As millions of Canadians began to celebrate the country’s national day in that oh-so-Canuckian style that is simultaneously celebratory and reserved, that affirms our national identity even while questioning its depth, I found myself on a 1982 Sekine road bicycle, peddling south out of Winkler, Manitoba, on a neatly paved footpath.
Despite being alone, I felt increasingly aware of the red maple leaf sprawled across my chest. It was embroidered into the grey cloth of my shirt. I had purchased the shirt on a whim- it had winked at me across the aisle of a busy department store and, momentarily without my academic sense of critically interrogating any symbol that vies for personal allegiance, I bought the thing.
Now as I peddled along on the eve of Canada Day, I suddenly needed to know why I should be draping myself in a garment so heavy with imagery. If a farmer stopped his early dusk combine ride to yell over, “What’s the meaning — the value — of that leaf you wear?”, would I be able to tell him? And so I thought. And then thought some more. Finally, as I was rounding the last corner towards home, I had the beginnings of an answer strewn together. This is what I would tell him:
First, the leaf is valuable because you do not have to wear it. Whatever it may represent, you need not emblazon yourself with its recognizability simply because you call this country home. Whether you strongly identify with being Canadian or not, your lawn need not have a maple leaf flag and, despite the traveling ease it might provide, neither does your backpack. The strength of this symbol is not fuelled by an insecure desire to have it plastered on every edifice; it garners it’s strength from being comfortable amongst other symbols. And that leads me too…
Second, the leaf is valuable because it is tied to the uniquely Canadian attempt at accommodating an array of continuously evolving identities. Just as the red maple leaf on a white background is universally recognised as a symbol for Canada, so is official multiculturalism. Multiculturalism as a policy has had its fair share of both successes and failures, but at its core is an Idea. This idea is that identity is not a mutually exclusive affair: just because I’m X, doesn’t mean I can’t also be Y, or A, B, and C for that matter.
The willingness to try and accommodate not only a variety of collective identities, but more than one identity within a single individual is perhaps the element that most clearly differentiates Canadian political culture from that of our American neighbours: in Canada there is an explicit attempt at understanding what might seem like ‘the Other’ in another person. Their South African-ness, their Japanese-ness, their Paraguayan-ness, etc. need not be ‘Canadianized,’ or perpetually seen as ‘an Other-ness,’ but can rather be simply affirmed for what it is— a different identity that may interact with a newfound Canadian identity in a variety of ways. This idea acknowledges something so many other countries steadfastly ignore: identity is organic. It won’t bow down to constraints.
Third, the leaf is valuable because it allows contesting ideas to fight it out. Take the previous example: the leaf accommodates different identities, but what happens when an identity it is trying to accommodate holds a value system that is antithetical to the very value of accommodating different identities? A common, if extreme, example of this in Canada is the much publicised events of the so-called ‘honour killings.’ If Canada prides itself on accommodating different cultures, how should it react to a culture where the killing of a family member is a legitimate consequence for some behaviour? Is this a situation where the values inherent in Canada’s institutions — especially its judicial system — trumps the attempt to accommodate differences? Should tolerance be intolerant of intolerance? These questions are, comparatively, given their full due in Canada, and debate often allows for nuanced conclusions: just because we decide some actions are fundamentally unacceptable, that this is a place of compassion, not of brutal punishment and fear, does not mean that we throw out the attempt to let different cultures thrive in their own way.
Fourth, the leaf is valuable because it is built on a stable foundation. What could be seen perched atop this country’s flagpoles before the maple leaf? That’s right— that most ubiquitous of British symbols, the Union Jack. Now as a South African-Canadian with hereditary roots deep in anti-imperial, anti-monarchy sentiment, including the wars that resisted British takeover of Boer republics in southern Africa, it is difficult for me to say this, but the Westminster parliamentary model works. It is not perfect, and requires constant tweaking, but the point is; it allows for that tweaking. In a steady, stiff upper lip sorta way.
