Friday, July 01, 2005

Thoughts on the Maple Leaf

Like I said (below... I hate how blogs arrange things), it's Canada Day. Canada, as a federal union, is 138 years old today. We have had our own flag for just over 40 years now, as of February 15, 1965. Of course, everyone is familiar with the current flag...

But how many people these days are aware that we had a rather different flag before 1965? I think this is lost on many people just a little younger than me. This was never my flag; I was born under the Maple Leaf. But when I was younger, I had a special affinity for the old Red Ensign. It was the flag of a Twilight Zone Canada I never knew.

This was nearly our flag. When Prime Minister Lester Pearson set out in 1964 to give us our own flag in time for the Centennial (1967), this was the design he favoured. The sprig of three maple leaves is traditional, particularly to Quebec and Ontario (it still appears on Ontario's flag). You can also see it in the Red Ensign above, which features Canada's coat of arms.

While this, too, is not my flag, and the design of the leaves is hideous, I do sometimes find myself wishing the blue had made it onto the flag we have today... either one or both bars in blue. Many of the flags of free countries are red, white, and blue, and we would not have been out of place among them. But then I reflect on how beautiful our flag is in the wind... how alive it looks in red... how much it looks like flame. And then I can really only regret instead that blue, no matter how lovely, could never give me the same catch in the throat of that rippling, living flame.

Here's a revision to the Canadian flag, proposed in 1995, that incorporates blue in the design. It's not bad. But I guess it's too late in history; that ship has sailed. I'm not one to change our flag every generation or two.

I have a book about the history of the Flag Debate, and it features a number of the designs Canadians proposed over the years. Some are a testament to bland mediocrity, all character stripped away in an attempt to offend no one. Others are crammed with references to every ethnic group that ever found its way to these shores. Religious symbols. Animals. Union Jacks, fleurs-de-lys. Stripes, stars, mountains, lakes, Natives, and the ubiquitous maple leaf itself. When I look at them and see what we might have been stuck with, I'm deeply thankful we found the wisdom to adopt the flag we did. It gave us a symbol, the stylized leaf, that's unique, instantly recognizable, and infinitely utilitarian as a graphic element. I believe Canada is better known in the world simply by dint of having such a singularly striking flag. But if you're interested in seeing some of the bullets we dodged, click here.

If you would like to know a little bit about the stormy labour that gave birth to the flag, the CBC has a wonderful retrospective site about just how difficult it actually was.

14 comments:

RobfromAlberta said...

I was born the same year as the Red Maple Leaf and as national flags go, it has to be one of the worst in the world. Even the boring old three-coloured fields flags that so many European countries use are better than ours. What does it represent? Is the whole of our nation summed up by a tree? The Red Ensign better represents my Canada.

Lone Primate said...

There are very few people who'd agree with you, apart from Canadians who didn't want to change the flag in the first place. A good place to see the high regard in which our flag is held is any site considering Australia nationalizing its flag. Our flag, its clean design, and instant recognizability, feature prominently in most discussions of what Australia should aspire to. In fact, flags designed in a 2:1 ration with a white square in the middle are now referred to as "Canadian pale".

Canada's flag before 1965 was Hong Kong's flag was Bermuda's flag. Only tiny details difficult to see at even a moderate distance differentiated them. More important, it was taken as a sign of where we were psychologically. It was fine for Lester Pearson to come up with the idea of the UN peacekeeping force during the Suez Crisis (which involved Britain and France). But when it was proposed that Canadian troops feature among it, Egypt declined, noting that one glance at our flag put the lie to any suggestion of our neutrality. It plainly said we were still Mother England's little boy. We needed our own flag.

Since 1965, we have removed the racial quotas for immigration, and we are no longer a land of English and French with a few Natives, Italians, and Poles thrown in for kicks. We have taken up the duty of maintaining our own constitution, and enshrined a charter of rights and freedoms beyond the reach of casual legislation into it. We have ceased to be automatically enjoined in the imperial exploits of either the United Kingdom or the United States, but keep our own counsel and follow it. Blacks, Asians, and women -- both foreign-born and native -- have held our highest offices and vice-regal positions. And we have removed the last impediments to ordinary Canadians sharing their lives, their property, and their affections in a legal union in the full dignity of any other. If the Red Ensign represents your Canada, Rob, then I have to tell you that your Canada ceased to exist a long time ago.

RobfromAlberta said...

But when it was proposed that Canadian troops feature among it, Egypt declined, noting that one glance at our flag put the lie to any suggestion of our neutrality.

Fine by me, Canadian "neutrality" is a wet-dream of a few leftist urban elitists and virtually nobody else in Canada. The democratic ideals this country is based on came from British Parliamentary traditions. The Queen of England is still our head of state. We still proudly participate in the Commonwealth. My Canada may not exist in your neighbourhood, but it's alive and well in Antigonish, NS, Brockville, ON and North Battleford, SK.

RobfromAlberta said...

Blacks, Asians, and women -- both foreign-born and native -- have held our highest offices and vice-regal positions. And we have removed the last impediments to ordinary Canadians sharing their lives, their property, and their affections in a legal union in the full dignity of any other. If the Red Ensign represents your Canada, Rob, then I have to tell you that your Canada ceased to exist a long time ago.

