If it did nothing else, Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code probably went a long way towards sensitizing us to the importance of symbols in our individual and cultural lives. Down through the ages, we humans have relied on the emotional power and information stored in symbolic form to teach us, inspire us, and pass on our traditions.
Religion has always been keenly aware of the power of symbols. In the centuries before universal literacy was assumed to be the norm in most nations with any sort of European heritage, symbols, icons, stained glass windows, statuary and illuminated manuscripts were used to tell the story of the Christian faith to those who could not use the words.
As the Church spread out from its original cultural roots, it adopted and coopted the symbols of the groups that it encountered. This is hardly more obvious than during the Christmas season, when trees, wreathes, logs, candles and all manner of traditions that had nothing to do with the original advent story were pressed into the service of expanding Church.
Nations have their symbolism as well, as the authors of this book note in their introduction.
“The message of patriotic symbols is one of meaning, power and commitment. Commitment is a motivating force that can be present in both the artist and the consumer of patriotic symbols. The continuing market for them proves that many consumers want to buy Canadian symbols.”
The Maple Leaf Forever focuses its attention on three primary Canadian symbols. There are others that might be mentioned, but this book is full of maple leaves, Mounties and beavers.
The book is divided into seven sections, the first of which contains brief essays on the origins and persistence of each of these three key symbols. The maple leaf seems to have been prominent as a national symbol by the early part of the 18th century. The beaver provided the impetus for much of territorial expansion that took place from the 17th century onward. The Mounties, of course, got their start as the Northwest Mounted Police in 1873, the legend has managed to keep on growing ever since in spite of some magnificent failures along the way.
The rest of the book is primarily a collection of photographs, but they are grouped by themes, and these show how deeply the branding (to use 21st century marketing terminology) of these symbols has been burned into our cultural fabric.
Commerce has had its way with our symbols, The maple leaf is on everything from tobacco to ham slices. The beaver turns up on tins of peanut butter as well as on six-packs of Canada Dry Ginger Ale.
The Mountie has been in a lot of these places as well, though the force has its symbol under a bit more control now. Apparently that five year marketing licence to Disney ended in 2002, and the RCMP used that time to consolidate its control and develop a plan for making the most of their symbol. The Mounted Police Foundation now controls the classic image and uses the royalty profits for charitable works and grants.
Aside from Commerce, the Mountie, beaver and maple leaf find themselves in constant use in Politics, Travel, Entertainment, At Home and as subjects of Artistic Expression, these being the remaining five chapters of the book.
One of the things that surprised me, looking through the book, was how many of the images were noncommercial. Sure, there are bobble-head mounties and bookends adorned with beavers and maple leaves, but there are also quilts, carvings, sculptures in metal and other substances, bead and quill work, hooked rugs, wooden and metal weather vanes, paintings on canvas, wood, buildings and the weathered sides of old barns. All of theses seem to have been created by people who simply thought that these would be neat images to work with. It shows how deeply ingrained these symbols are in the public consciousness and I suppose it shows that the creators of this book made the right choice when they decided what their focus would be.