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Howard Anglin: Canada’s new passport is too boring to be angry about

Commentary

Maybe I was inoculated by low expectations, but I expected to be more annoyed by the Trudeau government’s new passport design. Instead, I was just nonplussed. My first reaction was that it’s too boring to be angry about. Of course it’s bad, but honestly I was expecting worse. I was almost relieved when it turned out to be just offensively inoffensive, rather than actively offensive.

The other reason the launch left me more deflated than infuriated is the nagging feeling that Canada now has a passport that suits the country we have become. 

Start with the cover. The coat of arms that has graced Canadian passports for decades is still there,But only because this government couldn’t manage to align its redesign of our national symbols, so the newly unveiled “snowflake” crown came too late to be included in the passport. but it’s shunted into a lower corner and framed by a stylised modern maple leaf that appears either to be emerging from or hiding behind it. In the opposite corner, the words “Canada,” “Passport,” and “Passeport” are stacked uncomfortably in that ungainly way typical of right-justified text.

It’s a cover that hedges its bets. A bit of old, a bit of new; no choices, no commitments. It is a passport for a country that is vaguely embarrassed by who we were, doesn’t know who we are, and can’t decide who we want to be, designed by a government so afraid of giving offense that it ends up with nothing to say.

Inside is no better. Gone are the finely-drawn images of Canadian history, natural and man-made vistas, and great Canadians. Gone are Confederation, the Vimy Memorial, the Korean War, and the Grey and Stanley Cups. Gone are Halifax Harbour, Citadel of Quebec, and the Peace Tower. Gone too are Samuel de Champlain, Billy Bishop, Terry Fox, and Nellie McClung.

I expected some of these changes, but I did think the Liberals would keep at least a few of the old images while adding a few of their own. Canada has no shortage of worthy places—Gros Morne National Park, Algonquin Park, Moraine Lake, Chesterman Beach—persons—Alice Munro, Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Chief Crowfoot, Gabrielle Roy—or artists—Bill Reid, William Kurelek, Benjamin Chee Chee, Emily Carr, Jean Paul Lemieux—on which to base new pages.

A rotation through national icons would have been understandable and reasonable, even if it meant a little more of Pearson’s and Trudeau’s vision of Canada and a little less of Borden’s or Harper’s. Instead, the new passport art gives the distinct impression of having been workshopped by committee into banality. The government’s instructions to the design team might as well have been: blander is always possible.

If the minister really wanted to be daring, she could have commissioned an active artist to design a new passport. We actually used to do that sort of thing when we were a younger, more ambitious country, brimming with self-confidence. Canadians of a certain age will remember the centennial coins designed by Alex Colville in 1967, which circulated well into the 1980s, their stark animal designs adding numismatic variety to dresser-top change jars.

But that would require vision, which is not something this government—if I’m being honest, this country—has much of anymore. We are parched for confidence. Instead of vision, we get visuals, and on that front the new passport delivers … at least if you hold it under ultraviolet light (remember to bring your passport to the next rave, I guess?). I wonder if a generation raised on flashy technology in a country that no longer teaches history recognises the difference.

I’ve seen it reported that the new passport shows “more nature and less history,” but this isn’t quite true. There is no actual nature in the new design. There is nowhere that is recognisably part of Canada or even recognisably real. There are only stylised images of generic seasonal imagery. Any hint of an identifiable place, substantive history, or meaningful symbolism has been scrubbed from the pages by multiple rounds of gimlet-eyed bureaucratic scrutiny.

We are left with simplified scenes of the northern lights, a pumpkin patch, bears in a forest, children in the snow, a canoe on a lake: pictures that could be anywhere, but are in fact nowhere, populated by figures that could be anyone, and are thus no one. It’s all colourful superficies and carefully curated insignificance.

Yann Martel hit a nerve a few years ago when he described Canada as “the greatest hotel on earth.” He meant it as a compliment to a country that “welcomes people from everywhere,” but a man who earns his living peddling words should have chosen his better. An hotel is not a home. At best it’s a place to make a few memories; at worst it’s a refuge for the sort of transactional relationships that prefer anonymity.

The new passport looks like it was designed for such a sterile country. It’s a passport of convenience for a country of convenience, an electronic key to Hotel Canada.

Ok, now I’m angry.

Janet Bufton: There’s no getting around politics

Commentary

This publication is fond of running stories asserting that Canada is in the doldrums. To many, Canada seems broken. 

Rather than despair, we should listen to Paul Wells: “We must all abandon hope for a brighter past. The question is what any government can do next.”

As the resident misfit libertarian, I am contractually obligated to say something about that “government” part. But I think that Wells characteristically puts his finger on something important. 

