Canada Does Not Exist is a strange, location-based trope distantly related to Where the Hell Is Springfield?. It's where a cross-border production between Canada and the United States refuses to acknowledge that it's set in either country, and therefore appears to exist in some bizarre generic North American location.
The trope arises from the peculiarities of producing television in Canada. Let's face it — Canada is not a big place compared to its massive, culturally influential southern neighbour, and it would be very easy and convenient for Canada to just import all of its shows from the U.S. The Canadian government provides several incentives to Canadian producers to make Canadian content, but Canadian federal tax incentives and production grants are usually predicated on there being a certain amount of "Canadian content". Ordinarily, this can be easily satisfied with a fully Canadian production — even something as mundane as a news broadcast — but it's not so easy to put together an entirely Canadian production, so producers seek help from across the border. And they're allowed to do that — as long as the show is still "Canadian". This trope is therefore quite narrow, and falls into a bizarre situation where the American and Canadian partners each want to broadcast the show in their respective countries — Americans aren't going to tune in to watch something that's obviously Canadian without risking their audience, and Canadians won't show something that's obviously American without risking their funding. Therefore, the show has to avoid showing or mentioning anything that could place it in either country.
The first show of this type was Night Heat, a cop series produced in Toronto by Sonny Grosso Productions. CTV first aired it in Canada in 1985, and CBS put it on its Late Night lineup in 1987, making it the first Canadian-produced drama ever to air on a U.S. network. It was quite tempting for CBS, as the Canadian dollar was damn cheap in the 1980s, so production costs were lower in Canada, and cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal were building all kinds of production facilities. CBS wanted the show to be a gritty American cop drama like everything else, but CTV couldn't allow it to be too "American" without risking losing its tax incentives. Night Heat therefore became notable for its enthusiastic practice of this trope, as all sorts of innocuous words and objects suddenly became more taboo than the famous Seven Dirty Words — no flags, no currency, no license plates, nothing. The police badge became a bizarre hybrid between an eagle and a beaver that was never shown in closeup. Courtroom scenes were laughably torturous to produce because the legal terminology was so different; even mentioning a "district attorney" or "crown prosecutor" was forbidden, and characters just referenced a generic "prosecutor". The producers even went out of their way to keep the words "out" and "about" out of the scripts, given the distinct Canadian way of pronouncing them. As more U.S. networks started picking up Canadian productions, they got more adept at doing this, so it's not nearly as jarring, but you can still pick up on it if you know where to look.
Given the trope's relative narrowness, it's distinct from California Doubling — the audience may be forced to accept the desert scrub of a Burbank backlot as the Amazon rainforest, but it's still explicitly set in the Amazon rainforest. It's also distinct from "Hollywood North" productions, where an American production outsources a lot of work to Canada; these are still considered American imports and made for American TV. This is how, say, The X-Files can reference distinctly American institutions like the FBI despite being shot in Canada.
Compare City with No Name, We All Live in America, and No Communities Were Harmed. Contrast We All Live in America, Hollywood Provincialism, Eagleland Osmosis, and Big Applesauce (Toronto's been known to pretend to be New York).
- 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 Scanners II: The New Order; both of them were shot mostly in Montreal and adhere strongly to this trope.
- A funny Canada Does Not Exist moment was related about David Cronenberg's version of 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. It was shot in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and is filled with subtle Canadian references.
- 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 a 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 the 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.
- Into the Forest: Unless you notice the initials of the news network briefly visible in an early scene, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the film takes place in America. No one mentions the name of the country, and Nell is studying for the SAT, something a bit more ubiquitous in the US than in Canada. The original novel is set in California. It's made even more confusing when they speak of going East... to Boston, instead of Montreal or some other city on the Canadian east coast.
- Below Her Mouth: Though it's set in Toronto, you'd find it hard to notice if you didn't know.
- Clara: Except for the mere mention that it's set in Toronto, the film never displays any signs that this is Canada.
- 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".
- Are You Afraid of the Dark? was filmed in Canada, but had the same portrayal as the Goosebumps example below.
- In an episode involving a ghost train, however, locomotives and rolling stock with VIA Rail Canada and Canadian National lettering and paint schemes feature prominently; in addition, a soldier on board the ghost train wears an ambiguous khaki uniform that isn't quite American or Canadian.
