Monday, June 20, 2011

The Flag of Manitoba is a Curious Beast

Well, by the time I got back from Old Market Square and the Jazz Winnipeg free weekend, Sunday was technically over. So I'm still a post back, but it'll be caught up soon enough -- and Happy belated Father's Day, Winnipeg! It's customary to take this time to share paternal stories and memories, but I've noticed several times from past experience that all of the really good stories about my dad kind of unsettle people. (Which is too bad; they're really good stories.) So I'll take this time to write about something else, something we all see fairly frequently around here but give very little thought to or about:

The official flag of the Province of Manitoba.

It probably feels to most of us like it's been around forever -- it's certainly been around my whole lifetime -- but the Manitoban flag was only actually designed and approved in 1965, subsequently officially proclaimed and adopted in May of 1966. And I say 'designed' in the loosest sense of the word, since the entirety of its concept is the British Red Ensign with the provincial shield dumped onto it.

You're already well aware that our flag looks almost identical to the Ontario flag, if you've seen the two of them in the same place -- and the origin stories for the two of them are almost identical as well. Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson sparked a national debate when he proposed a new Canadian flag in June of 1964; the argument was contentious enough that it was seriously actually called the "Great Canadian Flag Debate", and you will note in that CBC clip I've linked that a room of two thousand Winnipeg Legionnaires is booing him for wanting to move away from the British flag.

Yes, iconic though it may be now, the Maple Leaf flag was bitterly unpopular among many groups at the time; three of those groups were British descendants, military families, and Progressive Conservatives, and all three combined made for some pretty sizeable chunks of Manitoba and Ontario. Both provinces also just so happened to have Progressive Conservative governments at the time, so both responded to this new national flag by immediately establishing protest provincial flags of their own -- specifically by reverting to the British Red Ensign, garnished with the very barest minimum of additions.

(My favourite protest, however, is still Diefenbaker's; when he finally died in 1979 and the Maple Leaf flag was laid upon his casket as per national procedure to honour former Prime Ministers, he made absolutely sure in his last wishes that the Red Ensign flag would then be specifically laid over the Maple Leaf flag to cover it up entirely. I can only hope to have the creativity and opportunity to do anything even half as spitefully, hilariously dickish when I'm dead.)

So where most other Canadian provinces have unique, carefully considered designs that speak to their history and sense of identity, the entirety of the messages conveyed by our Manitoban flag are "we love England" and "screw off, Pearson". And I mean, look, if you don't think that's funny, you and I got nothing to say to each other. But you would be absolutely correct in charging that our flag paints us as an unremarkable province with no discernable identity except as vindictive naysayers who fear and resent change.

The thing is, though -- we are an unremarkable province with no discernable identity except as vindictive naysayers who fear and resent change. So our flag is actually completely accurate. And the Canadian flag is famously cherished as part of Pearson's legacy for having arrived under his reign, but if you were to ask a hundred people on the streets of Winnipeg what accomplishment first pops into their head when they think of Duff Roblin, I would be legitimately amazed if even five people answered "he brought in our flag". They could be standing under the flag at the time and they still wouldn't think enough of the thing to answer with it.

No, nobody in the province particularly seems to like or enjoy the flag much -- unless you threaten to change it, and then look out. The currently-reigning provincial NDP made headlines ahead of its 2009 party convention when some members and constituents' associations floated the idea of introducting a resolution for a new flag, and the overarching party proper made sure to distance itself from the idea as quickly as possible when the public caught wind of it and soured on it immediately. So much for that trial balloon -- because we are vindictive naysayers who fear and resent change, yes, but also because the provincial NDP was still in its fanatical frenzy of putting the intrinsically awful Spirited Energy slogan on any square inch of free space it could find. These were not people you could trust with a provincial flag; these were not people you could trust with string.

