Recently the Canadian government announced a design competition to come up with an official logo for the country’s 150th birthday celebrations in 2017. The competition, however, is open only to students, comes with a rather paltry cash prize of $5,000 (€3,500) and – oh, sweet temptation – "the chance to be part of Canadian history". The initiative was met with an unhappy response from the design community. Within days of the announcement more than 3,000 people had signed an online petition opposing the contest, criticising its “exploitative” nature.
In an open letter to the minister of heritage, the president of Graphic Designers of Canada, Adrian Jean, wrote that the competition is, “Designed to lure hundreds, maybe even thousands of students into developing and providing their creative and intellectual property to the federal government with no reasonable compensation for their patriotic and creative efforts.” He went on to point out that “$5,000 is well below market value for the development of a brand identity especially of this stature and importance.”
Even design students are less than impressed with the offer, launching a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #mytimehasvalue.
Historic milestones such as centennials and anniversaries can have a catalysing effect on a country’s culture and politics. As Canada showed in its 1967 centennial year, they present not only occasions for celebration, but watershed moments that can spur creativity, collective action and the building of new institutions. From 1967 Canada got a new flag, an outpouring of community grass-roots projects and some outstanding art and architecture (such as Moshe Safdie's Habitat building for Montréal’s Expo 67). But 1967 only became what it was after years of visionary thinking, community collaboration and attempts at inclusivity.
So far the Conservative government under Stephen Harper has displayed none of those qualities toward Canada 150. Rather, Harper himself has shown time and again that his ideas about national identity and country branding are stuck somewhere in the late 19th century – preferring symbols such as the military, Mounties and the monarchy rather than much to do with contemporary reality. What we have is an idea of Canada that has zero resonance or appeal outside of the country and, as the population ages and demographics shift, increasingly less even within it.
No disrespect to design students, but the questionable approach to branding on display here is symptomatic of something larger: Harper’s generally derisive attitude toward experts and professionals, at its worst exemplified by his government's muzzling of scientists on environmental issues, especially with regards to Alberta's oil sands. And ironically it's those oil sands that tend to be what people abroad think about when they think about Canada today – as much as anyone bothers to think about Canada at all.
Would that the government display more imagination and inclusion in coming up with a story to tell about the country. It might go some ways to mending the country’s souring reputation abroad; that and coming up with an honest and comprehensive climate change policy before 2017.
Christopher Frey is Monocle’s Toronto correspondent.