I can’t remember where I saw my first Canadian flag. Listed on the last page of an atlas? Maybe. Probably sewn on a backpack, actually—Canadian travelers like to sport the Maple Leaf. Some even warn against “fake Canadians”: the joke goes that American travelers often put a Canadian flag on their luggage because abroad, it’s often much better to be seen as a Canadian—friendly person living in an igloo—than as an American—ooops, we bombed/invaded your country, didn’t we?
I found the design distinctive and pretty, as pretty as national flags go. I felt sorry for kids who had to draw it in class, though. In France, we had it easy with three vertical bands of equal width. Americans, Canadians or any member of the Commonwealth had to deal with complicated geometric figures, stacking stars into a small box or sketching a big leaf.
It would be years until I displayed a flag. Like many French, I associated the national flag to yes, the French Revolution—a long long time ago—but mostly to more contemporary dark periods of human history or far-right movements. Schools and administrative buildings fly the Tricolour but individuals usually stay away from such display of national pride. In fact, you’re more likely to see regional flags such as the Gwenn-ha-du, the white and black flag of Brittany, or the Moor’s head, the flag of Corsica. Sadly, French flags often end up in the tattooed hands of neo-Nazis who occasionally feel the need to flex their beer-gut muscles and march, demanding that all those who can’t trace their ancestry back to Jeanne D’Arc to get the fuck out—who would want to be associated with them?
The Old World has a complicated relationship with national pride. Such term make us all a bit uneasy. No one wants to open Pandora’s box… again. French feel occasional bursts of pride when they win a big football game (it doesn’t happen that often) but few of us can sing La Marseillaise past the first verse. I wouldn’t even know where to buy a French flag, and anyone displaying it proudly out of context would be seen as bizarre at best, xenophobic at worst. National pride is expressed differently, not through official national symbols but mostly through gastronomic, cultural and artistic traditions. For instance, claiming “I’m proud to be French and I love my country” feels weird, but you can say “merde, French food is the best“.
When I first came to Canada, the national hockey team was about to win double gold in ice hockey at the at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Because of the much-anticipated Canada–USA matchup—even as a tourist I sensed that hockey mattered a lot—the number of Canadian flags didn’t surprise me. The Olympics are, by nature, an event where a little display of national pride (and shame) is encouraged.
But after the last puck was shot and the last beer was drunk to Mario Lemieux and team, the flags stayed—on top of government buildings or businesses (and inexplicably a car dealership close to home), on balconies, in apartment windows, in front of houses, on bumpers and on clothing items.
“Are Canadians suffering from amnesia? Doing too much drugs?” I thought. “Do they need a constant reminder that they are, indeed, in Canada? Isn’t the wind chill factor a good enough clue?”
As I quickly noticed, displaying the Canadian flag wasn’t as controversial as displaying a French flag. Everyone seemed to adopt it, newcomers and “WASP” Canadians alike. Only Québécois liked their own provincial flag best.
Over the years, I got used to seeing the flag everywhere, including on all the letters Citizenship and Immigration was sending me. There were like a trail of white and red pebbles to follow to become Canadian.
In 2009, I was given my very own flag during the citizenship ceremony. I wasn’t sure what to do with it—I waved it shyly. In fact, the ceremony had moved me more than I had thought. I had never been one to embrace patriotism but damn, finally, I had become Canadian, a citizen of a country I had chosen myself. The flag meant “welcome” and “you made it”. It was an inclusive symbol, the final milestone of a journey.
Today, I see the Canadian colours as a friendly symbol uniting all Canadians from all walks of life, an inclusive flag for all those who know what shoveling snow in April feels like. And admittedly, considering our Southern neighbours and their own flag addiction, you have to display a little bit of patriotism… at least, this way, tourists know when they crossed the border, eh!