Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, and Superforecasting (with Philip E. Tetlock). His books have been published in 25 countries and 19 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Some thoughts about history on Victoria Day

On Victoria Day, this is a little essay with some random thoughts about symbols, history, and where Canada is now.

Have a look at this:

Queen Victoria

It is, of course, a portrait of Queen Victoria. It hangs on my cottage wall, along with portraits of Laurier, Gladstone, Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, King Edward, and sundry long-dead notables. (Someone once commented that the room appears to have been decorated by Agatha Christie. That is entirely accurate.)

I discovered Her Majesty’s dark and glowering presence at a junk shop in Westport, Ontario. The owner told me she got the portrait at an estate sale in Westmount, the old Montreal Anglo neighbourhood. A thick layer of soot clung to the glass so I can only assume it hung in a smoke-filled room for generations. After some vigorous cleaning, Her Majesty still glowered, but brightly.

Perhaps this old monarch presided over a parlour in which Montreal notables drank sherry and grumbled about the latest news from the Boer War. A nice image. A little history. But is that all there is? Let’s take a closer look.

First, the maker and the occasion, printed at the bottom: “PUBLISHED WITH THE MONTREAL WITNESS, BY JOHN DOUGALL & SON, YEAR OF JUBILEE, 1887.”

The Montreal Witness was an influential Protestant newspaper published in English. John Dougall founded it in 1845 and it continued publishing until 1938. Not surprisingly, given the time, it was anti-Catholic. When a former priest started writing for the newspaper, the Catholic Church formally forbade Catholics from reading it. (“The past is a foreign country,” the British novelist L. P. Hartley famously observed. “They do things differently there.” For a modern Canadian, there’s no better reminder of that than the bewildering role of religion in 19th century Canada.)

Now, think about this portrait again. It was a newspaper insert. And look at the frame. It’s modest. Did it really hang in the parlour of some wealthy Montreal merchant? Possibly, but let’s not allow Westmount stereotypes to cloud our judgement. The modest many far outnumbered the rich few. It’s more likely that someone of limited means clipped it from the newspaper, framed it, and hung it on the ordinary wall of an ordinary home. This was common practice. I’ve seen portraits of monarchs hung in frames made of boards split by hand with an axe. Newspapers weren’t propagandizing when they printed images of monarchs. Or rather, they weren’t only propagandizing. They were satisfying popular demand.

As for the “Year of Jubilee,” that’s the Golden Jubilee of 1887, half a century since Victoria became Queen in 1837. For Canadians in 1887, Victoria’s reign was already a watershed.

In 1867, Queen Victoria had signed Canada into existence and made Ottawa its capital. As the first dominion, Canada became a model of development – colonies becoming semi-independent countries within the empire – that would be followed in Australia and elsewhere. But much more than politics had changed.

When Victoria took the throne in 1837, slavery had only recently been abolished. Rail was almost non-existent in Canada. Information still moved at the speed of a horse. In many ways, the world was much as it had been in the 18th century and the centuries before. But by 1887, trains, steamships, telegraphs, photographs, and mass-circulation newspapers had connected the vast, isolated distances in Canada, and connected Canada with Britain, the Empire, and the world. It was a transformation more profound than the introduction of the personal computer and the Internet. And with electrification, it was accelerating.

To most Canadians, this era of dizzying growth and change was embodied in Queen Victoria. It was hard to recall life before her. By 1887, Victoria’s birthday – May 24th – has already been an official holiday in Canada for 42 years.

We can be sure that this was far from the only one of John Dougal’s newspaper inserts to be clipped and framed.

So let’s take a look at the details of the portrait.

Notice that there are small scenes in the four corners. The top left is the Queen being crowned and “taking the oath to defend the Protestant faith.” (John Dougal was clearly not fond of subtlety.) Top right is Prince Albert, Victoria’s beloved but quite dead husband, playing the organ for Felix Mendelssohn, the great composer. Bottom left is Victoria visiting the wounded of the Crimean War, 1856. Bottom right is the Prince of Wales and son, “the heirs.”

