How to re-make a country

Elizabeth May

“You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it,” Stephen Harper in 2006,
-Noah Richler, National Post, May 5, 2012

How do you re-make a country?  How do you transform values and a culture without asking permission?

It may seem a strange parallel, but what Stephen Harper is doing to Canada reminds me of what Roman Emperor Constantine did to Christianity.  He might have said “You won’t recognize Christianity when I am through with it,” although he certainly did not.  He took a clandestine and illegal religious practice and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. (So, not so much what Harper is doing.)  Set all that aside for the bits that I find reminiscent of what is happening to Canada under Harper.

Constantine understood the importance of symbols.  The persecuted Christians celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday, and they shunned such pagan trappings of sun worship as candles, incense, processions, cloaks, and hierarchical priesthoods.  To allow Christianity to be accepted among the pagans, a few adjustments were needed.  Worship moved to Sunday (a nice nod to the sun worshippers who were said to be able from the steps of most churches to make their usual bow to their sun god on the way in to church). And all those pagan trappings – candles, incense, robes and so on moved to the heart of the Roman church.  As a practicing Christian I love all those elements of liturgy, but I grew up with them.  Imagine the shock of those previously thrown to the lions to discover that the bargain that allowed open worship was to accept wholesale the icons of another faith.

Stephen Harper is remaking Canada, one brick at a time.  The legislative fabric of the country is being decimated through omnibus bills and legislation designed, not as good public policy, but as messages suited for a focus group.  He is re-making our civil service into an arm of his PMO, filled with terrorized and demoralized men and women who hope that someday they will be permitted to do their job once again. And he has rallied Canadians to any number of Roman-like circuses to keep our minds off the activity behind the Coliseum.  In 2012, we saw $28 million splashed around for the celebration of the Bicentenary of the War of 1812.  The 60th anniversary of her Majesty’s reign cost $8 million and $5 million each for the centenaries of the Grey Cup and the Calgary Stampede.  Clearly, Stephen Harper likes whipping us up into a fervor about anniversaries of milestones in Canadian history  –  but only certain milestones….  The 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms went uncelebrated.

Which brings me to our new $20 bill.  It is repulsive to the touch.  A new shiny, polymer; gone is the texture of linen.  The claim is that it will deter counterfeits. According to the fellows with whom I chat at BC Ferries, the bills are a headache.  They stick together and they tear easily.  They are rumoured to melt near flame.  Some media coverage has lamented that the maple leaf on the new bill is an invasive species.  Gone is the Canadian sugar maple, replaced with the Norway maple.  (You’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all). Bank of Canada spokespeople defend the new leaf as a “stylized blend” of various Canadian maples.  Botanists are not impressed.

The loss of an indigenous tree is a perfect metaphor for the rest of the bill.  The changes are as invasive as a Norway maple.  We have lost the most iconic and inspiring piece of monetized Canadian art.  Haida artist Bill Reid’s masterpieces adorned the old bills.  Raven discovering mankind in a clam shell (a Creation myth that occurred on the beach at Masset), the “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” canoe, with its spiritual and mythical creatures, the face of the moon, the killer whale – all superimposed on the back of the twenty.  In very fine print, the words (in English and French), a quote from Quebec writer, Gabrielle Roy:

“Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” « Nous connaîtrions-nous seulement un peu nous-mêmes, sans les arts? »

I loved that bill, not least because I had the great privilege of knowing Bill Reid, and of visiting his warehouse on False Creek, Vancouver while Spirit Canoe was being carved.  Bill Reid’s hands shook too much from Parkinson’s at that point for him to do the carving, so an apprentice helped him.  The apprentice was brilliant Haida leader, Guujaaw, now President of the Council of the Haida Nation.  Bill had pointed out to me the symbolism of that mythical craft.  The trickster Raven held the tiller, with a dozen other spirit creatures  — Bear, Bear Mother,  Dogfish-woman, Eagle, Frog, Wolf, a Haida Watchman, and others all crammed into the canoe.  The largest of the sculptures was cast in bronze and sits in front of our embassy in Washington, DC. A Jade Spirit Canoe is in the Vancouver airport (as you go toward international departures – or for most of us — the bus connection to the ferry), while a much smaller plaster cast is in prominent position at the Ottawa-Gatineau Museum of  Civilization (now re-named the Museum of Canadian History).

And what art has replaced Bill Reid’s powerful sculptures?  The monument to Canadian death in battle in the First World War.  The Vimy Ridge Monument in France commemorates the emergence of a unified Canadian fighting force from four different divisions.  Over 7,000 Canadians were wounded in that spring 1917 assault and over 3,500 were killed.  The loss of life and the historical significance are undisputed – but why this monument (in a particularly ugly rendition)?

Stephen Harper understands symbols and icons.  In the same way that John Baird had his business cards re-made without the name of the building in which his department resides (the Lester B. Pearson Building), Stephen Harper wants us to hard-wire our patriotism to battle, blood and glory.

What more iconic statement can there be of the effort to remake our values than by taking away our mythological and spiritual symbols and replacing them with a slippery bill featuring a war monument and a non-Canadian maple?

Hang on to your old twenty dollar bills.  The new version of Canada does not fit our reality.  It’s the real counterfeit.