No, the NDP never did make good on its threat whimsical notion to replace the Manitoba flag -- but they seemed rather stung by the outright rejection of the idea, and never did seem keen on keeping the existing flag around after that. Nobody seemed to notice, really, because it isn't a flag that anybody notices to begin with -- but one day I was tracking down information on something else entirely and the realization leapt out at me.

You ever look at the Province of Manitoba website? I mean, get a really good look at it? Here's a fun home game for you, if you're browsing through that site: can you find our flag anywhere? Does it even exist?

I don't think you could even discover what our flag is from our official provincial website. (Here, by contrast, is the website for Quebec.) Our provincial site has information on the protocol of raising the flag, and even has -- wait for it -- the flags of every other province, but no Manitoban flags even in the pictures of press conferences. The number of clicks necessary to reach our provincial flag currently sits at "unknown"; you are, by comparison, exposed to the still-rancid "Spirited Energy" slogan within one click.

The province also maintains a Facebook page (no flag), Twitter feed (no flag), and a YouTube account where the flag appears... technically twice, in the English and French incarnations of the Premier's recent television address.

So I guess the province does officially recognize the flag, after all: they recognize it as the little dollar-stole thingamajig in the Premier's office, the one considerably smaller than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers helmet and the Premier's pictures of himself.

(To the province's credit, you do have to give them this, they knew to disable the comments on these videos. Which is for the best.)

I don't know about you guys, but I maintain a consistent low-level surprise that none of our current provincial figures -- be they in office or running for it -- have thought to coopt the flag of Manitoba as their default personal backdrop. You know what I mean? Dudes like Jean Charest and Darrell Dexter mug in front of their flag instinctively, and candidates standing in front of flags is somewhat of a pastime down in the States, but nobody around here seems inclined to hitch themselves to our (admittedly unexciting, but nonetheless recognized) provincial symbol.

If I was running for something provincially, oh man, you could not keep me away from the flag. Have five of them loosely spiraled around flagpoles on a stage, have a big one hung along the wall for press conferences, have two medium-sized ones waving in the wind behind any outdoors photo-ops. It'd be like an Old Spice commercial. Look at the flag. Now look at me. Look again at the flag -- now back to me.

And if anybody asks what the deal is with the flags -- they wouldn't, but if they did -- just tell them it's a good flag. Wait! Tell them it's an unappreciated flag, one that deserves more credit and more exposure than it gets, just like this great province of ours. Then go on about believing very strongly in Manitoba and about carrying the past into the future and blah blah blah blah regional politics Mad Libs.

________ (place 1) NEEDS THE ________ (adjective 1) AND ________ (adjective 2) LEADERSHIP THAT ONLY ________ (party name 1) CAN PROVIDE

You know what the really weird thing is? Even the provincial Lieutenant-Governors have more charming flags than ours. Look at this right here:

Simple, clean, sleek, and still accomplished by just pasting the provincial shield into a standard template. Centering the design and toning down the colours makes a world of difference, doesn't it just? I'd wear that on a t-shirt, if I didn't know that the design is strictly reserved for the exclusive use of one person in the entire world. Food for thought, though!

In conclusion, I dig our flag, and I wish people would use it more often even though its design is admittedly kind of lame. I might buy one for the cottage, what the heck; may as well enjoy our flag a bit, right? It's unremarkable, unrecognized, fundamentally imbalanced, and deeply rooted in petulance -- and we wouldn't have it any other way.


One Man Committee said...

Brilliant post, James!

Interesting point you raise about the reluctance of Manitoba politicians to embrace the flag as a symbol. In fact, the only time I can recall the flag being used in any prominent way for political purposes was as a stage backdrop for the Filmon Conservative victory party on election night, 1995.

(I'm not sure if any video clips from that evening exist, but if you can find CBC's coverage you will be rewarded with a very awkward moment between Gary Filmon and Peter Jordan, aka Rocki Rolletti.)

Anonymous said...

"Premier's recent television address"

When was that clown on TV?