Flagged Down: A Story of Canadian Pride

Note: I was going through some old stuff and found this story I wrote back in 1998. It still seems relevant, so I thought I’d share it here.

When I was preparing for a trip to Europe recently, I bought a package of fabric flags. I sewed a big maple leaf on my backpack, another on my jacket, and a small one on my cap (I chose my Montreal Canadiens cap because it was the only one I had that didn’t have an American star emblazoned on it). I even bought small maple leaf stickers and attached them to my luggage.

None of my friends or family questioned why I did this. They all took it for granted that I would want a Canadian flag on everything I owned. It wasn’t until I arrived in England and met my tour group that I began to wonder if I was strange.

No other country seemed to find it necessary to advertise. On my tour, there were people from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Africa, and you couldn’t find a flag anywhere on them. The three Canadians, on the other hand, had their nationality stamped on everything from fanny packs to makeup kits. In a crowd of tourists, the Canucks were easily identifiable, because they were the only ones wearing any flag at all.

It got to be a big joke among the people on our tour. A girl from Hamilton said we all wore the maple leaf because the airport authorities wouldn’t let us leave the country without one — and only the Canadians realized she was kidding.

One day when I was wearing my cap, my jacket and my backpack (all three flags at once), a guy from South Africa said he couldn’t stand it anymore. He asked me why all Canadians do this. I told him the answer was simple: we didn’t want to be seen as American.

I always thought Canadian culture suffered from a lack of definition. I don’t know anyone who could name a uniquely Canadian food, or type of music, or manner of dress. We watch American television, go to American movies, and listen to American music. There’s an old joke that says inside every Canadian is an American, and to be honest, most of us could pass for a Yankee if we wanted to. I used to believe that being Canadian consisted entirely of trying to prove we weren’t from the States.

But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe we just use anti-Americanism as a shield. Every fourth of July, I join the millions of Canadians who criticize the zealous flag-waving of our southern neighbors. We call them arrogant and self-centered, and we congratulate ourselves on our more laid-back national character. At least, we say, we aren’t like them.

But maybe deep down, we all wish we were.

It’s not that Canadians don’t have national pride. But try getting us to admit it. Unless it involves hockey, most of us don’t get too worked up about our country. A survey last year revealed that only 63 per cent of Canadians polled could recite the first two lines of the national anthem. Thirty-five per cent couldn’t name the three oceans that border the country. It’s almost as if we’re too bored with our own country to bother learning anything about it.

At the end of my European tour, we each passed around an autograph sheet for everyone to sign as a souvenir of our travels together. I expected to get at least one comment about the flags thing, and I did: a girl from New Zealand wrote on my sheet, “It was lovely to meet a proud Canadian.”

There is a lesson in this.