Minorities in Canada owe a debt of gratitude to the traditions represented by the Red Ensign. The culture of tolerance we have achieved in this country is the direct result of the culture of compromise we needed to bring English and French together in one nation.

Lone Primate said...

Canadian "neutrality" is a wet-dream of a few leftist urban elitists and virtually nobody else in Canada... My Canada may not exist in your neighbourhood, but it's alive and well in Antigonish, NS, Brockville, ON and North Battleford, SK.

I rather imagine that any number of young soldiers from Antigonish, Brockville, North Battleford et al. have, by now, donned the blue helmet and stood neutrally without prejudice or emnity between opposing forces and by doing so, living the "wet dream" that has saved countless lives... This stands in sharp contrast to others who do not understand the concept or consider themselves too godlike to be handicapped by it, wade into places such as, say, Somalia, where they promptly pick "good guys" and "bad guys", start a fight with one or the other, and get their soldiers dragged through the streets as a result. Canada is nowhere (or almost nowhere) as sophomoric in its attitudes as you seem to think it is; it hasn't been for a long time. If push comes to shove, fine... we'll be there. But we ourselves are not the pushin' kind, thank God.

Lone Primate said...

Minorities in Canada owe a debt of gratitude to the traditions represented by the Red Ensign.

The flag that flew over the various Asian exclusion acts, the legality of barring blacks from theatres in Nova Scotia, over a Supreme Court that ruled women were not legal persons, that disenfranchised Natives till 1960, that maintained racial quotas to keep Canada white until 1967, never compensated Canadians of Japanese origin from whom all was taken without cause or due process... Very little is owned by minorities of this country today to the one that hoisted that flag. Far, far more is due the nation that adopted the current banner.

RobfromAlberta said...

I rather imagine that any number of young soldiers from Antigonish, Brockville, North Battleford et al. have, by now, donned the blue helmet and stood neutrally without prejudice or emnity between opposing forces and by doing so

Sure, when we have no vested interest in the outcome, such as in Cyprus, our peacekeepers are pretty even-handed. But neutrality with respect to Turkish vs. Greek Cypriots is a very trivial form of neutrality. That is not what I was referring to at all and you know it. I was of course, referring to neutrality with respect to the global community and especially our traditional allies. If we are truly neutral, we must, at least occasionally, oppose them and when have we ever done that? Even in the current war in Iraq, though we disagree with the war, there is no question on which side the country stands. Except for the far-left howler monkeys flining their fecal matter at every American action, most Canadians hope the Americans are successful and that a stable, peaceful and democratic government can be established in Iraq. We are not neutral (even Chretien said so).

Very little is owned by minorities of this country today to the one that hoisted that flag. Far, far more is due the nation that adopted the current banner.

Like all western democracies, Canada has made mistakes, but the foundations of this country, democracy, British common law, freedom of religion, the very things that make Canada attractive to immigrants, all arose from the traditions represented by the Red Ensign. It is ironic that some of your examples were also reversed while we still had the Red Ensign (i.e. legal persons ruling overturned in 1929, Chinese immigration act repealed in 1947).

Lone Primate said...

Sure, when we have no vested interest in the outcome, such as in Cyprus, our peacekeepers are pretty even-handed. But neutrality with respect to Turkish vs. Greek Cypriots is a very trivial form of neutrality. That is not what I was referring to at all and you know it.

No, but if you'll recall, is is what I was referring to, remember? I was talking about Egypt suggesting our trustworthiness in the enterprise of peacekeeping between them and the Anglo-French force was suspect, since we were wearing our allegiance rather visibly on our sleeve, as it were (it's one of the reasons Pearson always gave for wanting to give Canada its own distinctive flag, and he had a point). You're the one who, for no reason at all, seemed determined to inflate the point to be all-encompassing, which wasn't what I mean, and you know it -- or should. I was making a point about our independence and you basically equated it to little short of standing perfectly still while Martians eat our daughters or something. Long and short: our flag means we no longer automatically lend our support to anyone else willy-nilly, and no one can use it to question our motives. The Red Ensign did not, could not, accomplish that. It had to go.


If we are truly neutral, we must, at least occasionally, oppose them and when have we ever done that?

Vietnam in the 1960s, opposition to conciliatory British policy on Apartheid in the 1980s, opposition to French nuclear tests in the south Pacific, territorial fishing rights against the EU in general and Spain in particular in the 1990s; any number of times. We have our own standards, our own moral compass, our own interests. Our flag reflects that, and rightly ought to.


Even in the current war in Iraq, though we disagree with the war, there is no question on which side the country stands.

You're right; there isn't: we disagree with the war, and by a wide margin. It's rather disingenuous to equate not wanting Iraq to be immolated by either foreign or domestic means with supporting US actions there.


Like all western democracies, Canada has made mistakes, but the foundations of this country, democracy, British common law, freedom of religion, the very things that make Canada attractive to immigrants, all arose from the traditions represented by the Red Ensign.