So it’s mostly British royal history. Not much that’s specifically Canadian, you may think.

But notice also that the scenes are decorated with foliage. In one, it’s roses. In another, it’s thistles. A third is shamrocks. The fourth is maple leaves. That’s some obvious symbolism, right? The English rose, the Scottish thistle, the Irish shamrock, and the Canadian maple leaf.

But that’s wrong. A clue that it’s wrong can be found on the modern flag of Montreal, which is a red cross on a white background with a rose, a thistle, a shamrock, and a fleur-de-lis (plus a white pine in the centre, added in 2017). That’s an English rose, a Scottish thistle, an Irish shamrock, a French fleur-de-lis (the white pine represents indigenous peoples). These are quite literal symbols of ethnicity for the city of Montreal.

But if that’s the case, the maple leaf on the 1887 portrait looks out of place. To us, it’s a national symbol, not tied to any ethnicity, yet here, logically, it should stand for the French in Montreal. But if it’s supposed to mean that, why wasn’t a fleur-de-lis used?

This is where the history gets obscure. And fun, if you are so inclined, as I am. Let’s go through the history of each symbol:

The rose came to prominence in the Middle Ages as a symbol of Mary, mother of Jesus. Much later, it was used in various places by noble houses – think Game of Thrones – including those of Lancaster and York, who fought “the War of the Roses” for control of the throne. Their roses were symbolically fused in the Tudor rose to mark unity. But most of that story is bullshit. The use of the symbols was post-facto exaggerated for purposes of later political propaganda, and the “War of the Roses” was a romantic moniker invented centuries later. But never mind. The rose became an important symbol in English heraldry, boosted further when Queen Elizabeth, the virgin Queen, used the symbol because she wanted to make the connection with Mary. (Symbols are always propaganda, in the literal sense.)

The Scottish thistle again emerges from layers of often self-serving myth. The standard story is that the King of Norway, who held mainland territory in Scotland, invaded with the intent of taking more. One force crept forward in the night to launch a sneak attack, so, to be as quiet as possible, they removed their footwear. One man stepped on a thistle, yelped, and Scotland was saved. Great story. Probably bullshit. But a great story.

As for the Irish shamrock, legend has it that when St. Patrick was converting the heathens in Ireland he used shamrocks to illustrate the Trinity. The shamrock was thus a religious symbol for many centuries. Only in the late 18th century was it first used for secular purposes when – this is so Irish – rival militias appropriated it.

Notably, none of these symbols was used as a truly national symbol, meaning symbols representing a sovereign people. That’s largely because the idea of “a people” is mostly a 19th century invention, and only then does it become common to use these symbols to mean “the English” or “the Irish.”

(Another notable theme: Everyone ignores the Welsh. The original floral symbol of Wales is a leek. That may explain why.)

So when Montreal created its first coat of arms, in 1833, it came up with something that looks a lot like today’s flag: A red cross with the rose, thistle, and shamrock to refer specifically to the English, Scottish, and Irish populations of Montreal. And the fourth symbol, for the French? Not the fleur-de-lis. A beaver.

This made historical sense, for obvious reasons, but you can imagine John Dougal preparing his portrait of Queen Victoria and thinking, “three plants and a rodent? Seriously?” He doesn’t want to spoil his portrait with a wet rat. But he’s got to have a symbol for the French in Montreal. And it has to be like the other symbols – a plant of some kind.

So why didn’t he use the fleur-de-lis? Why the maple leaf?

The fleur-de-lis is ancient, appearing in many different cultures, ranging from what is today’s southern Russian to India, but in the Middle Ages, it was commonly used by French kings. It symbolized power, not people, and it evolved into a symbol of the state. This explains why a common form of punishment – of criminals and escaped slaves – was to be branded with a fleur-de-lis.

