Last week I asked one of my colleagues here at Monocle’s Toronto bureau to go to a local tattoo parlour and interview one of the artists there on his clients’ fondness for the maple leaf as a design. The assignment didn’t go quite according to plan. Despite the tattoo artist agreeing to an interview on maple leaf tattoos he’d misheard the request and thought my colleague wanted to get an inky rendering of Canada’s national symbol for herself. She didn’t – and came away empty-handed.
The national flag of Canada is 50 years old this year. It remains the only national flag, anywhere, whose design was laid out – after great national debate in the early 1960s – in a statute of law. As a newcomer to this country I’ve set myself a little task to scratch beneath my new home’s national symbols and ask how the flag and what it stands for filters into daily life.
Canada’s relationship with its national flag is particular. It’s more similar to the one that people in the UK have with the Union flag the Star Spangled banner in the US. There’s no hanging of the maple leaf from balconies here, nor wearing it on the lapel of your jacket; no teary-eyed reverie as it flutters in the breeze. This is a quietly proud symbol – and probably one of Canada’s most potent soft-power tools.
It became the norm a couple of years ago for young Canadian backpackers venturing out into far-flung corners of the world to sew a small, cloth flag to the front of their knapsacks. As an act it was so useful that American travellers, whose nation – or the idea of it at least – was far more divisive in certain parts of the world, followed suit.
“It’s so beautiful and so simple,” Catriona Le May Doan, one of Canada’s national sporting heroes as a double Olympic champion in speed skating, told me recently. “And I think that’s what I feel about our country.”
But Canada is carving out a different place for itself on the world stage. Canadian jets have Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq in their sights; a rare take-the-lead military approach that many Canadians feel deeply troubled by. Its fraying relationship on a variety of issues with its closest ally, the US, has seen Canada asserting itself beyond its traditional role as the middle-man on the world stage.
“We sometimes see a timidity and a reluctance to engage in difficult conversations,” Canada’s former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, told me. “It’s nice to remember that hasn’t always been the case,” he added, recalling the furore over the birth of the maple leaf as Canada’s national symbol 50 years ago.
The maple leaf embodies a quiet assertiveness in the Canadian spirit, born out of a vociferous fight for what Canada’s national image should be. And with a general election looming that identity, for many Canadians, will once again be the subject of debate up and down the country.
Tomos Lewis is Monocle’s Toronto bureau chief.