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If you like Canuck Defined, check out The Name Game.

When the Canucks joined the NHL, Orland Kurtenbach became the first "Captain Canuck".

"Canuck" Defined

One of the most common questions I get asked when we travel into the USA to cheer on the Canucks is "What's a Canuck?" The simple answer is "a Canadian". The complete answer takes a little more explanation.

Years ago, I was watching a sports commentary show where the topic was team names. During an interview with Stan Fischler, the New York sports reporter commented that he didn't like the name "Canucks" because it was an offensive term (worse than "Redskins" or "Indians"). What was he talking about? We all know that "Canuck" is just another word for "Canadian".

In a seemingly unrelated story, I had just installed a copy of WordPerfect on my computer. WordPerfect has many great features, including a grammar checker (so much for thinking that I'm a pretty good writer). After producing a road trip brochure, I thought I'd give the grammar checker a try. The first thing it found:

CANUCK: Avoid this offensive term. Consider revising.

Huh? So, now we have to change the name of our hockey team? I don't think so.

Okay, so just exactly what is a Canuck and why is it an offensive term? Then again, if the word is so insulting, why did they name our team the "Canucks"? Off to the library I went.

The first dictionary I checked reported:

CANUCK () n. Slang. Canadian [sometimes offensive or patronizing in non-Canadian use]. Origin obscure.

Boy, when they said "origin obscure" they weren't kidding. It seemed like every dictionary had a different origin for the word. One suggested that the word came from CANUC which is used vulgarly and rather contemptuously for Canadian. Another suggested that it came from CONNAUGHT which was a nickname given by French Canadians to describe Irish Canadians in the early 1800's.

Finally, there was a suggestion that "Canuck" began as the Hawaiian word KANAKA which represented a south sea islander (no, not a New York Islander). It seems that French Canadians and these islanders were both employed in the Pacific Northwest fur trade and the term was used to describe them. The theory is that the word evolved, taking "CAN" from "Canadian" and adding it to "AKA" to form CANAK (CANUCK).

One of the earliest uses of the word in print appears in "From Notes Upon Canada and the United States" by Henry Cook Todd and published around 1835:

"Jonathan distinguishes a Dutch or French Canadian, by the term Kanuk."

The earliest use of the word with the spelling we recognize today is found in "L'Acadie: or Seven Years' Exploration in British America" by James Edward Alexander, published in 1849:

We also met a lusty fellow in a forest road with a keg of whisky slung round him who called to us 'Come boys and have some grog, I'm what you call a canuck: ' a (Canadian).

Okay, I'm not sure about some "lusty fellow" offering free booze to strangers, but maybe things were different then. Wherever the word came from, by the mid 1800's "Canuck" was regularly used to describe a Canadian.

In the 1860's, editorial cartoonists created a character by the name of "Johnny Canuck". Johnny was used to represent Canada, just as Uncle Sam represented the United States. Johnny Canuck was depicted as a wholesome young man, wearing the garb of a habitant, farmer, logger, rancher or soldier. Johnny was often drawn resisting the bullying of Uncle Sam. We could use someone like that now to protect Canada's interest in the NHL.

Johnny had one flaw -- he wasn't too bright. This may explain something. Let's say your best friend comes up to you, pats you on the back and calls you a goof. You laugh it off. On the other hand, if someone you had never met did the same thing, you might take them out back and settle the issue. Maybe that's why Canadians can call themselves Canucks and be proud of it, but don't let those darn Yankees call us Canucks!

During World War II, a new comic book hero was introduced. His name was also Johnny Canuck. This time, Mr. Canuck was a caped strong man who protected Canadians from the Nazi menace. Johnny Canuck had no special powers, but he waged a one man war against Hitler with human strengths belonging to any fine fighting Canuck. Even today, tell someone from Holland that you are a Canuck and they will thank you for liberating their country from the Nazis.

So, now we have the Canadian image of a Canuck. Powerful (not superhuman but capable). A defender of Canada. A fighter. A tough guy (in spirit and in body). Sounds like a hockey player.

When Vancouver was admitted to the Pacific Coast Hockey League in 1946, they seized upon the image of a team of Canucks. The name worked. Despite the fact that we don't hear much about Johnny Canuck anymore, the term "Canuck" still represents the best qualities of being a Canadian.

Content copyright 2001-2010 David Marchak
This page last updated September 13, 2020