By James Fife
After the presidential election last November, I did something I had never done before: I started wearing a flag lapel pin. I always thought those little flags conveyed a pretension that the wearer was saying I'm more patriotic than you are. So it was odd that I donned one myself, except for one big difference. It wasn't an American flag I put on—it was a Canadian one. A little cheap bit of enameled metal I bought in one of the souvenir stores along Government Street for just this purpose. Because when my co-workersimmediately noticed this addition and asked about it, I said it indicated my "alternative nationality," which I intended to wear continuously for the next four years (or impeachment, whichever came first). But what began as a quiet and subtle sort of protest had an unanticipated effect, on me and on those I encountered.
After a couple of strangers on the Trolley I ride on to and from work remarked on the pin, I began to realize people were reacting to the little Maple Leaf literally and not as the wry comment it held for me and my familiars. This struck me fully when one woman just launched into telling me how her boyfriend was a Canadian, from Winnipeg, and how much he liked it there. Of course, it dawned on me: people seeing that pin understood it as an indication that I am Canadian (as I legitimately am, however new that realization was to me).
But once that notion sank in, I began to puzzle over just how it was affecting those who saw the pin and recognized its significance. I suspected my little l'Unifolié of causing others to perceive me personally in a different way. Maybe as someone separate from and above the fray of American public life these days? It marked me as a neutral in the raging culture-wars in the United States. I wondered if I was now also being clothed in the American stereotype of Canadians. Was I being pegged immediately as benignly harmless, non-threatening, and polite to a fault? I imagined this was how a priest or nun feels in public: the 'uniform' automatically marks them as someone that no one need worry about. They stand out from the crowd as someone who not only raises no threat, but is more likely to a counterbalance to any trouble that might brew up. I pondered whether Canadians, like a man of the cloth, would be perceived as someone whose presence alone ratchets down the anxiety level a notch or two.
Now, I don't know that anyone around me was really looking at my pin and making that connection. But, the point is, because I started imagining I was having that effect, I found I was beginning to act the part, to embody that ideal. To the extent my lapel-pin message was being received, I was trying to live up to that message and properly be the person I imagined it implied. As the famous Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan observed, “The medium is the message.” So, if I was going to wear that pin, I had to walk the walk and live up to it by acting in a way that reflects the essence of what I have come to admire and appreciate about Canada. Unexpectedly, the joke morphed into a subtle sense of duty.
That duty or responsibility to act the part came home especially in the aftermath of the recent G7 nations meeting. There the whole world was treated to an exhibition of the differences in attitude among our countries, as reflected in the personal conduct of their individual leaders. What messages did the conduct of Donald Trump convey? His physically shoving aside the leader of a small country to seize the front row for himself is just emblematic of how the U.S. is perceived as treating other nations. And the decision to break ranks with the whole planet's adherence to the Paris Accord to pursue self-interest is just the same petty elbowing-aside, only writ large. And where was Canada in all that: quietly keeping its word to abide by the Accord, much like Justin Trudeau's contentedly appearing at the edges or in the back row during the group photos.
Messages have an effect, because they lead to conduct. I have no doubt that Donald Trump's constant campaign rhetoric against Muslims inspired the recent events in Charlottesville or in Portland, where a man named Christian (!) publicly harassed two women and then killed two passengers who came to their defense. Message received, it seems. But conduct also sends a message, like the one sent by the brave by-standers who put their lives in jeopardy to stand up to senseless bullying. I'm ashamed and saddened that people like Christian or the marchers in Virginia live in America. But I'm proud and enheartened that there are also people like Taliesin Meche and Rick Best, the two men who stepped up in Portland to oppose the downward spiral into hate and unrestrained narcissism and lost their lives to do so.
The message flowing from those samaritans' conduct inspires me to keep up my far more modest bid to be a 'man of the cloth' in public by wearing my pin and, more importantly, act the part it represents in my mind—to reflect the best of the attitudes I associate with Home North.