You’ll forgive Syrian refugees who arrived Friday if they’re a little confused about where they’ve landed. Ottawa ordered all federal facilities to fly the British flag on December 11–including at airports. It does so every year to mark the anniversary of the Statute of Westminster, the British act which finally recognized Canadian nationhood in 1931. Yes, Canada salutes its independence by flying the flag of a foreign country.
A petition to “Put the Canadian flag first” seeks to fix the flag faux-pas, while addressing a more egregious rule that demotes the Maple Leaf. But it’s only the tip of the flagpole. Canada is replete with British symbols that have failed to match even the testudinal pace of the independent, democratic state we have forged.
When our newest arrivals notice the British-based banners of Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia (not to mention Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI), they may suspect their new homeland is more colony than country.
Once they cash a check (perhaps at a Royal or Canadian Imperial bank), they’ll notice a queen from England on the $20 bill and on the head of every coin.
New immigrants on their way to a post office, immigration center, or a host of federal buildings may glimpse a portrait of Elizabeth II. Vestiges of the Harper administration, they are a reminder that, while we act as an egalitarian country, the pinnacle of our state is beyond democracy. That’s troubling enough, but she’s also beyond Canada, and we’re beyond her.
In time, our new residents will want to join the Canadian family. To do so, they’ll be asked to swear eternal devotion to a foreign monarchy to become citizens–not to Canada or the Constitution. They may, of course, possess the conviction of Dror Bar-Natan, who, last week as a member of Republic Now, rejected royal obedience as he became Canadian. The group’s director, Ashok Charles, took a similar stand, years earlier.
But it doesn’t end with citizenship. Oaths to monarchy are required to serve Canada in the armed forces, in police departments, in civil services; to sit on city councils, in provincial legislatures, and in parliament; to be a medical examiner in Manitoba, a railroad cop in BC, a notary public in Newfoundland, even a coroner in Yukon!
If the Syrians have any doubt they’ve landed in an overseas British territory, those who take up quarters at military bases will have that misgiving erased. Festooned with crown-topped badges, epaulets, and flags, members of the renamed Royal Air Force and Royal Navy (thank you, Stephen Harper) will surround them on the properties of Her Majesty. Army units are pregnant with British nomenclature, named for lords, dukes, princesses, princes, kings, queens, the Queen Mother, Highlanders, Scots, Irish, and assorted loyal or royal this or that.
It’s essential to know where we came from, but that should never prevent us from becoming wholly Canadian. Clinging to Britishisms impedes that development, and hampers honoring our own people and our history. Every law we pass, every national park we create, every achievement of government, is ultimately not ours, because we give title and credit where it isn’t due–to a sovereign in whose name they are all done. Not only does this smack of duplicity, it’s a smack in the face to Canadians who have done the hard slogging.
Case in point: We’ve all heard Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the nation’s capital. But she didn’t. Her selection followed the “advice” of Richard Scott, Edmund Head and others whose names should be known, because it was they who truly decided. Yet this was for a provincial capital. It was a later government which selected Ottawa as capital of the federal union, but its leaders aren’t cheered. Instead, Victoria gets credit for something she didn’t even do.
If a Canadian is duly recognized for conspicuous efforts–civilian or military–they are not decorated on behalf of the People of Canada. Orders and awards at both the federal and provincial levels are granted in the name of a king or queen in England, deemed the “font of Canadian honours”. That doesn’t ring true, does it? It offends national pride to honor Canada’s heroes by having them play the supplicant to someone sitting on a foreign throne. Besides, we have our own honorable fonts without resorting to .
Medals are struck by the Royal Canadian Mint, which also designs dozens of circulation and collector coins every year, each one a fresh chance to put a Canadian on the front. Yet not once in 108 years has it done so. Even Jamaica, a realm with Elizabeth II as its queen (for now), honors national heroes on its coins.
Wilfrid Laurier, arguably our greatest prime minister, has appeared just three times on a postage stamp. Elizabeth Windsor has been on more than seventy-five (yes, 75). Ever since postage stamps debuted in this country 165 years ago, no Canadian has EVER appeared on a definitive (regular) first-class stamp.
The prime minister of Canada does not have a unique flag befitting the office. Yet, over the last four years, the government tasked the Canadian Heraldic Authority at Rideau Hall with creating “Canadianized” flags for British royals–Princes Charles, William, Andrew, Edward, and Princess Anne–five in all, copying British templates for the most part.
Incredibly, these flags are deemed superior to the Canadian flag by federal decree. So are those of other British royals and viceroys–some 30 in all–which officially demote the Maple Leaf in its own country. Do you know Prince Richard? He’s the grandson of King George V and Queen Mary, four monarchs ago. Richard is 24th in line to the throne, yet his personal flag takes precedence ahead of Canada’s. Our flag is routinely lowered from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill and elsewhere, so royal and vice-regal ones can take its place, even on the First of July. The petition to “Put the Canadian flag first” seeks to correct this, and we hope a fresh look by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly will set things right.
It may take another entreaty to Canadianize our coat of arms and Great Seal, each so fraught with imperial devices, you’d hardly know they were Canadian. Pity our Syrian friends, who will face these contradictions. More likely, they will pity us as we squirm to explain.
Much of this might have been avoided but for a turn of fate 178 years ago. This week in 1837, the Rebellion battles in Toronto came close to establishing a republic in Upper Canada, a government free of the British crown. Its abortive struggle made martyrs of Sam Lount and Peter Matthews, in whose memory Toronto may fittingly and finally erect a monument. The Rebellion’s failure would leave it to a future generation to end monarchy in this land.
Perhaps it’s the People who will lead the politicians in this. Polls show a slight majority of Canadians favor ending our dependence on Buckingham Palace, even before we’ve had a national chat. New Canadians and immigrants, including the thousands we’ll be receiving in coming weeks, can play a role in shaping that discourse. Unencumbered by a legacy of imposed imperial symbols, and with love for a country that so happily took them in, we hope they might return the kindness in a most patriotic way–by helping create a republic and fulfilling our democratic destiny.
If, as Justin Trudeau trumpets, “Canada is back”, let leaders, too, step forward to bring our country and all its symbols into the modern age. We require a head of state who shares our citizenship, lives here, and who’s chosen by the People or its representatives. One option might be as straightforward as converting the governor general’s office into that of chief of state. Most of the Commonwealth is comprised of republics already, and Barbados is set to be next, promising to end monarchy in 2016. Australia and New Zealand are facing the same question, and Jamaica is debating it now. The age of empire ended decades ago. The proper thing is to examine our options now, in hopes Elizabeth the Second might make one final visit as queen of Canada to accept our gratitude, and our assurance that we’ll take it from here.