Canadian passport redesign scandal Pierre Poilievre

Manufactured outrage over the Canadian passport redesign is a nothingburger

“Pierre Poilievre is so desperate for power, he’ll do and say anything to push buttons and to rage-bait. The Great Passport Scandal of 2023 should insult most Canadians’ intelligence.”

When the Canadian federal government announced the new passport changes last week, I quickly scanned the new cover, took note of the new security features and redesign, and went on about my day. Silly me. I have now been informed that passport watermarks are what stands between Canada and greatness. 

Are we really doing this? Arguing over images in a travel document? Do you know what our passports had on them before the Great Passport Redesign of 2013? Maple leaves. Nothing but maple leaves. 

Canadian passports need to be updated with new security features every decade so we can stay one step ahead of criminal masterminds and counterfeit operations. Whoever happens to form government at the time inevitably adds their little flavour to the redesign. 

A decade ago, the Harper administration decided to add a bunch of images that it felt accurately represented Canada: the Founding Fathers, the Vimy Ridge memorial, Terry Fox, Niagara Falls, Quebec City, the Stanley Cup, Nellie McLung and the statue of the Famous Five, Halifax’s Pier 21 and, if I’m being honest, many other images I never once noticed before I sat down to write this column. Mainly because I usually travel with a book and don’t consider a government document stimulating reading material. 

A little perspective

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In all my years of owning a passport, all I’ve ever cared about is whether I manage to take a halfway decent passport picture (like the old joke goes, “If you look like your passport picture, you’re probably not well enough to travel”) and how many travel stamps and travel visas I can accumulate before I need to renew it. 

A passport is nothing more than a glorified membership card allowing you to access places and services (and protections worldwide) that non-members cannot. It’s a venerated stamp collector that stays tucked away in your dresser drawer 99.9% of its lifespan, and only comes out when you need to travel. If we want to get a little deeper about it, a passport (Canadian or otherwise) is also a coveted document that millions of displaced and undocumented people would be grateful for and have no access to, so instead of crying over the cheap symbolism I prefer to keep things in perspective and recognize the immense privilege it represents.

The way some people are reacting to the changes, I feel like some of you will, one day very soon, be sitting by the fireplace, grandkids at your feet, leafing through your 2018 passport and telling them about what a great country we were before Trudeau single-handedly destroyed it with one careless image of a Polar bear or happy people jumping into a lake. Years from now, historians will be able to pinpoint that disappointingly vapid image of a squirrel eating a nut as the death knell of our proud nation. Let’s please get a grip.

Positive features in a bland package 

What’s good about the new design? A few things. The new passport has a great-looking redesigned cover and features images of Canada’s people, landscapes and wildlife that only appear in ultraviolet light. It also has an updated tamper-proof data page and includes many improved security features. The page with all our personal information is now made of polycarbonate, which will last longer, and is less likely to be damaged by water. Our personal information is also now laser-engraved, rather than printed in ink on the page, which, once again, makes it safer. All good stuff!

Even more importantly, and I’m sure welcome news to thousands of Canadians stuck in last year’s frustrating backlogs and long lineups after a surge of post-pandemic travel overwhelmed government services, we can now renew our passports online starting this fall. That alone is cause for celebration. 

Am I a big fan of the new watermarks? No, not really. I don’t necessarily believe that people jumping into lakes, polar bears and birds capture “the spirit of who we are as Canadians,” as Minister Karina Gould alluded to. 

Did the government play it a little too safe with these generic watermarks, seeking to avoid controversy and perhaps steer away from images that in today’s more aware, more informed world might be seen as glorifying colonialism? Absolutely. 

There was perhaps a middle ground that could have been achieved, where the new passport could have removed some of the more outdated, offensive, blatantly colonial images and kept the ones most Canadians would never have an issue with. I can understand veterans’ disappointment over the Vimy Ridge Memorial no longer appearing in our passport. I can certainly understand Terry Fox not being there raising eyebrows, since he symbolizes courage, hope and resilience in the face of cancer. No party or person can politicize that. 

Nationalist mythology needs updating

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Manufactured outrage over the Canadian passport redesign is a nothingburger

But many Canadians are very happy to see some images go. Given the education we’ve received in the past decade with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and what we now know about residential schools, many have no desire to glorify John A. Macdonald and the Founding Fathers. 

The iconic image commemorating the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, “The Last Spike,” which shows a bunch of white male company reps, also needed to go. The building of Canada’s railroad relied on the labour of thousands of migrant workers. Most of the backbreaking work was done by Chinese migrants paid half of what their white co-workers were paid, many of whom died in the dangerous process. Yet we don’t see a single Chinese worker at the event. When people scream about “history being erased,” they should acknowledge who has already been erased in the process of centring white Canadians. 

I understand that some people are prone to patriotic hyperbole and get teary eyed over this type of symbolism, but one person’s proud history is nothing but over-the-top jingoism to others. There were no passport changes that could have satisfied everyone. Thankfully, we get to have this pointless debate all over again in 2033. Every 10 years, the government in power gets to push their version of Canada a little bit and those in opposition get to pretend that it threatens our very existence as a nation. 

“A country that denies its past has no future,” one commentator melodramatically posted in reaction to the news. 

Listen, if you’re relying on a travel document to learn about Canadian history, you’re doing it wrong, particularly since history taught from the perspective of majority power will conveniently leave a lot out. Statues, government-issued documentation, textbooks, the overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white depiction of our past, are selective choices at best. The symbolism is carefully curated to tell a story that some would like to be the only story. 

The Official Opposition’s manufactured passport crisis

Which brings us to the weaponizing of this so-called scandal. Pierre Poilievre is so desperate for power, he’ll do and say anything at this point to push buttons and to rage-bait. The political brawl over the passport redesign is a “nothingburger” he aims to exploit for easy points. The leader of the Conservative Party can be seen in a recent video offering us the definition of utopia, quoting Orwell and then accusing Trudeau of wanting to “redraw a brand-new country,” as if the PM himself pulled out colouring crayons and personally sketched those Canada geese. Poilievre then goes on to accuse Trudeau of not allowing Canadians to have heroes and depicting our history as “a retched pile of injustices.”

“If this generation — the living generation — fails to pass on what we inherited from those who came before, to those that come after,” he ominously warns us, “then it can be lost forever.” 

Is this the same guy who supported the so-called “freedom convoy” trucker protest, whose members were seen urinating on war memorials in Ottawa, desecrating a statue of Terry Fox and parking on the grounds of the national cenotaph? That Poilievre? 

Poilievre’s video ends with a plea and a link, promising to “stop [Trudeau] and bring home the Canada we love. Sign here if you agree.”

The only kind thing I can say about Poilievre is that he has a great radio voice. Also, a word to the wise: All you manage to do when you sign petitions issued by political parties is find yourself on their mailing lists. 

Pointless debate

In closing, this is not a debate worth having. Post-COVID Canada is confronted with myriad challenges that need addressing. The Great Passport Scandal of 2023 should insult most Canadians’ intelligence. 

Don’t let politicians scream outrage over something so inconsequential and temporary. It’s not a culture-war attack on our country’s symbols, it’s just an awkward, mostly bland attempt at being a little more inclusive. Hardly worth losing sleep over. 

If anything, it speaks to the immense privilege of owning a Canadian passport. That we, as a country, are overwhelmingly so devoid of any real problems that we need to invent existential crises to squabble over. Others should be so lucky. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.