I probably care more about passport design than most people. As a Yugoslavian citizen born in the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, my childhood was shaped by geopolitical changes that were inevitably translated into the bureaucracy of travel documents, with the red socialist flame of my parents’ generation eventually replaced with a new cover bearing a Serbian cross and eagle — but offering precious little freedom of mobility. Then, after four years in Toronto, a blue Canadian booklet came in the mail.
The new passport represented Canadian citizenship and all its rights and freedoms, as well as the ability to travel much more of the world visa-free — especially compared to a country still recovering from international sanctions. More than that, it was a window into national mythos. To wit: the old socialist passport celebrated a multinational Yugoslavia — where the six torches that lit the flame represented the country’s six constituent republics — while its successor signalled an ethnic Serbian state. As for my first Canadian passport? The Royal Coat of Arms dominated the front page.
I opened the book to find more of the same, with a page identifying a document held “in the name of Her Majesty the Queen.” Like the citizenship ceremony itself — where we pledged our allegiance to the crown — the passport was steeped in vestigial British monarchy and colonialism, albeit accented with maple leaves. For a new Canadian who rarely ventured beyond the Toronto area, it presented a window into a broader national imagination, though one I’ve never come to identify with. Some years later, an updated design arrived.
Introduced in 2013, Canada’s first biometric passport included an embedded microprocessor, making the document exponentially more difficult to forge. To further increase security, the computer chip (now a near-ubiquitous global standard) was paired with newly elaborate visa pages. Every set of pages featured an image drawing from Canadian history and heritage: the Fathers of Confederation, suffragist Nellie McClung, national hero Terry Fox, scenes of Vimy Ridge, the Mounties, Quebec City, the Bluenose racing ship and the Grey and Stanley cups — superimposed on rustic scenes of children playing football and pond hockey. It was a tapestry of white Canadiana, drawn in a photorealist and sentimental style. (If Norman Rockwell had been born a Canadian and a far less perceptive artist, he might’ve churned out something of the sort).
Ten years later, and another new passport is here. Even before the document’s official reveal, rumours swirled. Conservative media breathlessly speculated that political interference would see the document rebranded in Liberal party red, while gossip abounded regarding the removal of national symbols. And although the red rumour proved little more than right-wing hysteria, the newly revealed design does present a departure from its predecessors, starting with the cover.
Where previous versions of the passport were emblazoned with a large Royal Coat of Arms, the new design makes a compromise. The crest remains, but it’s been moved to the bottom left corner of the cover, yielding space to a partial outline of a maple leaf. Inside, meanwhile, the visa pages eschew the Canadian heritage moments in favour of natural scenes, depicting a seasonal array of the Canadian landscape. Tinged with colours of fall, winter, summer and spring, the selection of pages that the federal government has so far released for preview show bears and owls, as well as children at play. Under a blacklight, the images reveal more complex tableaux, ensuring augmented security. Some people hate it.
While reactions on social media were predictably swift and vociferous, the design has become a political lighting rod. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre described the new passport as a reflection of our “current prime minister’s woke and out-of-touch ideology,” condemning the removal “of Terry Fox, the soldiers who died at Vimy, the City of Quebec, and the RCMP.” Not for nothing, these scenes were only added to the passport a decade ago. Moreover, the opposition leader even claimed that Trudeau inserted an “image of him swimming at Harrington Lake when he was a boy.” It’s a bombastic and downright silly accusation, and one that’s tempting to dismiss as mere political theatre.
The measured response to Poilievre’s frenzy has been just that, with myriad Tweets offering some variation of “it’s just a passport, who cares?” Indeed, even opening a discourse about it risks indulging an insipid right-wing culture war. Yet, design is inherently political. Symbols matter. Just as public statues and banknotes reflect civic culture and heritage, so do passports. It’s not that Poiliviere and co. are wrong to care so much about the design — although I suspect they’re only pretending to for political clout — it’s that their critique is wrong on the merits.
From the cover on, the new document reveals an ideological evolution. Take the awkward combination of the colonial Coat of Arms with the maple leaf, a secular symbol drawn from nature. While it makes for a visually crowded and inelegant front page, the reasoning behind the move isn’t hard to discern. Today’s multicultural Canada is a mosaic of religions and identities, one poorly served by an icon explicitly rooted in the British monarchy and the Anglican church. As the violence — and genocide — of colonialism becomes more widely understood and accepted, a departure from its heraldry ought to follow. In fact, an updated Coat of Arms is now being developed, with the crosses and fleur-de-lis replaced by snowflakes and maple leaves. For my part, I would much prefer to see the Coat of Arms (snowflakes or not) removed entirely, and replaced with a simple maple leaf.
The new inside pages reflect a similar vein of thought. Today, the Fathers of Confederation and the RCMP occupy a complex place — and a not entirely positive one — in our civic discourse. Meanwhile, even beloved Canadians like McClung and Fox are symbols of a much whiter and more homogenous country than the one we live in today. In the 21st century, what unites us as Canadians is not a shared past or ancestry so much as a shared environment — and hopefully a shared set of values. By turning towards nature, the design embraces a more universal experience. In short, the changes signal Canada’s ongoing evolution from a British nation-state into a diverse post-national entity. (For an erstwhile Yugoslavian deeply skeptical of ethnic nationalism, it’s something to applaud.)
Unfortunately, the results aren’t good. While the cover is crowded and indecisive, the inner pages are intentionally bland. Reminiscent of a style of illustration known as “Corporate Memphis,” the flat, faceless figures with subtly elongated limbs and simple geometric forms are ubiquitous across tech industry graphics and corporate communications. The bendy, solid-coloured shapes (widely popularized by Facebook) are also designed to conform to an iPhone screen, where iOS favours a flat design. And because the design language evokes inclusivity without being expressive, it’s a favourite of both global tech firms and multinational corporations. But for a country?
Just as the new passport cover hedges its bets, the inner pages betray a lack of direction, using motifs that will quickly appear dated. In a country rich in Indigenous art and heritage, following the example of the tech industry is a confounding choice. Perhaps the government has taken a page out of corporate communications, hoping to offend nobody while saying nothing in particular. The new passport is badly designed, and not because it’s objectively ugly, but because it betrays a lack of confidence and coherence.
Then again, we get the symbols we deserve. While it’s tempting to lay blame at the hands of the current government, or stodgy federal procurement policy, our national mythos means more than the politics of the day. If the design reflects an indecisive country caught at a crossroads, then it reflects it accurately. Moving beyond that necessitates a deeper public conversation. Soon, the passport will be followed by new coinage and an updated $20 bill, all set to bear the face of King Charles III. Do we want that as Canadians? It’s a question worth asking. As for the passport? There’s always 2033.
A controversial new design reflects a crossroads for Canadian national identity.