Canadian National Symbols

Canadian Nationalism: Iconography and National Symbols

A Historiographical Report By: Daniel Govedar

The purpose of this report is to review the academic literature on Canadian nationalism. More specifically, this report focuses its scope on literature regarding iconography and governmental art; this includes a broad array of media such as: stamps, the national flag, currency, and other national symbols…

This report will analyze the academic debate surrounding Canadian nationalism and how the Canadian government has used symbology to define itself. This report will first give a brief background of Canadian symbology and contextualize some of the various debates and concepts in the Canadian identity literature. Once a foundation has been established to some of the debates, we will examine some of the different competing memories in Canada and how these are reflected in the governmental art. A variety of academics have shaped different understandings of Canadian national symbology, to illustrate more deeply their concepts we will use case studies they have developed engaging media such as stamps and currency. Furthermore, we will look at some of the key identifiers in Canadian governmental symbology such as “Northernness”. The purpose of this report is not to answer in itself the many questions surrounding Canadian nationalism and iconography, but rather to analyze the academic debates which have existed over the years and develop a historiographical analysis of what the academic literature on the topic is.

The timeline for the academic literature on Canadian governmental symbolism and nationalism is sparse until the 1970s. In this period, writers such as Abraham Rotstein and Ramsay Cook began to release foundational texts. A second wave, where most of the work is written, is in the 1990s. A third wave of literature is from 2010 onward. Within the academic literature, there are clear trends and groupings of ideas surrounding multiple forms of media, and multiple concepts. Three main schools of thought exist: first that Canada lacks a culture and this is shown in its symbols and lack of symbols. Second, that Canada has multiple competing memories, primarily English and Francophone, but also Indigenous which show themselves through symbolism, and furthermore with the use of landscape and natural imagery. The third branch focuses on the evolution of Canadian symbolism, typically evolving from British/Royal origins and evolving into natural imagery.

Rotstein notably wrote on a lack of culture in Canada; a nation which he claims is based heavily on American influence.1 This has been one of the key arguments repeated throughout the literature. Conrad Black in the 1990s echoes that “Canada was a collection of people who were not Americans”.2 Black argued that within Canada’s history there existed a cultural crisis due to the “ease with which Canadians can integrate into the United States.”3 This period of no identity, or lack of national identity, is displayed in its governmental iconography and has evolved over the course of Canada’s history; this evolution is argued by the significant majority of all the academics researched in this report. Along with the American dimension, others like Andrew Kim argue that what lead to Canada lacking an identity initially and into Confederation was “regionalism and bilculturalism.”4 Kenneth McRoberts further articulates that Canada’s multinational composition of English, Francophone, and the Indigenous led to a lack of social symbolic unity.5 Sarah Corse explains in her book, Nationalism and Literature: The Politics of Culture in Canada and the United States, that Canada initially lacked a sense of “Canadianness.”6 Her argument is that Canada is dealing with the consequences of having two founding European cultures and that this is a key factor for a lack of universal cultural identity, both initially and currently.7 She identifies three main causes which prevented an early nationalism from developing: first the idea of the two competing founding cultures, secondly, similar to Rotstein and Black, she argues that the threat of both American imperial but also cultural supremacy played a role, and lastly that the remnants of British monarchy and empire hindered Canada’s independent nationalism.8 Many academics note that the shift from a British colony to an independent nation is shown through the art and iconography. While at first the connection to the Crown hindered Canadian nationalism, later it provides a useful context to illustrate the change and progression from this period.

Looking at early Canadian currency Emily Gilbert finds that most symbolism was based on a few topics: the British monarchy, natural resources (such as mining and logging), and business accomplishments.9 The most commonly used symbol was the locomotive; interestingly another common source of symbology on Canadian money was Classical gods, which have been almost entirely been phased out over time.10 In her book she notes that a transition occurred in 1954 when Canada released its first single homogenous national currency; since then there has been a dramatic decrease in British and monarchical symbolism on currency and an increase in natural and landscape imagery.11  Modern examples include the loon on the Loonie and polar bears on the Toonie (Canadian one and two dollar coins.) The Queen’s portrait on one side and a Canadian natural image on the other is a great reflection of history. While academics like Conrad Black argue a crisis in contemporary Canadian nationalism, the majority of scholars disagree and argue that Canada has a rich nationalism which can be viewed in its national symbolism. The majority of scholars agree that Canada’s central identity is based on ideas of nature and landscape. This evolution from the British Empire to an independent state is also documented in the work of Michael Maloney. Maloney looks at the evolution of stamps and how the government has chosen to represent itself. Stanley Brun argues the importance of studying stamps; he claims that “stamps are products or ‘windows’ of the state that illustrate how it wishes to be seen by its own citizens.”12 In Maloney’s work, he identifies that Canada underwent a serious reinterpretation in the mid-twentieth century of its identity.13 The first set of stamps produced by the Dominion of Canada in 1868 feature a significant majority of royal and monarchial imagery.14 Stamps later, Maloney claims, show the competing foundational memories present in Canada, often bearing both the English MacDonald and the French Laurier, or containing historical symbols from both France or Britain.15 Following the Second World War, Maloney argues that Canada began to become more independent and pride itself on its own accomplishments; for example in 1947 a stamp was released celebrating the passage of the Canadian Citizenship Act.16 From the 1950’s onward stamps began to incorporate more natural imagery, but also a focus on multiculturalism and social growth; the 1980s included a Feminist stamp17, as well as a trend to incorporate more Indigenous and human rights based imagery.18 Currently Canadian stamps often feature Canadian wildlife, which is the current highlighted series in April 2015 on the Canada Post website.19 This focus on animals, nature and the landscape is the most important marker of identity in Canada according to nearly all the contemporary academics. Some of the images, like the beaver and maple leaf, go very far back into the history of the country, and have become the main identifier of nationalism in Canada. See Appendix 1 for images of the highlighted stamps.

Alistair Fraser in his book Flags of Canada looks at many of Canada’s early symbols. The image of the beaver has been used since 1670 with the Hudson Bay Company’s fur trade empire.20 The beaver was on early governmental iconography such as the Coat of Arms, and has been the center of many emblems, stamps and official visual art.21 Both Andrew Kim and Alistair Fraser agree that while the beaver symbology was important, and still is, what surpassed it was the importance of the maple leaf. The use of maple leaf was founded by the French and was an early symbol of New France, but the first flag to officially fly the maple leaf was of the Royal Canadian Regiment.22 Andrew Kim notes that the maple leaf took time to become a national symbol, the usage of the maple leaf during World War One solidified it into governmental identity.23 This usage of the beaver and the maple leaf is part of a broader foundation which places the center of Canadian identity around nature and the landscape. Rotstein in the 1970s makes note of this as well, he claims that Canada was a “nationalism which centers on resources.”24 Canadian historian Donald Creighton, also in the 1970s, defined the use of resources not simply as an ordinary asset for usage, but rather as the “original endowment of nature, as the birthright of Canada.”25 Andrew Horral notes that in early Canadian governmental exhibitions around the world, the government to represent Canada used primarily displays of resource such as stacks of raw wood knows as “Timber Trophies” or displays of minerals, and farm produce.26

One reason for the heavy usage of natural imagery is due to its unifying features. Sarah Dryden claims Canada had a “struggle to define itself.”27 Ramsay Cook in the 1970s wrote that the “land has been especially important because it seemed to be the only common element in Canadian life.”28 The Canadian symbols are “conceptual representations of group membership”.29 The argument of scholars like Kim, Rotstein, and Alistair is that Canada used nature as its unifying national symbology because it united multiple cultural groups and was above the issues of politics and ethnicity. The opposing argument is that the natural imagery still is racialized and alienating. Professor Lower argues that while the usage of “Northernness” imagery and depictions of the expanse may appear unifying and universal, he critically asks, “How many Canadians actually live there?30 Furthermore, “what makes our landscape so different from Americans?”31 Another branch arguing against the “Northernness” imagery are those who claim it is racialized. Eva Mackey cites the introduction of Northern imagery as racist. Parkin, one of the key founders of the concept, called the northern climate “a fundamental and political social advantage” one that has a “persistent process of natural selection” one that is to avoid the “negro problem” in the United States.32 Jody Berland also states this, that while the modern public itself may not be racist, the original meaning and symbology behind the “Northernness” idea was about racial superiority.33 Kim further argues that the use of the colour red on Canadian symbology has led to an alienation of the French due to the origins of the colour representing the British monarchy.34 Most of the academics agree that nature has become the main identifier of nationalism in governmental art and iconography, where they disagree is in its value. One school argues that the natural imagery is useful because it unifies Canadians beyond ethnicity and politics, while opponents suggest its either racist, like Berland and Mackey, or suggest it lacks any real richness and is a reflection of Canada’s lack of identity, presented by academics like Cook, Black, and Lower.

