Tuesday, 22 November 2016


You’re All Right, Jack

The other day I went into our local Canada Post outlet to buy some stamps. I asked for a book of ten. The clerk, blonde and always cheery, suggested a set of 12 Christmas themed ones. I was about to say something like “Whatever” when I spotted a packet featuring a Montreal Canadiens CH sweater crest displayed under the plastic countertop. I pointed, I said, “I’ll take those instead.” She indicated that I’d be getting only six stamps. I said, “I’ll take two then, please.” I made an unexpected decision in a fraction of a second, without a conscious thought based on a visual cue.

Logos, emblems, mascots and symbols surround us, images of a language we all understand without having to consult a wordless dictionary.  They can be commercial or nationalistic, scientific or sacred. They may convey information or emotion; they can unite and they can divide. The mathematical symbol for infinity, a continuous line with neither beginning nor end, essentially a tipped over figure eight, was designed in 1655. Bald eagles are more numerous in Canada than they are in the United States yet we tend to think of the raptor as the “American bald eagle” and the bird stirs patriots as much as their beloved Stars and Stripes. A maple leaf is synonymous with Canada, so much so that American corporations operating in this country use it as an apostrophe in their subsidiaries’ word marks. The basic red leaf design is a child of the 60s though it seems as curiously ageless as the cross of St. George.

Choosing a new emblem or symbol is an exercise fraught with peril. Ask a New Zealander about the flag debate in that country. Here in Edmonton the mayor is soft selling a new civic flag. Last week the Royal Canadian Geographic Society in conjunction with Canadian Geographic magazine announced that the gray jay had been designated Canada’s national bird. Nothing is official until Parliament makes it so. The unveiling of a new national symbol would dovetail nicely with the celebrations planned for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

Once known as the Canada jay, the gray jay should be properly called the grey jay north of the Medicine Line but America exercises its global power even in ornithological circles. Canadians in all provinces and territories are familiar with the bird that is too tough to migrate. All of us call it a “whiskey jack,” a corruption of the Cree word “wisakedjak” which translates as “mischievous prankster.” Owls are wise; loons are crazy. I applaud the whimsy of the Society’s selection of a good natured joker.

Now, the gray jay may never fly. Or it could become a line in a dusty edition of Hansard, the official record of Parliament. Perhaps it seems absurd to even discuss the adoption of a new national symbol in the 21st century. We’ve managed to get this far thus far without it. Could the whiskey jack eventually match the beaver, that industrious nuisance that was the original economic foundation of these parts? I don’t know, but the way I see it with the way things are the world over in days like these, Canadians should, as we used to say after people freaked but before they lost their shit, have a bird.

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