Monday, October 01, 2012

In days of yore, from Britain's shore...

Something else that's been in the news lately is that there's a plan in the wind for Canada to start sharing diplomatic digs with Britain. It's not just a story here; I've seen it written up in The Guardian in Britain as well. This policy is to be undertaken, at least at first, in countries where "one of the nations does not have an embassy", so we're talking about fairly small countries that have not been afforded either a Canadian or a British embassy. No big deal.

There's been some negative response to this. The Globe and Mail, here in Toronto, has wondered if this is a return to the colonial past. Paul Heinbecker, one of our former ambassadors to Germany, has said that "We have an incompatible brand with the UK," pointing to differences on Bosnia and apartheid in South Africa, as well as our perception in the Middle East. On the on hand, it's been pointed out that Britain and Canada already have this kind of thing going on at an ad hoc level in two or three places, and that Britain has similar arrangements with both France and Germany. And while that may all be true, on the other hand, France and Germany don't have the kind of imperial history with Britain that Canada does, and everything that that implies in the world.

Canada has spent a long time slowly emerging from the shadow of Britain in particular. We've only been fully equal and diplomatically independent since the 1920s; we didn't retire the Union Jack from its place on the national flag until 1965; technically we still had to bother the British Parliament to amend our constitution for us until 1982 (which was embarrassing for us and zero-value legislative pain in the ass chore for them). Officially, our head of state is still designated by an act of British law that we and 15 other countries, including the UK, are mutually bound to and can only change by unanimous consent (such as the long-overdue proposed change, currently in the works, to allow the first born of whichever sex to succeed, instead of the oldest boy). Lately, the federal government has resurrected the official names of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy that were quietly retired back around the time I was born. It all adds up to something I'm a little uncomfortable with, despite the fact that's it's largely in sync with my own heritage.

I keep wondering, for instance, if Canadians would be as blase about the suggestion that we were about to start sharing embassies with the United States. I think Canadians would get up on their high horse about our independence on the world stage in that case. But in this case, not so much. It should be a concern. It was a Canadian, Lester Pearson, who created the concept of UN peacekeeping forces in response to the Suez Crisis. And yet, Egyptian president Abdel Nasser refused to have Canadian troops among them. He pointed to the Canadian flag at the time, the Red Ensign (below; 1921-1957 green leaf version), which featured the Union Jack in the canton and a coat of arms in the fly making specific references to England, Scotland, Ireland, and France, and said—with good reason—that Canada was suspect as a neutral party. Given that two of the countries Nasser was fighting, Britain and France, were the founding European countries of modern Canada, that was arguably a good call regardless of what our flag looked like. But the point is, symbols are chosen for a reason: they mean something. What is Canada saying to the world in first of all being too poor to represent itself anywhere it chooses to, and secondly, flying the Maple Leaf beside the Union Jack again? What is that saying to Canadians who aren't of British heritage? To new Canadians from other backgrounds? To francophone Canadians in general, and in particular, to Quebec?

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