Go to the passport office in St. John’s, and you’ll understand exactly why Fortis wanted to build a great big office tower right spang on the corner of Prescott and Water. The eighth-floor office
doesn’t look at the harbour: it stares back at the city, and from that height, looking into the hill, the incredible variety of St. John’s stares right back at you. It’s individual houses and higgledy-piggledy roof lines, bright colours in the April sunshine and an overall impression of a cityscape built by accident and individual tastes.
There’s plenty of “me” to the downtown, but very little “me-too.”
It’s like that in the passport office, too: a mother wants to add a new child to her passport, the infant a barely visible face inside a cocoon of colourful receiving blankets but about to be internationally recognized as a Canadian. Parents renewing a passport for their daughter, the family getting ready for yet another Orlando vacation where they’ll be renting a house and probably getting sunburned. Ex-spouses handling changing surnames and the accidental use of the wrong name in a passport signature. People being asked when they expect to travel: May 1, May 15.
Me? I’m not sure when I’ll need it, but I feel naked without it. My passport expired a couple of months ago, and that’s troubled me ever since I noticed the date. Maybe that’s what happens when you actually pick your citizenship; having made that choice, somehow, carrying that proof around with you when you travel is all the more important, as if you might be questioned and found wanting.
I always think about that passport when I’m coming back from somewhere outside the country. I’m proud to have that dark-blue rectangle, looking around at airports and seeing the green American rectangle with its eagle, the red and orange ones from other countries. Understated, ours is. Understated and Canadian.
And that’s the way we’ve been looked at for years by people outside this country.
I’m beginning to wonder if that wasn’t a different time.
A time when our foreign aid was targeted to the countries that needed it most, rather than — as it is now — directed in a large way to countries where we think we can make a buck later on.
When we were more like, I don’t know, Norway: big enough to host a Winter Olympics, independent enough to have our own distinct social code and social systems, and willing to set our own direction and agenda in foreign policy, instead of simply being another one of the “me-too” states.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did many things in government, but
I can’t help thinking that had Stephen Harper been prime minister when the second war in Iraq began, we would have marched along as another one of the coalition of the willing, trumpeting the need to stop Saddam Hussein from using the weapons of mass destruction that he didn’t really have.
That was a time when Canadians were known, militarily, as peacekeepers. They had blue helmets or blue berets and found themselves in appalling and dangerous circumstances — but they found themselves there at the behest of the United Nations, rather than the United States. Now, we’re at war in countries like Afghanistan, but no matter how much you support our troops in dangerous places, you can’t help but wonder if we haven’t become pawns of our largest neighbour’s particular geopolitical concerns.
Unlike the Americans, we used to export hope, not muddled versions of our own political ideology. Remember? There was a time when altruism didn’t used to be a dirty word in this country.
The best example? Harper’s much-ballyhooed international maternal health program. It’s a program mired in right-wing rhetoric, at least as far as it is one that talks about maternal health but only within the strictures of a comfortable western world. No mention of abortion here, not even for states where gang rape is a military weapon and pregnancies can be a death sentence. Maternal health indeed, but only so far as it won’t offend our traditional voter base — that’s a whole new kind of heaping self-serving. No abortion — we’ll just have new mothers and their children die instead.
It’s as unsettlingly ideological as the Conservative’s income-splitting strategy. Here’s some money in your pocket — so you can try and forget that the end model of the program works its absolute best if the largest wage earners (in this country, usually men) are at the office while someone else, usually the little woman, stays home with the kids. But of course, the injected ideology is just a near-accidental thing.
Years ago, consular officials suggested that, since not everyone could see your passport, a discreet Canadian flag patch on your luggage could work wonders to show you as a Canadian, rather than have people hear your voice and expect you to be American. They were right: it did. In school in Barcelona, I was “El Canadiense,” the Canadian.
I’m not sure how well it would work now. Internationally anonymous might be a better strategy than publicly Canadian.
I’ll get a new passport around the end of the month. Right now, my expired passport has had its corners cut off, and on the first page there’s a rather abrupt black stamp that reads “Cancelled.” I feel strangely stateless.
My new passport will look almost identical to my old one; I’ll have changed, five years older than the last picture.
I wonder, though, after years of the Harper government, if for the rest of the world, that passport will have changed in significant ways as well.
I’m afraid it has.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.