Stamps help Canadian stereotypes stick

I’m sure most of you do the same thing, but whenever I get mail I check out the stamps, usually before I even open the envelope. As you can imagine, I check to see which stamps are on the cover, if and how they are cancelled, and even their position. Because many of my correspondents are stamp collectors I get some pretty mail. You folks usually use commemorative stamps, often go for nice cancels, and of course frequently use older stamps. A recent case was an auction catalogue that arrived with a block of 45-cent Christmas stamps (Unitrade #1627), issued in 1996. The stamps, to save you looking it up if you’re not familiar, are based on Canadian art used in UNICEF greeting cards.

They depict, as do dozens of other secular Christmas stamps, Canadians outdoors in winter. Now here’s where I may differ from you. My thoughts went to the scene, a man in snowshoes following a woman on a toboggan pulled by a dog. They appear to be delivering a present. It occurred to me that I have never seen anyone successfully get a dog to pull a toboggan. It also occurred to me that, while I have worn snowshoes on a number of occasions, most Canadians I know have never actually snowshoed anywhere. Absolutely nobody I know, anywhere, has actually delivered or taken home a Christmas present using either method of transportation. Sure the image is all warm and fuzzy, but I wonder just how relevant it was, or is, for Canadians. I also wonder what sort of message this stamp sends out to the world about Canada.

We often joke and complain about foreigners who think we have snow all year around, live in igloos, and cut down trees for a living. But perhaps we have to take some of the responsibility for the way some non-Canadians see us, when most of our official images shows trees, snow, and wild animals. Now let’s not blame Canada Post for this. They just create images that seem to work. A large number of Canadians like to think they live in a country filled with deep forests and large lakes teeming with birds, cute mammals, and trophy fish. That means that we respond well to these images, even if most of us expect cottages to have running power and television sets, and expect to have electricity at every campsite.

As collectors, we sometimes want our stamps to reinforce these simple, traditional, perceptions because they portray us as a robust nation with an appetite for outdoor adventure. We make our own stereotypes, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find them on our postage. Well I’m going to get down off the soapbox for another few weeks. After all, it is November, and I have to take the dogsled down to the trading post and pick up my winter stock of beans and back bacon, before cutting some more firewood.

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