As young man I used to remain sitting, usually conspicuously, whenever the Canadian anthem was played. It wasn’t that I had a particular aversion to the song, or to others singing it. And it certainly wasn’t because I didn’t see myself as part of the country’s mainstream — I had, after all, been an active member of the Progressive Conservatives since I was 14.
The silent protests began one day when I walked into a university lecture room and read from the blackboard a statement left from a previous class: “Nationalism is a cheap instinct, and a dangerous one, too.” I never did learn the source of the quote, but it has continued to stick in my mind all these many years later. Perhaps it was reinforced by the often vicious debate that took place in Canada in 1964-65 when former prime minister Lester Pearson proposed that the country adopt its own flag design instead of continuing to fly the Red Ensign, which included the Union Jack, a continual reminder, especially to French Canadians, about the British influence in Canada.
I eventually came to terms with my own needs to protest and I happily stand and sing the anthem. What changed? I suppose more than anything it was being able to realize that I am deeply grateful that I was born Canadian, and also the understanding that I had nothing to do with it — being born in this country is akin to winning a prenatal lottery. We arrive in a society of privilege, one that is quite tolerant and that offers much to those whom, out of pure luck, were born into it.
It was with that sense of gratitude that I stood at the community complex on Sunday and sang O Canada. Standing in the downpour a few minutes earlier, member of Parliament David Wilks had handed over new flags to several groups and the bright red and white added colour beneath the grey, water-laden skies.
The youthful protester in me, however, couldn’t resist thinking back to that quote about nationalism. It had returned to my memory a couple of months ago when I sorted through a stack of mail and found a mail-out from Wilks. Sent out at taxpayers’ expense, the flyer was little more than advertisement for Canadian nationalism (which dictionaries tend to define as a more intense word than patriotism). It included a reproduction of the Canadian flag (which many in English Canada derisively referred to as Pearson’s Penant for decades after it was adopted), which constituents were encouraged to clip out and display in a window. It also included a request for recipients to respond to a survey that asked whether they planned to display the flag as suggested.
So what exactly were MPs (I assume that this wasn’t strictly an initiative that came out of Wilks’s office) hoping to accomplish with this mail-out, which almost certainly would fuel cynicism when placed in context of federal cuts to services and employment, and which also arrived during the controversy over the absurdly and unnecessarily far-reaching omnibus budget bill? I can only guess that the flag promotion was intended to distract Canadians from negative news reports and remind us that, even though we might disagree with that actions of our governments, we are extraordinarily lucky to live here.
Whatever the motivation for the mailer, it didn’t seem to gain much traction. Wilks said in it that he thought it might be possible that every home in Kootenay-Columbia would display the paper flag in a window. For a while afterward, I kept an eye out whenever I was driving. The truth is that I didn’t see a single one on display. No doubt some residents did put a flag in their window, but the fact is that the promotion didn’t gain any traction.
No doubt there are many, many reasons for the failure and I won’t bother to suggest any. Personally, I’m not thrilled when any government spends money to encourage me to think or feel in a particular way. I’m more likely to respect governing parties that work hard to communicate with constituents and rule with compassion as well as fiscal responsibility. The idea of a mass mail-out clip-and-display flag is one that Wilks and other MPs should wave goodbye to.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.