In Brian Osborne’s work on Canadian monuments he highlights the trend of the government trying to unify the nation by who is represented in statues around the parliament.35 That has been the overarching theme in the academic literature, the goal of unifying the country. Some academics claim there is a crisis and this is visible in the lack of strong national symbols, others however view examples such as natural imagery transcending outdated forms of political or ethnic symbolism. Dryden goes so far as to call Canada the first post-modern country, one capable to survive under a new modern reality, one without traditional political nationalism.35 In conclusion the academic debate around national symbols and Canadian governmental iconography is large and complex. If given the opportunity, it would be valuable to individually research the different mediums, such as stamps, flags, currency, etc. The academic literature on the topic both tends to agree on central concepts, such as nature being the focus of the national art, but also has conflicts in its interpretation and value of these symbols. Fleshing out these concepts and ideas could lead to volumes of valuable new understandings. Canada is a country with depth and a rich history. Conrad Black elegantly stated “what was once less solemnly described as ‘the cry of the loon and the dip of the paddle’ has assumed considerable mythic proportions.”36 This is Canada, a multi-national country with a rich history of mythic proportions, one with competing memories and multiple sources of self-identity. Complexity and contestation is part of our definition, Canada is a country which refuses to be painted one colour.

End Notes

  1. Rotstein, Abraham. “Canada: The New Nationalism.” Foreign Affairs, 55, No.1 (1976) pp. 98
  2. Black, Conrad. “Canada’s Continuing Identity Crisis.” Foreign Affairs, 74, No.2 (1995) pp.101
  3. Black, Conrad. pp.102
  4. Kim, Andrew E. “The Absence of Pan-Canadian Civil Religion: Plurality, Duality and Conflict in Symbols of Canadian Culture.” Sociology of Religion. 54, No. 3 (1993) pp. 259
  5. McRoberts, Kenneth. “Canada and the Multinational State.” Canadian Journal of Political Science. 34, No. 4 (2001) pp. 689
  6. Corse, Sarah M. “Nationalism and Literature: The Politics of Culture in Canada and the United States.” Cambridge University Press. United Kingdom. (1997) pp. 35
  7. Corse, Sarah M. pp. 33
  8. Ibid
  9. Gilbert, Emily. “‘Ornamenting the facade of hell’: iconographies of 19th-century Canadian paper money” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol.16. No. 1 (1998) pp. 65
  10. Ibid
  11. Gilbert, Emily., et al. “Nation-States and Money:The Past, Present and Future of National Currencies.” Business and Economics. New York (1999) 33-34
  12. Brunn, Stanley D. “Stamps as iconography: Celebrating the independence of new European and Central Asian States.” GeoJournal 52. 4. (2000) pp. 315
  13. Maloney, Michael. ““One of the best advertising mediums the country can have:” Postage Stamps and National Identity in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.” Material Culture Review 77/78, (2013) pp. 22
  14. Maloney, Michael. pp. 23
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Maloney, Michael. pp. 26
  18. Maloney, Michael. pp. 33
  19. Canada Post. “Birds, Animals & Nature.” Canada Post Corporation. Accessed 8 April 2015. Web. https://www.canadapost.ca/shop/stamps-by-theme/birds-animals-nature.jsf
  20. Fraser, Alistair B. “The Flags of Canada.” (1998) Web. pp. 1
  21. Kim, Andrew E. pp. 262
  22. Fraser, Alistair B. pp. 1
  23. Kim, Andrew E. pp. 262
  24. Rotstein, Abraham. pp. 112
  25. Rotstein, Abraham. pp. 113
  26. Horrall, Andrew. “A Century of Canadian Art”: the Tate Gallery exhibition of 1938.” British Journal of Canadian Studies 27, 2 (2014) pp. 150
  27. Dryden, Sarah. “In Search of a Nation: Canada’s Continuing Struggle for Identity.” Hardvard International Review 17. No. 3. (1995) 50
  28. Cook, Ramsay. “Landscape Painting and National Sentiment in Canada.” Historical Reflections 1. 2 (1974) pp. 263
  29. Butz, David A. “National Symbols as Agents of Psychological and Social Change.” Political Psychology 30, 5. (2009) pp. 780
  30. Cook, Ramsay. pp. 265
  31. Ibid
  32. Mackey, Eva. “Death by Landscape: Race, Nature, and Gender in Canadian Nationalist Mythology.”Canadian Woman Studies. 20, no. 2 (2000) pp. 126
  33. Berland, Jody., et al. “Capital Culture: A Reader on Modernist Legacies, State Institutions, and the Value(s) of Art.” McGill-Queen’s Press. MQUP (2000) pp. 128
  34. Kim, Andrew E. pp. 265
  35. Dryden, Sarah. pp. 52
  36. Black, Conrad. pp. 101

