Each year brings with it a variety of milestones and anniversaries, some naturally more important than others. But it’s which events we decide to commemorate over others that says a lot about who we are as a society.
In Canada, 2015 is the year our beloved Maple Leaf Flag, perhaps the most identifiable and patriotic emblem of our nation, will celebrate its 50th Anniversary as the national symbol of our values at home and abroad. Of all the events to celebrate this year, this should be one of the most important. Yet most curiously and rather disappointingly, our federal government has made little effort to recognize this great moment in Canadian history (less than one month away), which says a lot about how the Harper Government views the legacy of modern Canada that our flag represents.
On Feb. 15, 1965 the culmination of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s quest to have Canada adopt its own unique flag reached fruition and signalled a new era for our country. As he’s quoted from 1964, “I believe most sincerely that it is now time for Canadians to unfurl a flag that is truly distinctive and truly national in character; a flag which cannot be mistaken for the emblem of any other country, a flag of the future which honours the past; Canada’s own and only Canada’s.”
Up until that point Canadians were used to the Union Jack as Canada’s default flag, but Pearson set about to change all that. Despite considerable opposition, including from former PM John Diefenbaker, the new Maple Leaf Flag made its glorious entrance that fateful day in 1965 and has since been one of the most defining features of our sense of Canadian identity. Having our own flag not only meant a unique sense of personality for our young nation away from British colonial influence, but it represented and continues to this day to represent values of tolerance, peacekeeping, compassion and freedom that so many of us cherish as citizens of Canada. Ask any tourist with a Maple Leaf sewn onto their backpacks and they will tell just how important that solitary red leaf is and what it means to them.
So why has there been such little fanfare? The federal government allotted just $50,000 for celebrations of the flag. It’s no secret that Stephen Harper has long held a resentment of the Liberal Party and its policies, and since coming to power in 2006 he’s slowly but steadily changed Ottawa from a town painted red to a more aggressive blue capital. The Conservatives have celebrated other historical events, but their choice of what to celebrate leaves many scratching their heads. By comparison, $28 million was spent on the War of 1812 bicentennial anniversary, which saw collector coins and numerous events throughout the year being held in recognition of a war which actually occurred before Canada existed. Surely the majority of Canadians today can’t relate to a conflict that really wasn’t that instrumental in shaping our modern nation. The British and Canadian Aboriginal groups fighting together against the U.S. was a strategic maneuver for both sides, not because they saw themselves “united” as Canadians. After all, the very notion of Canadian didn’t exist. Yet the celebration of our national flag on its 50th birthday, a milestone we can all relate and appreciate, is being snubbed.
Is it because it was a Liberal Party achievement? This is certainly a plausible explanation. In dominating federal politics for the majority of the 20th century, the Liberals were the leading authors of the Canadian narrative and the core values we were all taught as being inherently Canadian (peacekeeping, multiculturalism, bilingualism, quality universal health care, co-operation etc.) indeed stemmed from Liberal governments. Regardless, they have been entrenched in our collective psyche, but Harper has challenged it head on. From his foreign policy to such small yet profound changes like changing the name of the Air Force and Navy back to “Royal,” his government has made it clear that the Canada we all knew was fashioned in the wrong path. No longer on the world stage can Canada be seen as moderate, middle grounders, but instead as an emerging Warrior Nation, precisely the type that celebrates events like the War of 1812.
Pearson wanted a flag that would be unique to us bereft of colonial symbols, yet Harper’s renaming of our armed forces indicates a desire to cling to the past. The 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the patriation of our Constitution, Liberal PM Pierre Trudeau’s brain child, were also brushed over despite the fact it advanced our Canadian democracy. With the lack of commemoration of our flag, we must again wonder how Harper views Canadian history.
The 50th anniversary of the Maple Leaf Flag is an event all Canadians should be proud to celebrate. Our flag is not just a tricolour with a leaf in the centre, but a representation of what we hold dear in this country and how far we have come from being a British colony. We’re the envy of the world and wave our flag with pride for all that Canada is. Unfortunately, our PM has shown contempt for a narrative he detests and therefore any accomplishment that has contributed to a Canada he hasn’t approved of cannot be rightfully celebrated.
While our government will most likely let this important anniversary pass without any major appreciation, we must take it upon ourselves to say proudly as Lester Pearson said: “I stand with Canada!”