And they are still represented by the Canadian flag today, and rather better served. And no, not all the traditions that make us attractive are attributable to Britain, much less to a flag representing it. There are no ironclad constitutional guarantees of rights in the UK. They remain the fiat of Parliament, and are much more easily abridged, as any number of Irish nationalists and their families can attest. If people want to move to Britain, they'll move to Britain. If they want to move to Canada, they'll move to Canada.


It is ironic that some of your examples were also reversed while we still had the Red Ensign (i.e. legal persons ruling overturned in 1929

Not under the Red Ensign it wasn't. That ruling came from outside the parochial nation that did not have its own flag, or even its own court of last appeal. Now if you're going to crow that Britain saved women, then you're actually condemning the backward nation Canada still was under the flag you champion. We grew up, became Britain's peer, and like them, got a flag of our own.


Chinese immigration act repealed in 1947).

On the road to a new flag, the nation slowly matured. The Red Ensign was at best the cocoon of the nation's pupal stage. The flag we have today is our wings.

RobfromAlberta said...

Vietnam in the 1960s, opposition to conciliatory British policy on Apartheid in the 1980s, opposition to French nuclear tests in the south Pacific, territorial fishing rights against the EU in general and Spain in particular in the 1990s;

If non-participation and diplomatic disagreements constitute neutrality, I guess every country in the world is neutral.

RobfromAlberta said...

The Red Ensign was at best the cocoon of the nation's pupal stage. The flag we have today is our wings.

Fair enough, but I still can't help thinking it would be more appropriate to an arbourist society than a country.

Lone Primate said...
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Lone Primate said...

Vietnam in the 1960s, opposition to conciliatory British policy on Apartheid in the 1980s, opposition to French nuclear tests in the south Pacific, territorial fishing rights against the EU in general and Spain in particular in the 1990s

If non-participation and diplomatic disagreements constitute neutrality, I guess every country in the world is neutral.


Not not-participation in these cases, Rob; dispute. The standing-up-for-one's-rights-and-those-of-others you would demand of the country. Based on principle, not blood or ancient ties. This is the essential difference between the Canada of the Red Ensign and the Canada of the Maple Leaf. You ought to celebrate it. It is the difference between slavish obligation in the former case and free conscience in the latter.

RobfromAlberta said...

Not not-participation in these cases, Rob; dispute. The standing-up-for-one's-rights-and-those-of-others you would demand of the country.

Did we recall our ambassador over Vietnam? Hardly. This is what Wikipedia has to say about Canada and Vietnam:

"Canada's official diplomatic position was as a non-participant, but the country was not neutral in the conflict: it professed explicit support for the United States. Canada was also a major supplier of equipment and supplies to the American forces. Under UN rules Canada could not send these directly to South Vietnam, but they could sell them to the United States. Throughout the Vietnam War Canadian manufacturers profited greatly from the conflict. These included relatively benign items like boots and whiskey, but also napalm and Agent Orange the use of which was fiercely opposed by antiwar protesters at the time. Between 1965 and 1973 Canada sold some $2.5 billion worth of matériel to the American forces. Canada also allowed their NATO ally to use Canadian facilities and bases for training exercises and weapons testing."

Did we call for sanctions on Britain over aparthied? Again, no. Sure, we grew a spine in our fishing dispute with Spain, but so what? We have no traditional ties to Spain.

It is the difference between slavish obligation in the former case and free conscience in the latter.

We trade slavish obligation to the British Empire for slavish obligation to the UN, not a deal I would have made.

Lone Primate said...

I'm sorry if the fact that Canada didn't actually build the Bomb and nuke Washington and London to register our displeasure is insufficient for you, but that's how it goes. But once again these debates become bogged down in the minutia.

You've lost sight of the point you were making, which was that the Red Ensign represented a Canada you consider superior to the once since 1965. Without recognizing it, you cite as an example a Canada whose citizens were increasingly of the opinion that Vietnam was an unjust war, whose active involvement provided shelter and comfort to Americans who fled it, but whose "official" principles you cheer were to quietly facilitate that war in order for rich Canadians to profit from the death and destruction being sewn there. This is a principle you admire?

You would rather pledge allegiance to an organization that was for three hundred years a near-prefect engine dedicated to subjugating as much of the world as possible to the whim and will of a few million blue-eyed white people on a tiny island and deliver up to them as much of the world's wealth as feasible, instead of an admittedly not-quite-so-perfect organization aimed at improving the human condition worldwide... or at the very least, preventing or limiting wars between people and ameliorating untold human suffering in the attempt.

You yearn for a Canada that freely committed real injustices that had to be corrected later, rather than one that actively works and plans not to commit such acts in the first place.

You prefer a flag that openly declares that we are not our own people, but a subset of another; a grown child so unsure of itself it sees to it that its old bedroom be maintained, complete with the model airplanes and clown wallpaper.

The Red Ensign is nothing to be ashamed of. But it's nothing to celebrate, either. It was the banner of our adolescence; and the Canada it stood for a gawky youth still trying to work out its values and discover its own character under the excessive baggage of Britain and in the glare of the United States. I believe in our lifetimes, that's largely been accomplished, though we continue to evolve. Canada has changed a lot since the 1960s, and to my mind, mostly for the better.