Dear Americans: You Don’t Understand What the Burger King-Tim Hortons Merger Means to Canadians

Tim Hortons is a core component of the amorphous “Canadian identity”

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PETER JONES/Reuters/Corbis

This morning Burger King and Tim Hortons inked a deal for a $12.5 billion merger. Pending shareholder approval, Burger King's CEO will be the head boss, and the two companies will be left to operate more or less independently.

To most of you this news is, probably, the most boring thing you've seen in weeks. At most, it's a story about a hamburger chain you only sort of like buying a weird coffee shop you might sometimes see in the Northeast. At worst, it's a chance to talk about the thrilling economic importance of tax inversions.

But to Canadians this deal means so, so much more. To Canadians, Tim Hortons—or Timmy's, or even just Tim's—isn't just a coffee and doughnut shop. It's a core component of the Canadian cultural identity—a part of Canadian identity that just got bought by a burger joint that people don't even really like all that much.

For comparison, this is like a British company coming over to America and buying Smith & Wesson or Jack Daniel's or Ford—if those companies didn't just sell iconic American products but also happened to be the all-around top hang-out spot in the country. In Canada, Tim Hortons is bigger than McDonalds. There are nearly three Tim Hortons for every StarbucksThere's a Tim Hortons store for every 10,000 Canadians

Tim Hortons is a big deal, but not just for its restaurants. The chain, which just turned 50 this year, is “a Canadian institution older than this country’s flag.” The coffee and doughnut chain was started by a former professional hockey player in southwestern Ontario, and the company has used Canadian iconography to cement itself as a cultural touchstone ever since.

There hasn't been this much Canadiana jammed into a 60 second commercial slot since Molson's famous “I Am Canadian” commercial in 2000.

(For what it's worth, Molson merged with American brewer Coors in 2005.)

There are very few things that bind Canadians together. Canada is a huge country with a small population, and from coast to coast to coast it's split between 15 different ecozones, nearly a dozen official languages—from English and French to Inuktitut and Cree*—and myriad ways of life. Most Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border, and it takes federally mandated legislation to keep Canadian airwaves from being overwhelmed by the much larger U.S. media.

“Canadian diversity has resulted in the lack of a cohesive national identity,” say Jessica Barry and Yasmin Manji writing in Strathy Student Working Papers on Canadian English:

“Nevertheless, Canadians seem to agree on three aspects of their identity: their separateness from the United States, their love of hockey, and their affection for Tim Hortons coffee and baked goods. Tim Hortons secured its position in Canada by associating itself with the other established aspects of the Canadian identity. The lack of a more concrete Canadian identity enabled Tim Hortons to fill the void. By doing so, Tim Hortons has become part of the answer to the question “What makes a Canadian?” Canadians can now accurately be described as a people who drink their double-doubles while watching a hockey match between the United States and Canada. (And we all know who they're cheering for.)”

This isn't the first time Tim Hortons has flirted with American companies, nor will it mark the company's first foray onto American soil—the chain opened its first U.S. restaurant in Tonawanda, New York, back in 1984. Yet despite these dalliances, Tim Hortons has held on to its image as a home brewed Canadian icon, loved not just for what it is, but for what it's not.

*This sentence was updated for clarity.

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