Canada Does Not Exist

Canada Does Not Exist is a strange, location-based trope distantly related to Where the Hell Is Springfield?. Though this trope might arguably apply to a tiny handful of shows shot in other countries, it's the relative closeness of American and Canadian culture, contrasted with their distinct differences, that really define it. CDNE shows are virtually always shot in a Canadian location, while the fictional setting is deliberately left vague, a generic North American location that is neither fully America nor completely Canada.

Superficially similar to California Doubling and other location tropes, CDNE is distinguished by the way the shoot location actually affects the story. With California Doubling, the audience needs to accept the desert-scrub of a Burbank backlot as the Amazon rainforest, but the location of the shoot has no effect on the story itself. With CDNE, the location affects the script considerably, forcing the writers into crazy contortions to avoid mentioning or even giving hints about the show's fictional setting.

In the 1980s, a very low Canadian dollar, the construction of a bunch of new production facilities in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, and a host of tax incentives triggered a wave of drama TV production by local (though often transplanted American) producers. These quasi-Canadian producers started churning out a bunch of reasonably slick cop and action-adventure shows for a fraction of what they cost to produce in Hollywood, and eventually allowed them to crack the notoriously foreign-phobic U.S. network market.

The first show of this type was Night Heat, a cop series produced in Toronto by Sonny Grosso Productions. It premiered in Canada on CTV in 1985, and later joined the CBS Late Night lineup in 1987. It was the first Canadian-produced drama ever to air on a U.S. network.

That's when things started to get weird. CBS wanted a gritty U.S. cop show set in a gritty U.S. inner city, but CTV (which was still paying most of the bills) needed more domestic drama. When the characters started flashing American eagle police badges and calling up the "district attorney," CTV went ballistic. Already under fire for producing so few domestic TV shows, the last thing the network wanted was for Night Heat to be perceived as yet another American import in its prime time line-up. Moreover, the Canadian federal tax incentives and production grants the producers were getting likely bound them to certain minimal "Canadian content" rules.note 

Forced to square the circle, the producers decided to set the show nowhere, albeit a very American-flavoured nowhere. The American eagle police badge became a mutant eagle/beaver hybrid that was never seen in close-up, and all sorts of innocuous words and objects suddenly became more taboo than George Carlin's infamous "seven words you can't say on TV." You couldn't show flagpoles, currency or license plates or make overt references to any level of government. Instead of a "district attorney" or a "crown prosecutor" the cops would phone the generic "prosecutor." Courtroom scenes were laughably tortuous to produce, for obvious reasons.

As CBS and other U.S. networks started picking up more Canadian productions, an unspoken "scale of hidden Canadianness" started to emerge. Night Heat was a pure, level-10 Hidden Canada, bent almost comically out of shape in its attempts to be 100% Yankee Doodle American without ever actually saying so out loud.

Note: CDNE does not affect plain-vanilla "Hollywood North" productions like The X-Files, Stargate SG-1 and its spinoffs, Andromeda and Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined). These shows are usually big-budget, all-American productions simply outsourced to Canada. They're either set unequivocally in the USA or in a futuristic setting where the whole question is moot.

Compare with California Doubling, We All Live in America, City with No Name, Where the Hell Is Springfield?, SoCalization, Big Applesauce, No Communities Were Harmed, and Negative Continuity.

Contrast with Eagleland Osmosis.


