Oh say can you sea, or, does that motto still wave?

The Citizen series on how the Arctic is still quite cold says Canada needs a new motto. Satirists of the world unite. After all, we are funny in both senses. But given our equally famous passion for the bronze, let me try to come up with something worse. Like “Canada: It’s Not So Bad.” Bashful, yet smug. (That’s good too.) Or “Nice Unlike Those Awful Americans.” Looking outward, “The Duty to Protect... Except in Darfur.” Or “We Won’t Fund Hamas... Except with Money.” Or “Afghanistan Is Dangerous?” Or “Just Enough Backbone to Posture.” Or “Vichy, Vimy, Invade Norway” which as a bonus is easy to chant.

Looking inward, what about “Canada: Not Just the Flag is in Liberal colours” as ethics counsellors snooze through the Chretien/Martin era then wake up shocked -- shocked -- at an MP crossing the floor to a Tory cabinet? Or, as Canadian politics was founded by Sir John A. Besoin, “A Gaglianonis ad mysterium” has that certain je ne veux pas.

Our actual slogan, thanks to a 1921 order-in-council, is “A mari usque ad mare” which means “From sea to sea” or “D’un ocean a l’autre.” E pluribus drivel. The northern premiers want a motto recognizing that Canada goes all the way to the Arctic Ocean even if most citizens don’t. (Go to the Arctic Ocean, I mean, though given modern education methods they may also not know about it.) The Yukon premier said “a north-south perspective along with an east-west perspective ... is vital to our future as a federation.” Canada: Where Mush and Hyperbole Meet. His Northwest Territories colleague said “This would be a signal both to Canada and the rest of the world. ... The U.S. doesn’t accept that the Arctic waters are Canada’s waters. And we need to reinforce that they are.” Canada: Where Rhetoric is Reinforcement. Or Jack Layton’s contribution: “Symbolism is very important.”

By contrast, the motto of our elite commando JTF2 is Facta Non Verba. Even if I translated it I doubt politicians would understand. But we’ll probably render whatever vacuity we come up with in Latin, for as G.K. Chesterton said a century ago, nothing better illustrates “the immense weak-mindedness of modernity ... than this general disposition to keep up old forms, but to keep them up informally and feebly.” So the Citizen says one possible replacement is “A mari ad mare ad mare,” which sounds as if Caesar got the hiccups. (Or A mari ad maria if we can deal with a third declension accusative plural without cracking.)

The difficulty, beyond the cacophony (Hail ad mare ad mare, lacking grace) is that the original comes from (gasp) the Bible. Before the psychedelic flood the Dominion of Canada had Dominion Day and a motto from Psalm 72 about Solomon’s dominion from sea to sea. Why rewrite Psalms? Let’s substitute something from The Origin of Species or Thus Spake Zarathustra or a post-modern autobiographical novel about the hero’s harrowing, albeit invented, struggles with addiction. Or “Canada: Like Whatever Man”. For, the Citizen said, “A mari usque ad mare may have deep cultural roots and universal connotations, but its use as our national catchphrase is geographically specific and distinctly Victorian, a quaint relic of the late-19th-century ... Canada’s motto sports a top hat and mutton-chop sideburns, and carries a sledgehammer for pounding iron spikes.” Religious, respectable and enterprising? Appalling.

There are worse things than quaint; visit a modern art gallery. (Motto: “I pickled a shark and peed on a cross, but I wouldn’t dare draw Mohammed.”) Are mutton-chops and top hats obviously sillier than green Mohawks and backward caps? If the new rule is ridicule the past and trash the symbols, how about “Canada: That Was Then” or “Honey, I Shrunk the Heritage?” Supporting the change, former governor general Adrienne Clarkson did say “You can never forget your history ...” Wanna bet? A new CBC documentary has Tommy Douglas played by an actor who never heard of him before. “Canada: Where Greatness Meets Obscurity.” The icon of St. Tommy prompts “Canada: Where Socialism Didn’t Die,” above every hospital door on a coat of arms with a politician rampant on a field of waiting lists with an exhausted doctor and nurse as supporters. Or “Canada: Where Religion Has No Place in Politics Unless You’re In the NDP.”

Since the old slogan doesn’t specify which oceans, I say it could already include the Arctic. But if we’re going to meddle, what about our southern border? My geography teacher said it wasn’t an ocean but lakes and dirt and stuff. A mari ad mare ad mare ad lacos ad parallelem IL? Or would that be silly? A mari ad nauseam. But speaking of silly, a failed 2004 attempt to change it to “A Nation of Rivers and a River of Nations” recalls both an unfortunate phrase in Juvenal and Ray Conlogue’s jibe about the Canada First movement’s “Torrents of terrible verse” depicting “the rocks, the rivers, the twisted pines, the vaulting mountains.” Canada: Where the Pines are Twisted and so is the Truth.

I still like my December 2004 proposal: From Sea to Shining C minus. It’s even more sonorous as “A mari usque ad C minorem.” And while the pun rather gets lost in translation, what could be more Canadian than having it all fall apart over language?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson