Thursday, May 30, 2013

The folk art of national identity

Growing up in Maine, the Canadian flag was a common sight — especially in the summertime, when the nearby town of Old Orchard Beach turned into a Québécois Saint-Tropez.

So I was surprised to learn that the Canadian national icon — its maple leaf flag — is a relatively recent invention, and the subject of bitter debate when it was proposed in the Canadian parliament in 1964.

Canada's old flag featured the Union Jack symbol, which was a a snub to French Quebec. In the mid-1960s, when the Québécois separatist movement began to organize, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson proposed a new national flag that could shore up the nation's unity and give it its own post-colonial identity.

This may not actually have been a productive political gambit. "Quebec does not give a tinkers dam about the new flag," said Liberal politician Pierre Trudeau (Trudeau himself would go on to become a Canadian icon in his own right as one of the nation's most successful and beloved Prime Ministers, mainly for moving the country beyond its British roots and championing a bilingual, multiethnic Canadian identity).

Fortunately, though, the rest of Canada did care about the flag. They mailed in thousands of suggestions in pen-and-ink drawings and watercolor paintings. Beavers, maple leaves, fleurs-de-lis, or the old Union Jack were common themes. Some of the public's suggestions have been digitized on this website from the University of Saskatchewan, and they're pretty amazing examples of Canadian folk art at a time when the adjective "Canadian" was actually beginning to mean something. Each one is a snapshot of a nation that's still trying to figure itself out.

A British-French mashup.

From Manitoba, April 1963:
"The top green strip portrays in the background the Rocky Mountains of the West and the Laurentians of the East....The second strip of yellow gold depicts the growing grain for which Canada is famous...The third strip describes untold numbers of rivers and thousands of lakes...the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic....The coats of arms of the ten provinces which make up Canada are in the shape of an arc and depicts its beginning and origin. Even the shape of the arc has a meaning - freedom, better life and individualism for all those who want to make Canada their new country."

I feel like lots of designs resemble hockey jerseys. From Alberta, 1964:

"Through the Maple Leaf, this flag represents Canada as always being in "the peerpetual light." A light shining over one Canada. People's choice #1."

 From Ontario, 22 May 1964:

"If we must have a new flag, it should be one to be proud of, that will bring unity to this wonderful country of ours....The ten maple leaves, for ten provinces. The Canadian Beaver, and waves are for 'from sea to sea.'"

 Quite a few didn't get the memo about how the Union Jack is faux pas in Quebec (submission from New Brunswick, 30 November 1964).
Canada rejected this one, but Idaho picked it out of the garbage and adopted it as its own state flag in 1967.

In the end, Canada avoided old-world heraldry altogether and went with a clean and strikingly modern design. Neither French nor English, the new Canadian flag was one of several mid-century innovations that helped the nation clear out its colonial baggage and define itself on its own terms.

Hat tip to Burrito Justice for finding these and writing about them in his post about funny animals as national symbols.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Fossil fuels bike tour

Late last fall, builders wrapped the construction of the new Veterans' Memorial Bridge, which spans the Fore River in the western reaches of Portland harbor. The project included a beautiful new bike path between Portland and South Portland, and this evening I went out to ride it for the first time this spring.

The old bridge (recently dismantled) used to run through the center of the photo above, immediately parallel to the railroad bridge at left. Its former course is now an empty lot with some remnant orange construction fencing. The coastline here is full of concrete riprap and odd tidepools formed from 20th-century construction debris.

Nearby on the Portland side of the bridge is Merrill's marine terminal, which transfers miscellaneous cargoes between ships and the railroad.  There's usually a large pile of coal here, but not much of it remained this afternoon. Maine has no coal-burning power plants, but at least one of its large paper mills still burns coal to fire its boilers.

I dig the interpretive signage.

Calcium carbonate, according to Wikipedia,  is mainly used in construction "as an ingredient of cement or as the starting material for the preparation of builder's lime by burning in a kiln." But these tank cars are more likely headed to one of Maine's paper mills, which are increasingly specializing in value-added coated paper products. Ground calcium carbonate can be used as a filler to substitute for wood fiber, and can also replace kaolin in glossy paper production.

A few years ago, some local philanthropists decided that they needed to beautify the oil tanks with art, and hired a Venezuelan-born artist to design the patterns. I admit I kind of like it, even though I blanch at how much money they spent on it. 

And I'm put off by the a strange impulse to cover the oil tanks in expensive sanctioned art. I'd like to hope that it brings more attention to the oil tanks and makes passing motorists think about their dependence on the global petrochemical industry. But I think most of the wealthy donors are hoping that the paint job will obscure the dirty truth.

On a bike, though, you don't just see the tanks — you smell them, too. A volatile organic bouquet of benzene and sulphates.

A bundle of pipes lead from these tanks to a wharf on the waterfront, where a fuel barge was docked this evening. Similar barges often can be seen refueling tanker ships in the harbor with bunker fuels — the cheapest and filthiest of oil products, so dirty that they generally can only be burned at sea, outside of state and national jurisdictions. A string of oil-containment booms snake out from the wharf's pilings.

For all the fossil fuels on display here, the ability to see them on foot, or on a bike, is a positive development. The new bridge replaces one that had been built in the mid-1950s and designed as a freeway spur. It had one narrow, crumbling sidewalk that dead-ended at a freeway interchange.

Thanks to extensive local activism, the new bridge includes a well-lit bike path, and a lower speed limit and narrower lanes. The freeway interchange on the South Portland side has been  narrowed to a bottleneck where it meets the bridge, in order to force car traffic to yield to bikes and pedestrians.

I like to think how we forced motorists to sacrifice a second or two on their drives across the harbor in order to make the bridge a friendlier place for those of us who prefer not to burn oil. Though I suppose this also means that a few motorists will live longer by not dying in car accidents, only to burn more oil in their old age.