No Air Canada, I don’t want a Russian flag on my face: The limits of Canadian diversity advertising

Canadian Soviet flag mash-up symbolizing Canadian diversity advertising

Readers! I took a blogging break and it accidentally stretched into too many years (with a few exceptions here and here). Dipping my toe back in more officially now.

On my mind this week is Canadian diversity advertising, brought to you by this Only-in-Canada spot from Air Canada that aired during the Olympics, called “Our Time.” Per the accompanying press release, “The ad portrays the values of multiculturalism, compassion and equality that make Canada a role model for the world.” It’s got all my favourite parts of stock Canadiana (and let’s admit, yours too) – athletes, snow, skating, kids playing in streets, Ryan Reynolds.

(On compassion and equality, particularly this past month, Sadiya Ansari has a good take on Olympic pride in the face of the Tina Fontaine and Coulten Boushie verdicts.)

As for Canadian diversity…

I got really stuck on a short montage partway through the spot, where a series of kids’ faces look out at us. They each have a Canadian flag painted on one side of their face and a different country’s flag on the other half, presumably representing their background. It’s stock Canadiana — the hyphenated, embracing-all-the-world, multicultural identity we’re so proud of.

Picking apart our self-congratulatory love for diversity and multiculturalism is admittedly low-hanging fruit. But these ads fail in ways that are easy to miss through the tears. And easy to miss because yes, we truly do have the entirety of the UN calling Canada home. I’m reminded of just how unusual this is every time I travel internationally. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a narrative which overlooks the nuances and struggles of being an immigrant or 1st-generation Canadian (or anyone with a hyphenated national identity).

Everything about those flags so precisely highlights the limits of ‘Diversity’. After the tenth or so time it popped up in my living room, I started to think about how I might fit into this worldview. Which flag should I even wear? The hammer and sickle from the country that stripped us of our citizenship and turned us into stateless refugees? A mild fate compared to gulags and purges. Do I go with the Russian flag, then? That’s a country I’ve only visited on a tourist visa, and which, like its predecessor, remains a fundamentally terrifying place to me. The thought of painting my face in Russian colours gave me the same kind of visceral fear that I felt when I was stopped in the Pearson airport, en route to Russia for the first time since we’d immigrated, over what was a ticketing glitch. I was convinced some version of Stalin had reached out from the grave to reclaim me as one of Russia’s own. I was still shaking when I sat down on the plane an hour later.

To be clear, this is not a comment on the specific flags that show up in the ad, which are from Brazil, India, Australia and Jamaica. It’s a general reflection on flags as political statements and the limits of diversity. If flags weren’t political, the “Olympic Athletes From Russia” would have marched under red, blue and white stripes.

These types of ads, which we see all year but especially during the Olympics, so smoothly gloss over any complexity of being From Somewhere Else. It’s not about how welcoming Canada is to immigrants. That’s only part of the story. People have complicated feelings about the countries they once called home. I know I do, and I barely lived there. I like the language — it’s comforting and familiar. I like the food — also comforting and familiar (and filling). Not so much the literature, which I find long and tedious. The politics terrify me and the history is a painful mess. So no, you will never see me painting a Russian flag onto my face. If my kids ever do, I’ve failed at my job. Maybe you feel differently, but I’m pretty certain Air Canada doesn’t care either way.

How many other Canadians would think twice about painting a flag of their home country onto their faces? Flag-covered cars during the World Cup notwithstanding, that’s a complicated move — far more complex than just eating the food of your people, which is where we prefer our multiculturalism to live. If it had been samosas and jerk chicken and pierogies, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought (not that food + diversity is without problems). But flags take a clear leap from cultural heritage into national pride that changes the narrative. That our national advertisers don’t see the difference highlights just how little we understand about many of the people who call Canada home. People carry wounds that can’t be brushed away with a handful of ads about hybrid identity. But diversity has become a part of that safest of national identities, stock in trade for all manner of corporate feel-gooderism, which lets us off the hook with nothing more than a pat on the back. Aren’t we great, these ads ask us? Isn’t everything wonderful, now that you’re here?

A few more questions. What if you have more than one identity? What if those identities are at odds with each other? What if your government is raining hell on its people? What if your family nearly died trying to escape that country, crossing water or deserts or mountains? What if you still have nightmares about the things that were done to you in the name of your national flag? What if your country isn’t well-liked? What if…what if…what if…?

About a week ago, a group of parents from my daughter’s school welcomed the Syrian refugee family we’d sponsored over two years ago. It was a moment I’m still trying to put into words. A news crew from Global joined us and I watched as they tried to cram that same narrative I’d seen through the Olympics, mashing Happy Ever After onto a story that’s really only just reached its next chapter. Happy, yes, but outcome yet to be determined, and a past they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. It felt awkward being asked to chirp for the camera about happiness and success.

In short, our national conversation about diversity and multiculturalism needs to talk not just about how open and accepting we are, but just maybe, start thinking about the complicated feelings many immigrants might have on the matter.

I realize I’m asking a lot of an advertisement. But increasingly, our national narrative and sense of identity is driven by corporate advertising, so yes, I’m saying — please do better.

Would you paint your heritage flag on yr face? Canadian diversity advertising, like Air Canada's kids w/flag faces, highlights the limits of our diversity narrative & the need to whitewash immigrant stories with happy ever after.

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4 Comments

  1. mj on March 13, 2018 at 11:37 am

    Lea- thank you for sharing and finding words to describe the self-congratulatory advertising version of Canada that always leaves me feeling confused and uneasy, and at conflict with i-am-Canadian-isms. which may be a reaction to bold nationalism or identity confusion. Oddly enough I also noticed the knocking on the wooden cupboards; because we are a nation of real wood lovers… or wait… wood producers. wait- was that subliminal trade negotiation re-enforcement? please write and share often.

    • Lea Zeltserman on March 13, 2018 at 3:51 pm

      Thanks MJ! I feel like people have stopped noticing just how much of the ‘this is Canada’ story is coming at us from the likes of Air Canada, Molson and Tim Hortons. I have definitely caught myself getting wrapped up in their tearjerker stories. But they’re just so very one-sided. And yes, working on the writing and sharing more often piece 🙂

  2. Janine Krol on March 15, 2018 at 6:10 am

    A very interesting blog. Growing up as a child of Russian immigrants I observed that they would not represent any Russian flag or Russian patriotism on their American homes. However, made it crucial to raise me and have Russian culture in the home. I figured out why that was, because they may have felt guilty leaving a country based on patriotism/communism. Yet still admire their culture and don’t want to lose it. I remember as a kid, asking my father to take me to Russia, he would always deny it even as a idea. Not I’m not anything wrong with this, as long as they are happy and proud to be in the country that they immigrated to. I don’t see the desire to keep a culture problematic. As for being accepted in the U.S.- with the exception of New York City, other states turn to stereotype and isolate Russian immigrant families the way I was. Christian, Irish Anglo Saxon families criticized I was on just about everything. This affected my childhood, resulting in me wanting to hinder my Russian roots. However, when I move to New York for college I am brace that in New Yorkers it mired it. I guess it comes down to location. Also, helps to know that the town I grew up in Connecticut was very Republican and voted mainly for Trump. That explains a lot !

    • Lea Zeltserman on March 17, 2018 at 3:10 pm

      Hi Janine, thanks for the thoughtful comments! I’m very familiar with this phenomenon too – there’s a lot of pride in Russian (/Soviet) culture, education and so forth, but a clear line between that and the politics. It’s an interesting dynamic. And I agree, it’s not problematic at all. It’s also interesting how feelings of pride in our culture seem to cut across politics here too. Cheers!

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