Liberals to promote 'Canada' as a brand

Government to spend millions on new signs

Parliamentary Bureau

G&M Monday, July 12, 1999

The federal government will spend $1.7-million over the next year to double the number of brightly lit "Canada" signs on top of federal buildings across the country.

The governing Liberals say the highly visible logos affirm its presence in local communities and foster pride in the country.

But the Reform Party says the signs are a waste of money; and the Bloc Québécois says they're nothing but propaganda.

Ottawa has already put up more than 60 of the Canada "wordmarks" on top of high-rises nationwide. Now, it plans to hoist another 57 of the illuminated logos on buildings as part of a "millennium phase."

"It's to establish a federal presence across the country. It's similar to IBM and others who say, 'Here we are, this is our building and you can get programs and services here,' " said Alan Way, a federal civil servant co-ordinating the policy out of the Treasury Board of Canada.

Over all, the government will spend $3.3-million on signs in all provinces and territories. By next year, signs will hang in places such as the Taxation building in Summerside, PEI, a government building in Inuvik, NWT, the Foreign Affairs complex in Ottawa and the Esquimalt Graving Dock in B.C.

"It's deformed thinking to say that it will bring Canadians closer together if they drive by illuminated signs with the word Canada on them," said Reform MP Jay Hill.

Mr. Hill questioned the Liberal government in May on the first phase of the wordmark program. "Is plastering buildings with giant signs not the wrong way to go? Why not give overtaxed Canadians the tax relief they deserve?" he asked in Question Period.

Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray answered that the government was "responding to the desire of Canadians to have the name of their country proudly displayed."

The federal government wants to develop what it calls a "common look and feel" to everything it does. In recent years, a special cabinet committee has made sure the word Canada is ubiquitous in government communications.

Ottawa's current approach represents a softening compared to Heritage Minister Sheila Copps's boisterous $16-million campaign to ship a million flags across the country after the 1995 referendum.

Still, the Bloc complains that Ottawa is trying to impose its name, its colours and its flag in Quebec. Bloc MP Pierre de Savoye points to things such as the logo at Radio-Canada, the French service of the CBC. Its colour was recently changed from white to maple-leaf red in most usage.

"The only objective they are pursuing is to give added visibility to the word Canada."

In a postreferendum environment -- and some say prereferendum as well -- the Maple Leaf and the word Canada have combined to become Ottawa's favourite communications tool. It is a brand, and the government is selling it.

The Canadian government hired two hot-air balloons in the shape of a maple leaf and the Canadian flag to fly across the country last summer. This year, it signed $2.4-million in contracts with the National Hockey League and the Canadian Football League to showcase its logos. There will be everything from wordmarks on rink-boards in arenas across the country to Canadian flags on the helmets of all CFL players.

And the government is ensuring the word Canada or Canadian is in the name of all new federal programs and initiatives.

"Canada is a concept that needs to be sold," said Paul Rutherford, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto who studies advertising and propaganda.

In the 19th century, he said, Canada had to be marketed abroad, to get outsiders to come to the country. During the past 25 years, the government has been making its pitch to Canadians.

Mr. Rutherford said Ottawa's main goal is to fight separatism in Quebec.

He said the big increase in the advertising of Canadian symbols occurred after the 1976 election of the separatist Parti Québécois government. It waxed and waned after that, he said, with peaks during negotiations over the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, and after the No side squeaked to victory in the 1995 referendum.