This week Conservative MP John Carmichael and Heritage Minister James Moore stood in the lobby of the House of Commons flanked by Canadian flags, in the manner of car salesmen surrounded by banners saying, "Your buck goes farther here" and "Check under the hood and see!"
They were publicizing Mr. Carmichael's private member's bill, an Act Respecting the National Flag of Canada, which would defend the country from the sadly underreported scourge of flag-hating. If Bill C-288 makes it into law, all Canadians will have the right to fly our national flag – and woe betide those who try to prevent them. A sigh of relief must have risen from all the people who've been cowering in their basements for years, too terrified to open the boxes marked, "From Sheila Copps."
What would the great Tory father John Diefenbaker make of this celebration of the flag, which he fought so furiously before its introduction and which he once compared unfavourably to the national flag of Peru? "It shows nothing of our heritage. … Far from distinctive," huffed the Chief. I have to agree. Lester Pearson's favoured design featured three joined maple leaves that looked suspiciously like a marijuana bud and were thus a much better symbol of this country's future as a world-beater in leisure pursuits.
You'd think the government would have studied its own party's past, given its strange obsession with celebrating our heritage (so long as that heritage involves picturesque battles and brave wives waving goodbye with tears in their eyes, and not large-scale strikes or uprisings against tyrannical governments). The "love thy flag" push is seen as part of a broader government initiative to celebrate the things that made us great – or at least, not the United States. The word "royal" is Velcroed onto any institution where it will stick, and portraits of the Queen are dusted off in consulates around the world and put back on the wall.
The next year will see the government spend $11.5-million to tart up the image of the War of 1812, so that students no longer fall asleep at their desks during arguments over exactly which side won. I wouldn't be surprised if they dug up Laura Secord and gave her a stack of fifties to hand out in front of Casino Niagara. You can understand the government's desire to look back: The past is a much friendlier place than the future, especially if you remember only the good bits.
Still, the flagpole seems an odd place to make a stand. Haven't we always been a bit leery about wrapping ourselves in the flag? Isn't that what they do in the other place, down there? No, not hell. The other place down there. It's hard to imagine a Canadian politician writing a book with the title, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, as Sarah Palin did.
We think of Americans as moist-eyed flag-worshippers, but actually they're a lot less precious than we are. It's in that country, not ours, where you can treat the flag cruelly. Twice the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that ban flag desecration. Successive attempts to have flag-protection enshrined as a constitutional amendment have failed (although many states have their own laws to punish flag burners). Our neighbours love their Stars and Stripes, but it might be they value freedom of expression more.
They do recognize the power of a symbol, though, and this wisdom has drifted north. Perhaps the Tories' hug-a-flag platform isn't just glib politicking; maybe they've realized, as Republicans in the U.S. have, that a piece of cloth can have a powerful affect.
Maybe they even read the study that came out of Cornell University this summer (published in the journal Psychological Science) that suggested even a glimpse of an American flag is enough to make voters swing toward republicanism. In short, the researchers gave a series of questionnaires to a group of almost 400 people during the last U.S. presidential election and solicited their views about Barack Obama and John McCain, about the Democratic Party and the Republicans. Some of the questionnaires had a small American flag in the corner. Those who answered the flag questionnaires were more drawn toward the Republican candidate – and ended up voting for him in greater numbers – than those who didn't have the flag on their form. It was a small but telling indication of the political capital to be gained from symbols. The results, the researchers said, were evidence that "exposure to a national flag can bias the citizenry toward one political party, and have considerable durability."
So, the next time you see politicians seeming to waste time and energy wrapping themselves in the flag, ask yourself: Crazy, or crazy like a fox?