If you’re after an example of something worth far more than the sum of its parts, you’d be hard pressed to do better than a passport: a little booklet of paper and a microchip. But it punches far above its weight.
It is a document of such importance that governments never give up legal ownership of them. Fakes are worth thousands of pounds. And aside from a passport's value as a tool of international access, some countries take the opportunity to use it as a canvas for national identity. Why not illustrate the pages with national symbols, historical figures or even just native fauna? Remind carriers what makes their country unique and teach a customs official a thing or two.
A recent redesign of the Canadian passport, available to those who made applications after the first of July of this year, takes that approach quite seriously. It has happened under a government that is quite conscious of what Canadians learn about their own country, and how they think of it. Under the leadership of prime minister Stephen Harper, the government’s heritage committee has begun a “thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects of Canadian history”. And – a testament to his egotism – Mr Harper has directed federal communications to refer to the Harper government rather than the Government of Canada.
Canada’s new passport sweeps through the country’s history, its regions and its pastimes: a train traversing the prairies, Niagara Falls (which in fact straddle the US border), the RCMP, French explorer Samuel de Champlain and, of course, hockey. There has been much criticism: the lack of women pictured (there are barely any), the lack of smiling faces (are we really so serious?) and the prevalence of military imagery.
But it is perhaps on pages 12 and 13 that you’ll find the most political addition – it is there that the illustrations make a departure from history and inward-looking imagery, anticipating future international affairs. What’s depicted is the Canadian north – its Arctic portion – along with Canada, the world’s northernmost settlement and Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, a Quebec mariner who explored the region in the early 20th century.
The Arctic is the next global frontier for resource extraction and commercial shipping routes. The Chinese, for instance, have invested in ice breakers and now describe themselves as a “near-Arctic” nation. And Canada is not so unwise as to miss the fact that its once-ignored vast north is being eyed up in the way the farmlands of Africa have been in recent decades.
In its 2013 iteration, the Canadian passport not only provides a proof of Canadian citizenship but also very clearly asserts the borders of Canada’s domain. It is a record for the world of what we know to be our land and, with the squiggly line of Bernier’s route, our waters; a smart move couched in an otherwise passive collection of images. It is the Harper government setting up a defence: “The Arctic,” they seem to be saying, “is a fundamental part of Canada and has been for a century.”
What remains to be seen, more interestingly, isn't how Canada will bring its northern territories into the fold economically. Instead, the question is whether the country has finally opened its eyes to the fact that what lies above the 66th parallel isn’t just oil but some of the country’s most underprivileged and struggling communities, too. And they need attention.
David Michon is Monocle's managing editor.