What should our national symbols be?
Reassuring and familiar, to judge from the final results of this week's Globe and Mail/Facebook poll.
The (admittedly unscientific) Canada Day survey seemed to find Canadians at their most tradition-loving and change-resistant. Or, if you prefer, at their most contented and immune to trendy provocation.
National animal? The beaver, of course. National plant? The sugar maple. National team? The 1972 Team Canada squad, whose sweater was decorated with the national plant just to reinforce their claim to your vote. National item of clothing? The tuque, edging out the lumber jacket. National dish? A bit of a wild card: Poutine won in a romp, which may or may not just be another way of saying beer. Put maple syrup on the ballot, though, and all bets are off.
Those B.C. spot prawns, donairs, stinging nettles and Lululemon togs didn't stand a chance. David Suzuki made a compelling scientific and socio-political case for the wild blueberry but it still couldn't come close to the inescapably iconic sugar maple. Hayley Wickenheiser argued both from the heart and from the stats that the 1980s Edmonton Oilers were Canada's team. But '72 Team Canada (the name itself proclaims it) couldn't be dislodged from the podium they've owned since the Cold War was still hot. Rather touchingly, the voters by a wide margin preferred Ms. Wickenheiser's own 2002 women's Olympic team to her Gretzky-era childhood favourites.
As for Zarqa Nawaz's bold suggestion that the balaclava be named the national garment - well, let's just say that Canada's proud reputation for having a great sense of humour took a bit of a hit during the survey. "Nice try, no, but you won't sell us on the burka," wrote one reader.
Consensus in a dynamic, diverse country like ours is getting harder and harder to come by. Why do we prefer to find our ideals of nationhood in the comforting certainties of the past? Maybe it's just a way of avoiding the kind of divisive arguments polite people like us aren't supposed to engage in any more. Or maybe present-day Canada is too reality-obsessed to generate symbols.
And if what we've got is already pretty good, why mess with it? How do you improve on the '72 Team Canada mythology, or unearth deep dark secrets about the beaver's past that make it unfit for our 5-cent piece?
"Hard-working, family-oriented, non-threatening," wrote one admirer, summing up the kind of everyday Canadian values that are second nature to the beaver. Nothing there about health care, but you can be pretty sure that privatization isn't an option for the communally oriented beaver: We see our best selves in our symbols. They hold us to a higher standard, without coming across all preachy and officious.
Take the tuque - there's a good reason why it tops the polls, at least when Canadians are doing the voting. It's functional, efficient, cheap, fashion-resistant while still being fashionable, universally accessible, gently ironic, urban as well as rural, mystifying to outsiders, and available in your favourite team's colours. What's not to like? What other item of Canadian clothing effortlessly combines so many good qualities without turning into a patriotic cliché? The tuque doesn't give Canada Day speeches or hide behind G20 barricades or lecture us in Heritage Minutes - it just gets on with the job.
The best argument against national iconography is that it enshrines outmoded values and preserves an archaic status quo almost as an entrance test to the Great White North. Must the most recently arrived immigrant identify with a Paul Henderson goal or a floppy piece of hoser headgear to officially be one of us? Why can't the pierogi or the donair get more votes after all these years?
Yeah, that's a poser: Symbols, at least the kind people vote for, are by nature conservative, and exclusive even in their attempt at inclusiveness. But we don't hold up the beaver for admiration because it's such a key factor in our everyday urban lives or perfectly representative of our multicultural mix. No symbol can pull that one off. Yet as national stories go, the beaver's is as good as we're going to get - the raison d'être for the founding of Quebec (a.k.a. Canada), still plugging away after all these years, and in no way compromised by all those double-entendre jokes.
One last thought. If you look at the leading vote-getters closely, one strange theme stands out in our collective Canadianness: It couldn't be more Québécois. The beaver, the sugar maple, the tuque, poutine, even the iconic power of the Montreal Canadiens, which came close to dethroning the self-appointed Team Canada.
Longevity is a part of it - Quebec has time on its side - and federalism can't be discounted. But neither Champlain nor Mike Pearson created poutine, yet somehow it's managed to sum up the Canadian identity in the minds of the voters. Figure out the emotive power of fries, curds and gravy, and the secrets of the Canadian soul will be yours.
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