I’d amend it to this: We must abandon all hope of a past that could give us an easy solution now. The question is, “What’s next?”. When answering that question, there’s no getting around politics. 

What is politics?

When a normal person says “politics”, they mean partisan politics—campaigning for offices, donating to or joining a party, standing for election—or pressure campaigns targeting politicians. Unburdened as I am by concerns about normality, I want to expand our idea of politics. 

Not everything is political—in fact, in our frustration at what feels like a broken system, we too often stick politics where it doesn’t belong. But non-political social and community activities form the backdrop for our politics. 

Identifying a community problem and trying to solve it, either individually or as part of a group, doesn’t just address that problem. Individuals and groups trying to solve social problems demonstrates that those problems can be addressed. People learn about the problems their communities face, and they’re armed with skills for tackling those problems. Addressing community problems also builds community and social capital.

Taking a slightly different approach: having hard conversations about important topics and facing when we might be wrong isn’t just good for us as individuals. It affects how public opinion is formed because we and the people we talk to are part of “the public.”

These activities don’t have to be purposefully political to change how we think about social problems, how to prioritize them, and how to solve them. And thinking about, prioritizing, and imagining solutions to social problems seems to be where Canadian politics is coming up short. When people look to their political leaders for what to do next, and political leaders are looking at opinion polls for direction…well. It’s not surprising if it doesn’t go anywhere. 

In the U.S., politicians are compensating for a lack of direction with a culture war. We don’t have to take that path. Nor do we need a new vision to get behind, and we shouldn’t want one. We need solutions to problems. We need to better judge when politics might help and when politics needs to get out of the way.

There’s a big problem

Here is where I meet my contractual obligation: I don’t think we can expect any government to change substantially unless Canadians are willing to put demands for specific goals and accountability for achieving them ahead of their disdain for the other side. 

Libertarians believe that governments do the things they do badly. The libertarian solution to unsatisfactory governments is to replace as many of the actions taken by the government with voluntary solutions as possible. But while it’s uncontroversial to say governments aren’t doing the things Canadians want, the usual conclusion is that the governments need more capacity, not fewer responsibilities.

We live in a liberal democracy. If libertarians want responsibilities taken away from the government, we have to convince people that responsibilities should be taken away from the government. 

Michael Munger, an economist at Duke University (and repeat candidate for government offices), argues that not just libertarians but all people who want the government to work differently face the same problem. The laws and institutions we have exist because people have either pushed for those laws and institutions or are used to them as they are. It’s easier to get everyone to agree that things generally aren’t working well than to agree about reform. For any particular change, some people will show up to defend the part that works well for them. The sum of that opposition makes change hard. Change only happens if people who want change are as motivated as people against it. 

The idea that change means motivating a lot of people or changing lots of minds, rather than just convincing a few politicians, feels overwhelming. But things have been worse than they are now, and people made them better. Big, overwhelming problems are made of small parts. 

Start with small solutions

It’s the fact that some of the most basic problems aren’t being solved that makes everything feel so broken. Regardless of whether you’re skeptical of government overall, we should be skeptical about whether governments are the only appropriate tools for solving basic problems.

People who exercise their civic muscles by tackling the problems they see in society are more fit for the political action necessary for a working democracy. The urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote, “When humble people, doing lowly work, are not solving problems, nobody is apt to solve humble problems.” Jacobs observed that people who get involved in their community can become fixtures for more community action, potentially creating a virtuous cycle of participation—and public accountability. 

Jacobs herself famously lead community opposition to city-level development that would have bulldozed what people wanted for their own neighbourhoods. But in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs also talks about “humble people” solving other problems. For example, English-speaking parents organizing to help the children of immigrant parents with English-language homework—an initiative Jacobs’ sister-in-law travelled around the city to help spread. In our own time, community fridges come from ordinary people trying to make sure everyone has enough food. YIMBY groups are a new political force working to change the politics around home building. 

Ordinary people can and do address the basic problems facing society. 

To join them, we can start small. Join a Jane’s Walk in your city to learn more about your neighbourhood. Look for volunteer opportunities at your library or food bank. Does your street participate in a neighbourhood yard sale (could it)? Contact the organizers of projects that exist in other cities that you wish could exist where you live. 

Get curious about one thing you disagree with and find someone who believes it to help you understand. If you’ve got a point of view you don’t see represented, learn to write an op-ed—and write one! Don’t take things working well for granted. Things that are working well could probably also use your help.

And here’s something anyone can do: when you see someone trying something that you don’t think will work, don’t berate it or tear it down. Try to appreciate good intentions and that people are trying. We need more people trying.

Brokenness feels big. These things feel small. But they flex important social muscles that are weak, maybe especially weak since the pandemic. They prepare us for when we will need to be even stronger than before.