit to Canada earlier this year, I was about to discover just how different Canadians are from their American cousins to the south of that very long land border.

We were in the Canadian territory of Nunavut at the start of a tour with the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.

They were there to join the celebrations for Canada’s 150th birthday.

July 1st is the day - Canada Day - on which they celebrate the break from their colonial controller, Great Britain.

Charles and Camilla were here representing the Queen.

So why, I thought, are they celebrating the formation of the Confederation of Canada and yet seem quite content to retain Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State?

So I came back to Canada to find out why.

The country's famous maple lead is proudly displayed. Credit: ITV On Assignment

You start to form an answer at the airport.

Toronto International is full of Canadians about to jet off to islands many thousands of miles south in search of some guaranteed warmth and sunshine.

So far, so very British.

But you notice the red and white Canadian flag on their suitcases.

The men have baseball caps proudly displaying the country’s famous maple leaf.

The words “I am Canadian” scream out from a red and white T-shirt.

“We carry the American accent” they told me and so we make sure other people know we are “not American.”

Their experiences abroad have taught these travellers to identify themselves as non-American.

Meeting Canada’s recently retired Governor General. Credit: ITV On Assignment

“We’re more gentle people,” they told me, “happier people”, and they say they get a better reaction when their hosts find out where they are from (or perhaps more accurately where they are not from).

“We have Trudeau, they have Trump” is another phrase you hear often right now as Canadians are keen to point out their liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is politically poles apart from US President, Donald Trump.

I explored this matter with Canada’s recently retired Governor General - the Queen’s representative in the country of which she is still head.

He points to the two countries respective constitutions: America’s is very “individualistic”, he says, ours is not.

We’re sitting in the King Edward hotel in Toronto - named after the son of Queen Victoria who ascended to the throne at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

It’s another reminder that, like in America, there was a colonisation from Europe and, before that, a crushing of the native peoples.

And today, Canada acknowledges its history before colonisation while it celebrates its anniversary since colonisation.

The people sitting in this marquee are from all over the world, Syria, Iraq, Malaysia. Credit: ITV On Assignment

At a citizenship ceremony - held in the two official languages of its dual colonial past (British and French) - the latest citizens of Canada watch a traditional native dance.

The people sitting in this marquee are from all over the world, Syria, Iraq, Malaysia.

They’ve come because Canada has opened its doors at a time when many developed nations have signalled their doors are closing.

Around 250,000 people are enrolled as new citizens of Canada each year.

We met Hameeda who came here with her family from Afghanistan.

She says she’s never experienced hostility since her arrival in Canada, nothing other than a welcome smile.

“In your heart, do you feel Canadian?” I ask.

“100 per cent”, is her reply.

But that doesn’t mean this is a country where the debate about the effects of immigration is not happening at all.

With so many illegal migrants racing to cross the border from the USA into Canada, there is definitely some “push back” says Wendy Mesley - a longtime anchor on Canadian broadcaster CBC.

But just as they debate their national identity on TV, they laugh about it too.

At a theatre, I watched a comedy show called “The Thinking Man’s America”.

On the stage, they act sketches about their relationship with the US and sing songs with the words: “because we are not hated half as much as you…”

We can be “a little smug” said two of the comedians after the show.

There was a lot I didn’t know about Canada. Credit: ITV On Assignment

Canadians look over the American border at “their” gun control issue and “their” healthcare and the comedians both shake their heads, smiling.

It’s little wonder this country gets mistaken for America.

The streets of Toronto act as a backdrop for New York on many a US television show.

Canadian mountains are used for films which are set in the American Rockies.

A 150th anniversary is known as sesquicentennial - a word I confess I had not heard before arriving here.

But there was a lot I didn’t know about Canada.

And at a time when the debate in the USA is about building walls, it seems Canada wants the rest of the world to know they much prefer taking them down.