The greatest tragedy of current school systems in Canada is that they fail to invest in high school students a proper appreciation for how our parliament goes about being our parliament. The Canadian House of Commons has built upon the British tradition to form a stable, effective federal institution where democratically elected members from across this massive land make the laws that govern all of us. Granted, the House is going through a bit of a crisis given it’s inability to curb party control on how members vote and — relatedly — how to keep the ever-growing cabinet accountable. But those are problems of process, and do not fundamentally challenge the institution.
Hollywood has made the presidential system sexy, but the parliamentary model avoids two of that system’s biggest pitfalls: a.) the sort of gridlock that occurs when a President and Congress do not agree. While ‘Washington is Broken’ often accurately describes the stalemate of the US capital, ‘Ottawa is broken’ — despite its popularity — can rarely be truly applied to Canada’s. Ottawa may ‘work really well in a direction you are not particularly fond of,’ but that’s a very different state from ‘broken.’ And b.) the sheer amount of power invested in one person, the President. American presidents have historically been able to restrain themselves to democratic limits due to an empowered populace, historical convention, and an entrenched rule of law, but this has not often been the case in other countries — from Africa to Europe — that have adopted the presidential system. Without the hard-won democratic history of the United States, it has been easy for Presidents across the globe to abuse the incredible amount of power they are given, sparking tremendous volatility in their countries’ political systems. Compare this with the remarkable stability experienced by the — specifically, but not exclusively, constitutional monarchical — parliamentary countries of the world, such as New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.
Finally (for now; this list is by no means exhaustive), the leaf is valuable because it represents a country that has a strong tradition of working together to achieve a high quality of life for its citizens, a country that has historically seen closing the income inequality gap as an important national goal.
Countries begin to crumble when the rich begin to opt out. When the vast majority of them retreat into gated communities, send their kids to private schools, rely on private security agencies to keep them safe, go to private parks on weekends, and tend to see members lower on the socioeconomic order only if they dare to buy their groceries themselves. And because all their core services are privatised, they begin to despise taxes of all sorts, voting only for a tax increase if the money goes to those few publicly run services they cannot purchase (yet), such as those provided by organisations that ensure the integrity of the country’s borders (ie. the military). As the country’s rich also form a good chunk of the country’s political elites, you see their dismissal of public services become an utter lack of — solid — public services. Slowly, but surely, the country becomes a country only by name and surface-level identity, not by any durable action taken collectively together. ‘Private’ — those things owned by a growing minority of individuals able to purchase them — becomes synonymous with ‘high-quality,’ and ‘prestigious,’ whereas ‘public’ or ‘state-run‘ — those things that belong to every citizen — become synonymous with undependable, inefficient and ‘low-quality.’
If that sounds like a call to nationalise industries and squash business, it’s not. On the contrary, I think Canada’s entrepreneurial spirit is one of the great things going for it, and that the market is still the best way to allocate a great variety of goods. But there are some core things we need to do together if we want to be a country at all, and this requires a positive conception of public services, and the taxes that fund them. It is only through taxes, through a bit of personally produced income thrown into the collective pot, that we can all lay claim to, and be enriched by, solid public schools, pristine public parks, sophisticated universal healthcare, valuable research that private actors would not see ‘a market’ for, etc. Canada, to me, is still a country where a billionaire enjoys a stroll through a national park, and listens to our fantastic public broadcaster on the way there.
Many of our country’s richest may avoid taxes, but many of them do not. And those just below them, the so-called ‘upper middle class,’ largely still participate in Canada’s public services. Many of our most successful citizens went to public high schools, and the vast majority of university students attend public universities. There is not a privatised stream that guarantees a faster, easier, and earlier level of success to the degree we witness in our American neighbours. This is the characteristic that keeps this massive and diverse country intact and, as long it is fostered, will keep the maple leaf valuable.
And so my wee bit ‘o wisdom from the back of a bike to all Canadians: it’s okay, you can revel in Canada Day. It’s highly unlikely that dipping those polite ‘n reserved toes into a bit of patriotism will descend into Stars ‘n Stripes-style jingoism. And if someone asks why you’re wearing a maple leaf, tell ‘em you’ve got about five things in mind, and there’s probably more.
Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at email@example.com