Wholesale changes long overdue to dated Canadian icons

In the years since the 1960s a lot of ornery Anglophilic monarchist types have loudly bemoaned their collective decline as trusted guardians of Canada’s national symbols. “God Save the Queen” is no longer sung, the union jack is off our national flag, and framed portraits of the Windsors only remain in a handful of our nation’s most depressing community centers. Whatever colonial insecurities such royalist iconography inspires today, the monarchists are right to assert that these symbols were, at one time, unquestionably Canadian.
Canadian Anglophilia fell out of favor for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it was assumed to antagonize Quebec, a concern which, as well all know, rose to a priority of utmost importance among this country’s postwar ruling class. In such a climate, monarchism became increasingly reactionary, evolving into a symbol of defiant conservative English Canadian nationalism, a vain attempt to preserve a few cherished symbols of the majority culture’s former glories from the Francofying yoke of Trudeaupian postmodernism. But in the year 2010, even the most reactionary Anglo has a hard time pining for the Red Ensign or defending the concept of King Charles with a straight face. For any group to survive, it needs symbols, and conservative English Canadians have never found good symbolic substitutes for the imperialist trinkets of yore.
If forced to compile a list, the United States of America would probably sit near the top of worthy iconic contenders.  As we all know, liberal Canadians are fond of using America as their all-purpose whipping boy to beat down policies they dislike (which is to say, those of the right), which puts conservatives into the pro-America camp almost by default. But unless handled with the utmost of care, American apologism will always be political poison in a country with as many little brother complexes as ours.
It’s the Canadian military, therefore, that seems to show the greatest promise of evolving into a strong icon of lasting Conservative nationalism. That’s certainly seems to be the hope of the current prime minister, at least, who never misses an opportunity to remind us, often through photo ops, of just how serious his government is about “strengthening Canada’s armed forces.”
Demographically, it makes sense. The Canadian military is dominated by white, English-speakers from lower-income backgrounds, many of whom hail from the country’s more rural communities — a profile which happens to align quite nicely with that of your average Conservative voter. Military values also align well with the conservative political platform: sacrifice, self-reliance, respect for authority, supporting our US allies (there’s that again), guns, indifference to international law, etc. And for those few archaic Tory monarchists who are still with us, the Canadian military remains one of the last frontiers of the old-school imperialist nationalism of yore, a place where you can still join regiments named in honor of long-forgotten princess and dukes, and where luf-tenants will still demand you do one extra push-up for Her Majesty.
Yet what conservatives fail to appreciate in their drive to build up and glorify the Canadian armed forces is the unavoidable fact that the military is, at the end of the day, just another government bureaucracy. A new form of nationalism based on military-love may be robust and manly, but it is ultimately not that substantially different from the healthcare-and-CBC lovin’ strain of liberal nationalism it seeks to displace. Both styles rely heavily on government programs to provide a sense of purpose to the nation, and both create a narrative in which expressions of patriotism become irreversibly bound up in the dreary world of Canadian politics. When your love of country stems from your love of this-or-that government service, the proudest act of patriotism becomes lobbying for its increased funding, and the most nationalistically important event of the year becomes the construction of the federal budget.
Conservatives are supposed to view state spending with a critical eye, and the Canadian military doesn’t serve a whole lot of readily-evident purpose. Indeed, rather like the Canadian Senate, it spends an awful lot of its existence convincing the rest of the country that it actually remains a worthy recipient of all the tax dollars it gobbles down. While we all respect the sacrifices our men and women have made in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan, and while most of us would concede such places are overall better from Canada’s involvement, the fact remains that such conflicts are wars of choice; honorable, but not necessary.
Even domestic military adventures, such as the recently emboldened crusade to “defend Canada’s arctic sovereignty” (from who or what is never exactly clear) are at best the equivalent of the make-work projects that characterize so much of the Canadian bureaucratic landscape. Worship of the state almost always begets waste and extravagance, and turning government programs into golden calves negates our ability to view them rationally and critically. The debate over what sort of armed forces Canada wants and needs is far from settled. Embanking the status quo behind a wall of patriotism serves the interests of no one.
As far as symbols go, Canadian conservatives could do a lot worse than the military. But if they truly desire a cultural shift away from big government as the sole fountain of national purpose they could do a lot better, too.

//J.J. McCullough

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