A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman
I collected flag cards. They were wallet-sized and thick, and the reverse side offered stats about each flag’s country. As they were available only in Scottie’s Potato Chips bags, I went through a period of intense chip consumption in an effort to complete my set. I managed to collect all but Greece, and kept them together with a rubber band. I’d have them now if not for my mother, naturally. The elusive and distinctive Greek flag has remained a favourite.
Flags fascinate me. They used to say a lot about countries, especially those incorporating colours and symbols from their historic past. Oddly, republican-minded Australia has retained its ensign-style flag even though Canada chose to ditch its own. (I recall being given the choice of a Canadian red ensign or a union flag to wave when Princess Elizabeth was whisked through Whitney Pier.) Some of the more modern flags look as though they’ve been designed by a badly fed decorating committee. But the use of colour and design can be fascinating, if rarely art.
When the mid-60s Canadian flag debate was in full flap, I favoured adapting the red ensign (Ontario and Manitoba had the right idea) or adopting a design that would shake things up. Instead, we got the ho-hum two-tone symmetry we’ve been sporting for years, courtesy of P.M. Pearson. (Designing a hockey sweater around the new flag made the 1972 Canada-Russia series hard on the eyes.) Of course, there’s affection for the old thing now, but familiarity breeds complacency. Have we ever had a fine artist design a flag, other than Newfoundland’s (Christopher Pratt)?
[Trivia: Can you name the country whose flag consists of a single block of colour? Can you name the colour most common to the world’s flags?]
I have never warmed to ours: too little colour variety, too much leaf. It’s time for another change, says I. Forty years of the red and white (yes, I know the colours are official) and a questionable leaf that looks like the Peace Tower in squiffy multiple; I say let’s freshen up the imagination.
The maple leaf is an odd national symbol. Especially a red one. It represents a week or two in a rather short season. A green leaf or leaf cluster was considered but rejected, though a green season’s a tad more generous to us than the red.
There are those who say flags are archaic and dangerous. They stir the blood and promote division. The flag is never waved more vigorously than during national disputes or wartime. Even in peacetime, people will wrap themselves in flags and die. They burn them to enrage their political adversaries and enflame their own passions.
Not incidentally, flags mean something only to the sighted.
But I like flags, not because they distinguish people and nations but because they are colourful and telling and potentially kinetic. And I am not interested in using my own flag to advance dogma. I wish I still had my set of the world’s flags, especially as many depicted then have been replaced.
[Answer to trivia questions: Iran’s flag is solid green. And red is the colour used most often.]
I favour a new flag competition. Of course, we’d have to beware of religious and ethnic symbols—too exclusionary. No crosses and crescents and stars with more than five points. And no mythic beasts, though I do love the flags of Wales and Bhutan. Forget, as well, Castor Canadensis.
Why not adapt the symbol already in use on Order of Canada decorations? The snowflake represents the defining Canadian season. Mon pays c’est l’hiver, as the frosty-haired fellow bellowed. Forget history. Here it is, the second flag in the world with one colour, sort of: an embossed white snowflake on a white ground. Now that would show imagination and an awareness of realities most real.