Work Cited

Berland, Jody., et al. “Capital Culture: A Reader on Modernist Legacies, State Institutions, and the Value(s) of Art.” McGill-Queen’s Press. MQUP (2000)

Black, Conrad. “Canada’s Continuing Identity Crisis.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No.2 (1995) pp.99-115. Council on Foreign Relations.

Brunn, Stanley D. “Stamps as iconography: Celebrating the independence of new European and Central Asian States.” GeoJournal 52. No. 4. (2000) pp. 315-323.

Butz, David A. “National Symbols as Agents of Psychological and Social Change.” Political Psychology 30, No. 5. (2009) pp. 779-804

Canada Post. “Birds, Animals & Nature.” Canada Post Corporation. Accessed 8 April 2015. Web. https://www.canadapost.ca/shop/stamps-by-theme/birds-animals-nature.jsf

Cook, Ramsay, “Landscape Painting and National Sentiment in Canada.” Historical Reflections 1. No. 2 (1974) pp. 263-283

Corse, Sarah M. “Nationalism and Literature: The Politics of Culture in Canada and the United States.” Cambridge University Press. United Kingdom. (1997)

Dryden, Sarah. “In Search of a Nation: Canada’s Continuing Struggle for Identity.” Hardvard International Review 17. No. 3. (1995) pp. 50-51, 83

Fraser, Alistair B. “The Flags of Canada.” Fraser. (1998) Web. http://www.fraser.cc/FlagsCan/index.html

Gilbert, Emily., et al. “Nation-States and Money: The Past, Present and Future of National Currencies.” Business and Economics. New York (1999)

Gilbert, Emily. “‘Ornamenting the facade of hell’: iconographies of 19th-century Canadian paper money” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol. 16. No. 1 (1998) pp. 57-80

Horrall, Andrew. “A Century of Canadian Art”: the Tate Gallery exhibition of 1938.” British Journal of Canadian Studies 27, no.2 (2014) pp. 149-162

Kim, Andrew E. “The Absence of Pan-Canadian Civil Religion: Plurality, Duality and Conflict in Symbols of Canadian Culture.” Sociology of Religion. Vol. 54, No. 3 (1993) pp. 257-275

Osborne, Brian S. “Landscapes, Memory, Monuments, and Commemoration: Putting Identity in its Place.” Canadian Ethnic Studies. Vol. 33, No. 3 (2001) pp. 39-77

Mackey, Eva. “Death by Landscape: Race, Nature, and Gender in Canadian Nationalist Mythology.” Canadian Woman Studies. Vol. 20, no. 2 (2000) pp. 125-130

Maloney, Michael. ““One of the best advertising mediums the country can have:” Postage Stamps and National Identity in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.” Material Culture Review 77/78, (2013) 21-38.

McRoberts, Kenneth. “Canada and the Multinational State.” Canadian Journal of Political Science. Vol. 34, No. 4 (2001) pp. 683-713. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3232879

Rotstein, Abraham. “Canada: The New Nationalism.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 55, No.1 (1976) pp. 97-118. Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20039629

Appendix 1

Maloney, Michael. ““One of the best advertising mediums the country can have:” Postage Stamps and National Identity in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.” Material Culture Review 77/78, (2013) 21-38.

 

Canada Post. “Birds, Animals & Nature.” Canada Post Corporation. Accessed 8 April 2015. Web. https://www.canadapost.ca/shop/stamps-by-theme/birds-animals-nature.jsf

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Written by Daniel Govedar (April 2015)

Last Edited: December 01 2015.

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