Remember when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained his concept of Canada – not to Canadians, mind you, but to The New York Times – after winning power in 2015?
“Countries with a strong national identity – linguistic, religious or cultural – are finding it a challenge to effectively integrate people from different backgrounds. In France, there is still a typical citizen and an atypical citizen. Canada doesn’t have that dynamic,” he told the paper. “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”
That was news to many Canadians. Had they heard him articulate his notion of this country “as the first post-national state” during the campaign, and not weeks later in a U.S. broadsheet, they might have thought twice about voting for him. At the very least, his comments would have been considered provocative enough to warrant serious debate.
As it was, after Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s efforts to stuff Canada’s monarchical and military history down our throats, Mr. Trudeau’s remarks were mostly greeted with a collective shrug. Most of us were never comfortable with the Harper government’s glorification of our colonial past and were suspicious of its motives. Even if Mr. Trudeau seemed naive or pretentious, he seemed to have come by his views honestly.
What many of us then failed to understand, or refused to concede, was that this was no off-the-cuff pronouncement by a newbie Prime Minister “excited to be on the world stage,” as he told The Times. It was an opening salvo in the culture war Mr. Trudeau has deftly stoked ever since.
In barely seven years, he has replaced Canada’s traditional emblems and narratives, too closely associated with our British and French origins and settler past, with generic symbols deemed to be inclusive and inoffensive, but which aim to expunge vast swaths of our history from the collective memory.
The recent unveiling of a new Canadian Royal Crown and new passport design may not seem like much of a reason to get one’s traditionalist knickers in a knot. But it is the same kind of culture-war attack on patriotic symbols that aims to discredit our past as removing statues of Sir John A. Macdonald. It rejects seminal events on our path to nationhood in favour of a sanitized version of what it means to be a 21st-century Canadian, which in the end, means almost nothing.
The new crown atop Canada’s coat of arms, unveiled on the day of King Charles III’s coronation, replaces the old one’s crosses and fleur-de-lis with maple leaves and a large snowflake, scrubbing the emblem of its religious and royal symbols. Which is ironic, considering that the crown – any crown – embodies the essence of monarchy and religion.
The ruby, sapphire and emerald of the old crown have been replaced by a squiggly blue line meant to represent Canada’s “many lakes and rivers … its three ocean borders,” as well as “Indigenous teachings that water is the lifeblood of the land.” This design change is less objectionable, if somewhat unimaginative.
The new passport is a swipe at the Harperites who gave us the current design, which is loaded with historical vignettes and figures such as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and the Fathers of Confederation. They are being replaced by wildlife and nature scenes.
“They erased Vimy Ridge to put an image of a squirrel eating a nut,” Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre complained in the House of Commons. “They erased Terry Fox, a guy who ran halfway across the country to fight cancer, to put in a man raking leaves.”
There are surely other ways to teach Canadians about our history than compressing selected people and events into our passports. Still, that is far more meaningful than the owl, barn and snowman – oops, snowperson – in the new passport, none of which is distinctly or even representatively Canadian. But that, I guess, is the point.
A post-national state with no core identity must purge any vestige of its past that might remind the world from whence it came. When 44 per cent of us are first- or second-generation Canadians, a figure that rises to 80 per cent in the Toronto census metropolitan area and 73 per cent in the Vancouver CMA, it is inevitable that our national identity evolves to reflect our diverse origins. But you do not need to be a descendant of the Canadian soldiers who fought and died at Vimy Ridge to feel somewhat insulted at the cavalier way the tribute to the First World War battle that has defined us as a country has been replaced in our passports by a rodent.
No core identity, indeed.