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 defines 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 torturous 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. These shows are usually big-budget, all-American or international co-venture productions simply outsourced to Canada. They're either set unequivocally in the USA or in a futuristic setting where the whole question is moot.
Contrast with Eagleland Osmosis.
- Applies to most "tax shelter films" of the 1970s and '80s, if not outright Canada Doubling. These films intended audiences were primarily American, so at best the films would be set in a City with No Name filled with allusions to American popular culture to create a suitably generic "North American" urban setting. This extended to the practice of dubbing local actors with strong regional accents, particularly those from Francophone regions. See Scanners and its sequel, both of such were shot in Montreal and adhere to this trope.
- 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.
- 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.
- A version of this trope appears in the Irish film The Brylcreem Boys, Very Loosely Based on a True Story about Allied and German military personnel who were stranded in neutral Ireland during World War II and held in adjacent internment camps. One of the main characters is an officer of the RCAF and explicitly stated to be Canadian, but, other than a few obligatory lines inserted to establish his nationality, he consistently acts like an American and all other characters treat him as such. (He talks about American isolationist politicians with telling "we," the other main character, a German patriot but no Nazi, insistently laces his lines with "you Americans" in conversations with him, etc.) This might be because of Critical Research Failure by filmmakers who failed to appreciate that Canada is not same as the US. Or, this might be because the character is intended to be an Audience Surrogate for American audiences to whom Canadian perspectives on World War II would not be familiar.
- 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 Magic from Technology 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".
- The Netflix show Between is a joint Canadian-American production. The number plates appear to be Ontario and the newscasts show a public health official with the title "Minister."
- 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).
- 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.
- Goosebumps: Toronto, Canada was one of the series' primary filming locations, but most episodes were set in a vaguely North American town.
- Highlander took place in a fictional Pacific Northwest city dubbed Seacouver by fans.
- How to Be Indie 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.
- The Listener At least partially subverted with prominent views of the Toronto skyline. When the main character gives a homeless man a dollar, it's a coin. References to Canada were deliberately changed in the closed captions for the American market. Averted with a vengeance from the second season onward, with direct references to Canadian cities and politics, the RCMP, a massive Canadian flag, and shout-outs to Canadian bands and TV shows.
- 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, or even which country or province the city is in, 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: Probably the Trope Codifier. The show went to extremes in seeming to take place in the US without making any references that contradicted it being set in Canada.
- Orphan Black:
- The show is shot in Canada, starring Canadian actors, and is strongly implied to take place in Toronto. However, nearly all blatant references to Canada or Toronto are carefully avoided; one has to be on the lookout for the few instances when they slip up and give away the location (such as on a bank form in season 1).
- The CN Tower is carefully cropped out of shots of downtown Toronto. It can be partly seen in the opening shot of the pilot, but with the top of it cut off, only a native Torontonian would recognize it. Later episodes are better at hiding the city's most famous landmark. The very distinctive octagonal double-decker GO Transit commuter trains◊ were digitally repainted from green to blue in the pilot.
- The Toronto Police Service is instead called the "Metropolitan Police Service." This is based on the older name "Metropolitan Toronto Police Service," but still cuts out "Toronto" from the name.
- Alison is said to live in "Scarborough," a municipality of Toronto, rather than just "Toronto." There are a lot of communities in the world named Scarborough, making the location sound generic.
- The US Army is involved with the clone project, though in season 3 they're also shown to have a black site in Mexico, indicating that national borders are no object to them.
- Fleeting references kept in include Canadian money, Ontario license plates, and Toronto addresses and area codes.
- By contrast, all the cities they do mention explicitly are in the US. 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 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: 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 Great White North segment, created specifically on orders to add more Canadian flavor to the show, intentionally plays as a parody of Canadian stereotypes and could ironically be interpreted as a foreign lampooning of Canada.
- You Can't Do That on Television, once it 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 that were called something different in America.
- Schitt's Creek: The show keeps the location of Schitt's Creek ambiguous, never explicitly referencing its location either in Canada or the United States. The official reason is so the characters stand on their own and do not represent the real-world denizens of any specific region.
- When Calls the Heart: Notably averted in Season One, when the show makes it no secret that it takes place in northwest Canada. Strongly present in subsequent seasons, when, with the exception of a Mountie as a character and Hamilton as a city, laws, political systems, locations, famous historical artists and inventors, newspapers, and cities are all American. There is even mention of the Mountie running for President, instead of Prime Minister, which is an incredibly jarring experience for Canadian viewers.
- 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.
- Despite not even airing in the United States, Producing Parker was sometimes implied to take place in the United States. For example, one episode was concerned with how Dee's show was rated in the Bible Belt.
- Braceface initially appeared to keep itself ambiguous about where the show took place. Characters would nonchalantly reference California and Florida, but would wear clothes with Canadian flags. Might have had something to do with American actress Alicia Silverstone being Sharon's original voice, since the Canadian setting was played up in the third season.
- Arthur was probably meant to take place in Pennsylvania, given that creator Marc Brown based Elwood City off of his hometown. One of the earliest episodes has the family go to D.C. to see the White House and meet Bill Clinton (sure, he's an aardvark, but still...), which seems to imply they are at least American. Later episodes occasionally reference Canadian cities and culture.
- More recent episodes seem to go back to the American setting, as new character Ladonna references being from New Orleans, and is never outright treated as being from a different country.
- Postcards From Buster also seemed to support the American setting. One of the characters mentioned growing up in Washington. Another episode, while visiting Canada, had Buster be surprised by the concept of "poutine." Makes sense for an American (let's not get into New Jersey having disco fries)...not so much from a Canadian.