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  • A funny Canada Does Not Exist moment was related about David Cronenberg's remake The Fly (1986), shot in Toronto. During production, they hit a crisis moment when the script called for Jeff Goldblum's character to prominently pay someone $50 in cash. Cronenberg, himself a Canadian, couldn't decide whether to use Canadian or American currency. In the end, he opted for U.S. greenbacks, pretty ironic considering that the 1950s Vincent Price original, shot in Hollywood, was actually set in Montreal, and given that several of his other movies were unequivocally set in Canada, even if they had mostly American actors (like Videodrome), and given that the CN Tower, a major Toronto landmark, is clearly visible in one shot.
  • In New Zealand during the early-mid 1980s, American film crews were given preferential tax treatment, which briefly led to a number of movies inexplicably featuring both American and New Zealand actors alongside each other. Among the more notable examples were Battletruck a.k.a. Warlords of the 21st Century (1982) and Shaker Run (1985).
  • Hobo with a Shotgun features many of the hallmarks of this trope, what with the oddly-generic police badges, fake currency that resembles neither American nor Canadian bills, and so on and so forth.
  • Most of Hedwig and the Angry Inch was shot in Toronto, with various locations (including the Toronto Eaton Centre, with the store names blurred out) standing in for areas around the American Midwest.
  • The outside scenes of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory were filmed in Germany (mostly in Munich and other parts of Bavaria), partly due to cost and for an ambiguous feel to the setting. Most of the characters native to the setting have English-sounding names and speak with American or British accents, so it's not altogether clear where the film was set.

  • Canadian author Charles de Lint made it intentionally vague where the city of Newford that he sets many of his stories in actually is. For example, Word of God is that Newford's legal system features elements of both American and Canadian law. Interestingly, according to De Lint, American fans tend to think it's in Canada, whilst Canadian fans tend to think it's in the US.
  • The Strugatsky Brothers famous sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic is (unlike its later adaptations) set in an unnamed town located somewhere in midwestern North America. But it's never made explicit whether the country it lies in is Canada or the US. Some of the governmental lingo involved would point to the US, but other details of the setting (including motor vehicles, like the more British Land Rover Defender) would point to Canada. It's a generally unusual example of this trope, given that the writers were neither American or Canadian, but Soviet.
  • James Alan Gardner doesn't make it obvious that the location for his novel Trapped, set in a magitech 25th century, is southern Ontario until later in the novel when the characters reach Niagara Falls, as location names have changed (the story starts in "Simka", the futuristic version of Simcoe, Ontario). Many Canadians, however, will quickly catch on where the setting is when one major locations nearby is mentioned: "Trawna", a common way many people pronounce "Toronto".