- 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 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.
- Fortitude might be a rare non-North American version of this trope, and a weak one at that. Yes, you see the Norwegian flag flying, several major characters are Norwegian and have Norwegian names, there are references to "the mainland", the two fictional communities on the island strongly resemble their real-life counterparts, and lutefisk is mentioned and even eaten at one point. But ... the Norwegian characters almost always speak English, even among themselves, no particular unit of currency is ever mentioned, the research station on the island seems to be run by the British government, and no one ever says "Norway" or any other placename in that country. In short, if you didn't actually know the archipelago of Svalbard or the island of Spitsbergen actually exist, you'd be forgiven for assuming the show's setting is completely fictional and not entirely part of Norway.
- Goosebumps: Toronto, Canada was one of the series' primary filming locations, but most episodes were set in a vaguely North American town. The "Don't Go To Sleep" episode had a shouty hockey coach that Canadian audiences will immediately recognize as hockey commentator Don Cherry. To Americans, however, he's simply a weird red-faced man who keeps yelling.
- 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: Originally broadcast both on CTV and NBC, causing its Canada-ness to be muted in the first season—though this was at least partially subverted with prominent views of the Toronto skyline (which an American viewer might or might not recognize); also, when the main character gives a homeless man a dollar, it's a coin. Nonetheless, references to Canada were deliberately changed in the closed captions for the American market. Averted with a vengeance from the second season onward (after NBC canceled the series), 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. Eagle-eyed viewers, however, will still spot "Canadian Content" such as Canadian style railroad crossing signs, police wearing Canadian-style uniforms with red cap bands and trouser stripes, and Roland wearing a Commonwealth-style mayoral collar.
- 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.
- Both of Rick Siggelkow's Adaptation Expansion series, Shining Time Station and The Noddy Shop, are filmed in Canada but appear to take place in the United States (in the latter case, the titular store was based on a real antique store in upstate New York). However, in some cases they do mess up-one episode of The Noddy Shop had a scene where a character pronounced the letter Z as "Zed", instead of the American "Zee".
- A notable aversion may be Private Eyes, a 2016 Detective Drama and Ion Original, in the USA, centering on a retired sports star using his remaining clout and fame to get where his actual Private Detective partner can't. His sport? Hockey. Their city? Actually, obviously, Toronto, skyline, flags, and all. The fact Ion imported it is rather baffling.
- The CBC courtroom drama This is Wonderland made a point of not doing this, being pretty unambiguously set not only in Toronto, but in the Old City Hall Courthouse. It did, however, provide subtle Expo Speak for some very regionally-specific things, like when Elliot, despite being a lawyer, didn't know that a G1 driver's license was equivalent to a learner's permit. This may have been more for the benefit of viewers in other provinces than in the States, though.
- In The Tribe, which was filmed in New Zealand, the show was set in a vaguely-defined place called simply "The City". Most of the characters spoke with New Zealand accents (and those that didn't had British or American ones), the scenery was obviously New Zealand, and the money though rarely shown was British banknotes. But New Zealand definitely did not exist.
- A short video documentary, whose title, Vancouver Never Plays Itself, pretty much invokes this trope, was uploaded to the Internet in 2015.
- Qwerpline is intentionally vague as to whether it takes place in America or LoadingReadyRun's native Canada. Even the characters in the show don't seem to know; there's a running gag in one episode that nobody knows whether the drinking age is 19 or 21 and they eventually just declare it a "grey area".
- Comedian Julie Nolke is Canadian, but her sketches often obscure this fact and get presented from an American point of view. For example, her viral "Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self" series focuses largely on local American events, like the California wildfires and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
- Brandon's Cult Movie Reviews makes a running gag out of pointing out these kinds of discrepancies in Canadian-made movies, many of which will try very hard to pass as American-made. Brandon himself is from Saskatchewan.
- This is a very common trend with Canadian animated series, especially those aimed at children, with the settings of most shows usually being a relatively nondescript North American town and the characters giving no indication of being Canadian in any way. It's arguably much easier to list Canadian cartoons that are openly stated to be set in Canada than it is to list those that aren't.
- 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.