When the French Revolution swept out the French monarchy in 1789, the fleur-de-lis was aggressively erased in much the same way that the Bolsheviks would erase Czarist symbols after taking power in Russia. As French nationalism rose, the idea of the French people, and French-ness, was expressed with the symbols of the revolution, not the fleur-de-lis, whose use faded.

The history was subtly different in Quebec. When New France came under new management in 1759, the fleur-de-lis fell into disuse but it was not actively erased and suppressed, so it could still be found on church bells and whatnot.

When a symbol for les Canadiens was needed, as in Montreal’s coat of arms, it was the beaver. Or a maple leaf. In fact, the original symbol of the St. Jean Baptiste Society, founded in 1834, was the maple leaf.

That’s what John Dougal meant by using the maple leaf in that portrait of Queen Victoria. It’s not a symbol of Canada. It’s a symbol of les Canadiens. But John Dougal was being a little old-fashioned in using it that way. By 1887, the maple leaf was well on its way to evolving from a symbol of the French people of Quebec to a symbol of Canada and Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds.

That transition was helped along by another that occurred simultaneously: In North America, the fleur-de-lis was revived as a symbol not of state power but of all things French. Montreal’s arms and flag were changed to replace the beaver with the fleur-de-lis in 1938 and 1939. The flag of Quebec, so similar to the old flag of royalist France with its prominent fleur-des-lis, was adopted in 1948.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, her birthday continued to be marked as a holiday in a country that had changed profoundly during her lifetime. When Queen Elizabeth (born April 21, 1926) took the throne in 1953, Victoria Day became the day when the reigning monarch’s birth would be officially celebrated -- an admirably frugal arrangement.

But Victoria Day remains Victoria Day. To nationalists of a certain vintage, a holiday named after the long-dead monarch of a long-gone Empire is an embarrassing reminder of the British Canada they grew up in. Pierre Berton, for one, wanted to turn Victoria Day into something eye-rolling like “Heritage Day.”

A more recent and resonant objection is that Victoria Day is colonialist and should be replaced or erased as part of indigenous reconciliation. There’s a story in the Globe today with someone making that case. Of course, the holiday’s roots in colonial history are hard to argue. This is Queen Victoria, after all. But it’s noteworthy that the person making this argument also objects to Canada Day on the same grounds. He has a point. Canada Day – like Canada itself – comes from the same colonial history.

Victoria Day is older than Canada Day by a century and a half, and older than the Dominion Day that Canada Day replaced by a quarter of a century. It’s older than the national anthem, the trans-continental railway, the Stanley and Grey Cups, and Confederation itself. It’s almost a century-and-a-quarter older than the red-and-white maple leaf flag that seems to be the only national symbol left that hasn’t faded, or become a dead letter, or come under fire for its connections to those parts of history everyone wishes had never happened.

But I suspect the flag’s time is coming. After all, it bears Canada’s official colours, chosen in 1921, at the peak of imperial bluster and racism, and the maple leaf was found on the flags at residential schools and the badges of the soldiers who fought Louis Riel. Like Canada Day, the flag is bound up in all the same history as Victoria Day, so if those who object to Victoria Day and Canada Day also object to the flag, they can’t be faulted for inconsistency – unlike those who would jettison one but not the others.

Of course the history of symbols is a history of evolution, as I hope is clear by now. But the line between evolution and erasure is fuzzy and easily crossed. And when there are profound political divides underlying the symbols, neither evolution nor erasure is likely to bring people together. When French revolutionaries hunted down and destroyed fleurs-des-lis and replaced them with new symbols, they only created the appearance of unity. And even that didn’t last.

For politicians faced with the existential imperative of reconciliation, and the immense complexity and political challenge that goes with it, symbols are easy. Get rid of this. Alter that. They’re among the few changes they clearly have the power to make and are, by their very nature, highly visible. That’s tempting.

But when there are cracks in the wall, changing the portrait of the person that hangs on the wall will do nothing to stop the cracks from growing. There really is no alternative to fixing the structure itself.