My Canada, 148/150: The maple leaf, forever

Nothing symbolizes “Brand Canada” more than a maple leaf.

While the Canadian flag chosen in 1965 — one solitary red maple leaf flanked by vertical red bars — has solidified that image, the symbol of maple leaf equalling Canada, the notion that this everywhere tree could represent a nation, first took root in Quebec: “In 1834, the St. Jean Baptiste Society, a French Canadian association founded to strengthen their linguistic and cultural heritage, made the maple leaf its emblem,” says an article on maple history by Growers Direct. “Jacques Viger, the first mayor of Montreal, Quebec described the maple as ‘the king of our forest; … the symbol of the Canadian people.’ ”

In 1867, to mark confederation, Alexander Muir wrote “The Maple Leaf Forever,” which was the country’s national song for many years. You rarely hear it now, though, due to its pro-Brit and invisible-everyone-else lyrics. It’s a rouser, musically, but who could sing this without choking, now?

In Days of yore,
From Britain’s shore
Wolfe the dauntless hero came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
Here may it wave,
Our boast, our pride
And joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwined,
The Maple Leaf Forever.

Apparently the only people who got to be Canadian were Scots (thistle), Irish (shamrock), and English (rose). Tell that to our indigenous peoples, the French settlers, and every other layer that has arrived since.

There are 10 species of maple native to Canada: sugar maple, red maple (both Eastern Canada) black maple and silver maple (both southwestern Ontario), Manitoba maple (Prairies) bigleaf maple (Vancouver Island), mountain maple, stripped maple, (both found throughout the country), and Rocky Mountain (or Douglas) maple and vine maple (B.C.) It took until 1996 for maples, collectively, to be our National Arboreal Emblem.

149 c Chris and maple leaves

149 b K w maple leaves
Maple leaf portrait time. Photos: Lesley Walker-Fitzpatrick

In wooded areas in Canada, walking, cycling or driving to see the autumn colours is a national past-time. I remember kicking around the yard as a kid to find the perfect red or orange leaf that we would preserve for me to take to school by putting a towel on an ironing board, then a sheet of wax paper, the leaf or leaves, another sheet of wax paper and a final towel before pressing with a hot iron, to transfer the wax to both sides of the leaf. I confess to still occasionally doing this to decorate the table for a Thanksgiving dinner, which in Canada happens the second Monday of October and celebrates the fall harvest. It’s our neighbours to the south whose fourth-Thursday-in-November shindig commemorates the first meal of the Pilgrims.

The maple leaf as a symbol marks Canadian everything: military uniforms; airlines; manufacturing identifications; sports organizations; roadways. Part of this is due to a surprisingly generous government regulation, set in 1965, that permits anyone to use the iconic 11-point red maple leaf from Canada’s flag in a design or trademark “on the condition that:

  • the use of the design or trademark conforms to good taste;
  • an applicant for the registration of such design or trademark disclaims, in his or her application, the right to the exclusive use of the maple leaf; and
  • the owner of such design or trademark will not attempt to prevent anyone else from using the maple leaf.”
148 maple quilt
“Cabin Splendour” quilt. Photo: Kelley Teahen

Maple leaves of all styles find themselves stitched into our national fabric: on some occasions, literally. While at the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival in 2017 (and, of course, maple syrup comes from those sugar maple trees abundant in Eastern Ontario), I spotted some maple leaf love amid all the many hand-stitched Mennonite quilts for sale.

There is a well-known quilting pattern called Log Cabin, where there is (traditionally) a small square of red, representing the hearth/fire, and then built out around it in strips are the “logs” that form a block of “cabin,”and the “cabin” blocks get stitched together to create the quilt.  Someone, however, got patriotic/poetic with a red-and-white scheme and a stylized maple leaf, creating “Cabin Splendour.”

Even Canada’s national tartan is (what else?) the Maple Leaf. It was created in 1964 by David Weiser in anticipation of Canada’s centennial in 1967, says the Scottish Register of Tartans, but it wasn’t formally adopted as the official tartan until 2011. The pattern “incorporates the green of the leaves’ summer foliage, the gold which appears in early autumn, the red which appears with the coming of the first frost, and the brown tones of the fallen leaves.”

The maple leaf was here before any of the humans got here. It can be many colours, is found across almost all the country, and is most remarkable when seen collectively: over a valley of fall-touched maple trees blazing yellow, orange and red. Not even the best branding guru on the planet could have picked a more resonant symbol.

Main photo: Kelley Teahen

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Janet says:

    I am temporarily housed this year across the street from Toronto’s Maple Leaf Cottage, supposedly where Alexander Muir was inspired to pen those awful lyrics in the shade of the gargantuan silver maple. The tree was felled in a storm a few years ago and a 10-foot high stump remains behind the historic site plaque. There was iconic furniture made out of the fallen wood, except for a few limbs spirited away by neighbours (naming no names).

    Liked by 1 person

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