It’s not hard to spot a Canadian while travelling – he or she is usually the one sporting a giant flag on their luggage or backpack. While other travellers may have other countries’ flag patches sewn onto their packs, marking the places they’ve gone, Canadians are the only people in the world who wear their own flag – and wear it as conspicuously as possible. Having travelled around the world over the last decade, I have been asked countless times why I did not wear one. “You’re Canadian, where’s the flag on your backpack?” asked hostel owners, fellow travellers, customs agents and airport security.
The curious practice seems to have begun in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, when popular opinion around the world was against our American lookalikes. It’s difficult to find historical literature on the rise of travelling Canadian flag patches (our flag became official only in 1965), but the increase in independent travel among baby boomers during the period likely helped it catch on. When baby boomers became parents, they would pass the ritual on to their own travelling children. That practice has now become ingrained in young Canadians.
“Everybody told me, ‘That’s just what you do,’” said Vincent Light, a 28-year-old lawyer from Calgary who’s travelled to the United Kingdom, Italy and Mexico with his fiancée.
“It’s practically received wisdom; I didn’t even really question why or why not. Usually it was the second piece of advice given, after, ‘Make sure you get a money belt.’”
Yet, rather than showing pride in who we are, it actually shows pride in who we are not – namely, Americans.
The patch is just a part of an age-old Canadian preoccupation with distinguishing ourselves from our southern neighbours and touting even our smallest achievements. You know, that awkward moment when you feel the urge to say, “Did you know that Justin Bieber is Canadian?” to an American who couldn't care less.
Though our government has recently toned down its garish displays of patriotism, it has had its share of cringeworthy moments, such as releasing Superman collector coins despite the country’s tenuous link with the superhero, as well as playing up the bicentennial of the War of 1812 as a great Canadian victory over American tyranny.
I won’t even mention the “I am Canadian” Molson Canadian beer commercial from years back, which was nothing more than a cri de coeur for the world to take notice of us, and, more important, not to confuse us with Americans.
“Canadian national identity has recently been oriented around the United States,” says Ben Bryce, an expert on Canadian nationalism and an assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. “I would say this decision to wear the Canadian flag is made long before he or she ever goes abroad. It is a way of pre-emptively asserting our non-Americanness.”
In wearing a flag, we are also following the wildly outdated belief that Canadians are more loved than Americans, the latter facing dangers, hatred and ignominy when overseas. Perhaps in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt or Iraq this is true, but in the rest of the world, it’s mostly myth. Rather than facing disdain or animosity, most Americans travel the world in relative peace and security without incident. In fact, Americans tend to be more of an object of fascination than Canadians given their weight in the world and their connection with global pop culture. To most, Canadians are just “nice and friendly.” Maybe that’s the best we can ask for.
There is also the small matter of anonymity. A rule of thumb when travelling is to not stick out as a foreigner, both for safety reasons and, maybe more importantly, to blend in – accepting new customs and allowing a culture to become a mirror, reflecting a new self back to you. When you still see your Canadian flag in that mirror, part of the point of travelling is gone.
Instead of going abroad as an open-minded individual, the flag-wearer is packing another nationality, another set of values and a culture that is literally affixed on. It may make you impermeable to new influences that you are travelling to experience. It’s what we criticize those “damn Yankees” for doing in the first place. But at least Canadian chauvinism is well intentioned, right?
So if you’re thinking of going overseas, take a sharp knife and slice that flag from your pack. Travel as an individual – not as a Canadian – and you’ll find people are just as friendly because you’re interesting and amicable, not because you’re not American.
Editor's Note: The original print version of this column and an earlier digital version said the Canadian flag became official in 1964. In fact, Parliament passed a resolution approving the flag in December, 1964, but the Queen did not officially proclaim the flag in effect until February, 1965. This digital version has been changed accordingly.
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