STEPHEN HARPER, Canada’s prime minister, likes to celebrate symbolic moments in the country’s history, especially if they amplify the messaging of his Conservative government. Canadians are currently being treated to an advertising blitz costing C$4m ($3.2m) to commemorate the 200th birthday of its first prime minister, Sir John Macdonald (a Conservative, naturally). An even more expensive campaign showcases the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which pitted British Canada against the United States, bolstering the Conservative notion that Canadians are really a rather warlike breed.
Yet the 50th anniversary of Canada’s distinctive maple leaf flag on February 15th came and went without official fanfare. The government spent a paltry C$250,000 for cross-Canada celebrations. Mr Harper issued a curiously stilted statement about the long history of the maple leaf as a national symbol and the award of flags to 50 Canadian individuals and groups for contributions to their country. But it was the governor general, the queen’s representative in Canada, who attended the main public celebration in Ottawa, the capital. The event was tacked on to Winterlude, a festival better known for ice skating, ice sculpting and eating beaver tails (a type of sugary waffle).
Critics suggest that Mr Harper downplayed the anniversary because the flag was adopted by an earlier Liberal administration. That is not the full story. A bitter debate between nationalists, embraced by the Liberals, and imperialists, who leaned Conservative, stymied the adoption of a flag until 1965. The maple leaf’s Liberal advocates saw it as an affirmation that Canada had outgrown its status as a British colony. It replaced the Red Ensign, the flag of the British Merchant Marine, which features a Union Jack in one corner.
Mr Harper’s government has been reinforcing ties with Britain. He reinstated the word “royal” for the navy and the air force, replaced Canadian artwork in the lobby of the foreign ministry with a portrait of the queen and agreed to share some embassies with Britain. Given his royalist inclinations, it would be tough for the prime minister to celebrate the flag whole-heartedly.
The Conservative government has not suggested replacing the flag, which most Canadians see as an important symbol of national identity. But they could not bring themselves to celebrate it either. That left the field open to the Liberals, whose Flag Day event in Mississauga, near Toronto, looked and sounded like a rally in preparation for the general election scheduled for October. The argument between nationalists and imperialists continues today.