Mixed messages

Light is Right Joe Campbell

Light is Right Joe Campbell

I can see that I haven’t kept up with our symbols and emblems. Only recently I discovered that Saskatchewan has had an official bird since 1945. That’s the year my province appointed the sharp-tailed grouse to represent us.

What ornithologists call the sharp-tailed grouse, we call the prairie chicken. I’m not sure I want a chicken to represent me. It suggests that I’m timid at best, cowardly at worst.

I only made sense of the appointment when I realized that it happened shortly after we elected North America’s first socialist government. I suspect that our more enterprising birds, the owls, hawks, magpies and crows, weren’t sure they wanted to represent us.

Three years before we turned left, the province appointed the western red lily as our official flower. What botanists call the western red lily, we call the tiger lily. No one can say that having a tiger represent me suggests I’m timid or cowardly.

We really respect out floral emblem. We’ve declared it a protected wildflower, which means we’re not supposed to pick it in its natural habitat. We don’t really respect our avian emblem. We’ve declared it a game bird, which means we’re supposed to shoot it in its natural habitat.

We also shoot our mammalian emblem, the white-tailed deer. Its appointment as our official animal is curious. We’re largely meat eaters. The whitetail dines on plants. We’re settled. The whitetail is continually on the move. I’m not sure I like being represented by a nomadic vegetarian.

I can only attribute its appointment to the curiously unsettled provincial legislature in 2001, when the whitetail won the honour. Not only did the New Democrats rule in a coalition with the Liberals. The official opposition, the Saskatchewan Party, consisted of former Liberals and Progressive Conservatives.

I like to think that in more settled political times, the province might have had the fortitude to choose a predator over its prey. If it had been up to me, I would have proposed the cougar. If the cougar declined to serve, my second choice would have been the coyote. Like us, both dine on the whitetail.

I also question the choice of potash as our official mineral. Oh, I know that it’s in high demand as a crop fertilizer and we’re the world’s largest producer. But why settle for potash when we could have had uranium, gold or diamonds? It’s hard to imagine a more prosaic symbol than an inorganic fertilizer.

I can’t blame politics for the choice. In 1997, when potash bested the other minerals, the political situation was as close to normal as it gets in Saskatchewan. Besides, politicians deal in another kind of fertilizer.

I suppose I could blame education. Potash prevailed in a province-wide competition among Grade 8 students. Maybe they didn’t know that uranium, gold and diamonds are minerals.

I’m not alone in questioning their selection. Potash production leaves behind huge piles of salt tailings that some fear might contaminate our heritage of soil and ground water. You can’t blame the biblically literate for wondering if we have sold our birthright for a mess of potash.

I was shocked to learn that our official tree, the white birch, doesn’t bear our official fruit, the saskatoon berry. I consider this a symbolic blunder of the first order. I don’t fault the white birch tree or the saskatoon berry bush for not hitting it off. I fault the protocol office for putting them both in an awkward position.

This is far worse than not knowing diamonds are minerals. It’s even worse than assuming, as I once did, that the Great Seal of Saskatchewan is our official marine mammal.

It’s not. But we do have an official fish, the walleye, which many of us confuse with the pickerel. We also have an official sport, curling, which some of us confuse with waiting.

We have an official grass, too. I assumed it was wheat, which produces flour (not an official flour). You can imagine my surprise when I learned that it’s the needle-and-thread grass, which provokes laughter (also not officially approved).

But wheat, which earned us the title breadbasket of the world, anchors our first official emblem, the shield of arms. True, the upper third of the shield displays a red lion (not an English pub, but a traditional royal symbol). However, the lower two thirds features three sheaves of golden wheat.

Of course, we’ve long since diversified from wheat production and agriculture generally. So it’s no longer appropriate to call us a basket case.

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