     Live-Action TV 
  • Counterstrike
  • Code Name: Eternity
  • Degrassi Junior High: Reshot scenes involving money for the US version. Later, Degrassi became a notable subversion although generic rather than Ontario-specific terms are still used when discussing things like driver licensing and standardized tests.
    • More recent seasons of Degrassi are showing signs of Eagleland Osmosis though as what are largely American practices, like the SATs have become major plot points in some episodes and the generic Canadian universities of the early seasons have been replaced with very specific American universities (NYU and Yale, to be specific).
  • Desperate Housewives: While set in the US, the TV show isn't in any of the 50 states. It is in the "Eagle State", complete with fictional license plates and drivers licenses that show the state abbreviation as "ES".
  • Flashpoint: Tried to be set in an ambiguous North American metropolis, but officers in the very first episode had Canadian flags on their uniforms. The setting slowly let more aspects leak through that reflected the already obvious setting of Toronto until they finally admitted they're in Toronto.
  • Forever Knight: The cult series (about a sensitive, guilt-ridden, immortal vampire who became a cop to atone for his past sins) was more subtle than Night Heat, probably a level-7 hidden Canada. An unmistakable Toronto skyline was prominently shown at every scene transition, and if you paid close attention, you'd notice the Ontario licence plates and people paying for things with Canadian currency. Canadian flags and portraits of Queen Elizabeth II (the titular sovereign of Canada) are in nearly every episode, but usually filmed at such angles that they are hardly ever immediately visible. But those touches were pretty subtle and most of the other Night Heat taboos remained in place. Canadian viewers could amuse themselves by trying to pick out tiny clues that the series was actually set in Toronto, while Americans could remain blithely undisturbed by the notion that an action-adventure drama could take place outside their borders. It's not clear if the show tried to hide that it was set in Toronto, even if it didn't advertise it overtly for American audiences. References to "crown" (prosecutors) and use of clearly Canadian currency, for example, are common and visible throughout the series.
  • Highlander: It took place in a fictional Pacific Northwest city called Seacouver.
  • How to Be Indie: This Disney Channel Canadian-made Kid Com never explicitly states whereabouts the action is set. It could be anywhere in North America, although natives of the USA or Canada might spot something.
  • Lost Girl: The show makes absolutely no effort to hide the fact that it is filmed in Toronto (the accents, all those shots of the very distinctive TTC streetcars, and a few incidental glimpses of the CN Tower being dead giveaways), but this is never made explicit.
    • In one episode Bo makes multiple visits to a woman on death row. The first time she goes, it is implied that she crosses the border (there is no death penalty in Canada). Afterwards she is back home but then she visits the prisoner twice more on the same day, which would make for a lot of commuting since it is about a 2 hour drive to the nearest border crossing from Toronto.
  • Night Heat: See above. Probably the Trope Codifier.
  • Orphan Black: Shot in Canada, starring Canadian actors, and never explicitly stated in be in Canada. There are brief shots of colored money, Ontario license plates, and Toronto addresses, and Alison lives in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, but exact mentions of the city and country the show takes place in are always dodged, and the CN Tower is carefully cropped out of shots of downtown Toronto. Especially notable given that all the cities they do mention explicitly are in the U.S.: Cosima grew up in Berkeley and went to grad school in Minnesota, while Tony is from Cincinnati.
  • Psi-Factor: Sometimes. The producers could never seem to decide whether Canada existed or not.
  • Sanctuary: It is set in "Old City" somewhere on the west coast but which country it's in is never made clear. It's an invented city (like Metropolis).
    • In one episode, however, Kate gives her brother what looks like Canadian money.
  • SCTV: Except for the Great White North and CBC related material, could definitely count, as Melonville is never explicitly stated to be in Canada and most of the television/film they parodied was familiar to both American and Canadian audiences.
  • The Tribe: Made in New Zealand, and starring an all-New Zealand cast with distinctive New Zealand accents...but set in "The City", with absolutely no obvious landmarks anywhere. Not only that, but on the rare occasions early on in the show when old money from before the apocalypse was shown, it seemed to be British coinage. Zoot's Police Car was a New Zealand/Australian model, but with blue insignia more typical of American police cars. They really went out of their way to avoid setting that show in a specific country. Also, in one episode, Jack finds a tape with footage of the President (presumably of the United States, given his American accent and other clues in the footage); later, he simply refers to the character on that tape as "The President" (not "The American President" as we would expect a non-US Native to call him). This actually implies that The City is in American territory, despite the kids' mostly New Zealand accents and speech idioms.
  • You Cant Do That On Television: Once the show became internationally syndicated and Nickelodeon became a production partner with the show's Canadian producers, its previously unapologetically Canadian flavor got downplayed if not completely blanched - the kids were making references to the Fourth of July and American cultural institutions and being told not to say "eh" or use Canadian terminology for things which were called something different in America.

    Web Video 
  • The Other Side is filmed entirely in Canada, but it isn't entirely clear if it's set there. In Season 2 Episode 2, Colorado has box of Timbits and identifies them by name, but Ethan's flashback a few episodes later shows them passing several landmarks in New York City, suggesting that they at least traveled through there at some point. Another popular theory is Hawaii (despite nothing looking anything like Hawaii), due to the fact that Hawaii entered the program voluntarily, and, since the States are named after the place from which they were abducted and he was not abducted, they may have already been there to start with.

     Western Animation 
  • Played with in the Canadian-produced Clone High. It is explicitly set in the fictional town of "Exclamation, USA", but one character spends her spring break on "the sunny beaches of Canada, where the sun is always shining." An American viewer unaware of the show's Canadian origins would be quite puzzled about the point of the joke.

Alternative Title(s):

Ambiguously North America