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“True North” message
Oct 26, 2007

No longer will Canadians be forced to endure the tired phrase “Canada’s New Government” when listening to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Since the Throne Speech, the old phrase has been replaced by “Canada: The True North Strong and Free.”

In reality, this “new” phrase is actually rather old in Canadian history. Besides being a lyric in our national anthem, O Canada, the phrase has been kicking around for decades.

Just after Confederation in 1867, nationalists continually used the term “True North,” when referring to the “young giant nation of the North.” The implication was that life in the northern latitudes made Canadians a sterner stock of people imbued with the attributes of self-reliance, strength and hardiness.

“A constitution nursed upon the oxygen of our bright winter atmosphere, makes its owner feel as though he could toss about the pines trees in his glee ...,” said Governor General Lord Dufferin.

In 1869, the Globe said Canada’s “bracing northern winter will preserve us from the effeminacy which naturally steals over the most vigorous races when long under the relaxing influence of tropical or even generally mild and genial skies.” 

In Canada, “the cold north wind that rocked the cradle of our race, still blows through our forests, and breathes the spirit of liberty into our hearts,” said Robert Grant Haliburton, an associate of the Canada First Movement, in his lecture, We Are the Northern of the New World,  to the Montreal Literary Club in 1869.

When delivering the Conservative government’s Throne Speech, Governor General Michaëlle Jean evoked the same images, although the government removed the overtly racist connotations associated with the earliest proponents of the message. 

Harper was right to avoid certain sections of the earlier versions of the “True North” message. The message’s first proponents believed that Canada’s northern climate stimulated prosperity while listless southern races languished in poverty — the “effeminacy” referred to by the 1869 Globe article.

“Working together we have built a nation that is prosperous and safe; a land where merit trumps privilege; a place where people from around the world live in harmony; a federation that is united at home and respected abroad,” said Governor General Jean. “Like the North Star, Canada has been a guide to other nations; through difficult times, Canada has shone as an example of what a people joined in common purpose can achieve.”

According to the Globe and Mail, lobbyists and strategists who deliver the government line were told after the Throne Speech to reference the North Star.

“To help you effectively communicate with your local media, as well as your constituents, we have included general messaging on the Speech from the Throne,” said a PMO memo obtained by the Toronto-based national newspaper.

A Tory strategist said the party is road-testing the words to see how they resonate with the public, according to the Globe and Mail article.

There’s criticism among political pundits about the impact the words will have on the public.

Nova Scotia Liberal MP Geoff Regan is quoted as saying he knew Harper was a   “minion” of American President George W. Bush, but he “did not realize until yesterday that their (Tory) goal was to have us become the North Star state as is now apparent.”

Actually, Regan shouldn’t be overly concerned since Minnesota already has dibs on the North Star State. The state seal of our American neighbour immediately south of Manitoba is “L’Etoile du Nord,” which is translated into English as North Star. And remember when the state’s NHL team was called the Minnesota North Stars (now in its second go around the team is called the Wild).

It’s also quite interesting that the group that eventually built the new MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg was called True North.

Actually North Star and variations on the theme such as True North have been used to flog everything from running shoes to hotel resorts. It happens to be one of the more trite and overused phrases in northern countries. 

Harper is using the North Star analogy as part of his government’s renewed emphasis on Canada’s Arctic. Like Prime Minister John Diefenbaker before him, Harper sees the North as a vast reservoir of hidden potential, merely awaiting someone with the vision and guts to seize the moment.

“New opportunities are emerging across the Arctic,” according to the Throne Speech, “and new challenges from other shores (U.S., Russia, Norway, Denmark). Our government will bring forward an integrated northern strategy focused on strengthening Canada’s sovereignty, protecting our environmental heritage, promoting economic and social development, and improving and devolving governance, so that northerners have greater control over their destinies.”

The government’s new initiatives include comprehensive mapping of Canada’s portion of the Arctic seabed as a method of asserting Canadian sovereignty. This can be seen as a reaction to Russia’s dropping a flag to the seafloor at  the North Pole, which was heavily reported by the media.  

The problem with the North Star message is that it conjures up a mythical Valhalla. And it is difficult for the country to be emphasized as existing under the North Star when most Canadians live within 160 kilometres of the U.S.-Canada border. Few people are actually made of the sterner stuff needed to endure the chilly Arctic. Canada is on the northern portion of the North American continent, but by necessity most of our international dealings, especially trade, are with our neighbour to the south.

The North Star symbolism is more of a Utopian ideal filled with complications difficult to overcome — the very reason Diefenbaker's northern vision never became a reality.  

Still, using the old “new” message is slightly better than employing the old, rather comical and overly pretentious “Canada’s New Government” message.