Despite our nation’s love of Tim Hortons coffee and the game of hockey, or the frequency with which national animals such as caribou, beavers, or loons appear on our coinage, there is one Canadian symbol that outdoes all others in the level of recognition it finds around the globe: the Canadian national flag.
We are not unique in our love of our flag – most nations look to their own with the same reverence. However, few nations boast a flag so revered beyond its own borders. A flag that is hailed for what it represents both within Canada and beyond, worn proudly by Canadians at home and abroad, and worn for better treatment and protection by non-Canadian travelers in distant lands.
Our flag is a symbol that is emblematic of the Canadian traditions of peace, order, and good government, as well as the celebration of diversity and equality for all within our shared borders. On this day, the 50th anniversary of its first use, it should be celebrated in particular.
And yet, because the creation of the flag was a campaign commitment by a Liberal Party Leader and instituted by a Liberal government, the Conservatives on Parliament Hill have chosen to ignore the 50th anniversary of our most cherished national symbol and the uniquely Canadian way in which it came to play that role.
The Star Spangled Spectacular
Canadians, despite being an extremely patriotic people, are not widely known for that patriotism because of the understated ways we typically tend to express it. To our south in the United States of America, patriotism is expressed differently.
In late June 2014, I visited Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. It was the week of Independence Day and the U.S. was taking part in the World Cup, which meant that America’s capital (Washington) and the home of its national anthem (Baltimore) were in full-blow patriotic fervor.
It also happened to be a few months out from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore, which had the city preparing for the bi-partisan anniversary celebration of the American national anthem (and the flag it is about) dubbed the ‘Star Spangled Spectacular‘.
Growing up in Canada I’d obviously learned about the War of 1812 of which that battle played a role. However, on the historic trolley ride through Baltimore that week I heard the war called ‘America’s Second War for Independence’. I’d always understood the conflict to have begun through a declaration of war by the Americans with the front line moving back and forth until the war eventually ceased in 1815 after many human casualties, the burning of the White House, and the acquisition of President Madison’s dinner by British forces.
The trolley tour, which took us past the building where the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was stitched as well as out to Fort McHenry where the famous flag ‘yet waved’, and the tall ship tour that brought us out into the harbour where the canon fire was exchanged, both highlighted the incredible power of symbolic narrative that the American people have so expertly perfected.
The effect of that narrative hit harder still when I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and entered the Star Spangled Banner Exhibit. The exhibit, with a moderately lit entry hallway and exit hallway, and a hallway just for the flag itself, chronicles the history of the flag from the time it was sewn by Mary Pickersgill, flown at Fort McHenry, and eventually cut up and given away until it was decided it should be kept for future generations. There are even references to renditions of the famous Francis Scott Key poem-turned-national-anthem by Jimi Hendrix and Whitney Houston.
But the most impressive moment is when you turn a dark corner to see the entire 30 by 42 foot, 200 year old flag stretched out in front of you. Even as a Canadian, I was speechless. Each star on the flag stretches two feet across and the extreme wear of both the Battle of Baltimore and the time passed since the night of the rocket’s red glare is powerful.
I walked through the halls of Congress and along the grass at Arlington, stood in front of the White House and under Lincoln’s shadow at his Memorial, but the most powerful display of patriotism I saw during that entire trip was rounding the corner to see the Star Spangled Banner lying before me. That is the power of a national flag.
The Maple Leaf Forever
The history of our national flag reflects our national history in much the same way the American flag reflects theirs.
America was born out of a war of independence and their later anthem, great love of their flag, and national identity as the ‘United States of America’ rather than an assortment of post-colonial states, all follows from the same narrative of fighting for freedom. In Canada, we negotiated our nationhood in 1867, came into our own through our own war-time poem (about poppies) as well as the important role we played in post World War diplomacy, and eventually settled on our national flag through nation-wide public submissions a committee of Parliament.
With the American celebration fresh in my mind, I hoped to see a fitting tribute given to our own flag on its 50th birthday this year.
Instead, Canadians were left with a website last updated in spring 2014, a statement from the Prime Minister that somehow actually makes no mention of the historic selection of the flag despite being a statement about the anniversary marking the selection of the flag, and what is the equivalent of a high school trophy case at the Canadian Museum of History ‘highlighting’ the history of the flag (an institution previously known as the Museum of Civilization before that was deemed too extreme a concept for the current Conservative government).
History Written by the Victors
As there was no national celebration of the Canadian flag today, I tuned in to a Liberal Party rally in Mississauga via livestream that was held to fill the void left by a negligent government that refused to acknowledge the origin of our most cherished national symbol today because it was not a Conservative government that made it happen. The Liberals staged a similar event when this same government refused to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights, for the simple reason that it was not a Conservative government that made those rights law.
The Prime Minister did manage to make it out to the Bicentennial Celebration of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth last month. But of course, we all know which party our first Prime Minister belonged to. According to the Globe and Mail, the federal government spent just $50,000 to mark the 50th anniversary of the flag but $4 million to mark the bicentennial of our first Prime Minister’s birth.
During today’s rally Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau touched on an important point when discussing Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s takeaway from the end of armed conflict between the French and English settlers within what is now Canada:
In what other country, he asked, would a monument commemorate equally both sides of a battle, where the names on each side were equally honoured and equally respected? In that moment, Laurier wasn’t just looking back at a war between the English and the French. He was looking forward to what precedent had been set since it ended. That’s the vision we’ve all inherited. The idea that we must look forward with a shared purpose. Generation after generation of new Canadians have renewed that inheritance over and over again ever since.
Canada’s history is not perfect, nor is our retelling of it. However, I truly believe that as a people we continue to strive to be better, and to get better at recognizing and acknowledging when we are not. Whether it is in discussion of our successes or more troubling times in our history like residential schools and internment operations, our history must be an open book without partisan bias or traumas some might rather remain hidden, so that we may learn from our past as a nation.
World history is full of attempts to ignore or cover up events that a sitting government may not want to acknowledge. Whether it is as extreme as the Holocaust or the Holodomor, or as small as the disappearance of Trotsky and others from photos with Stalin during his regime, the saying saying that ‘history is written by the victors’ is often the rule. But in a free and democratic society, it should not. And on the 50th anniversary of our most cherished symbol, it should not.
Canada’s history belongs to all Canadians and the celebration of that history should never be selectively honoured by the government of the day. Yet today we know of at least 3,950,000 ways that is exactly what is happening.