Moments before Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers took the stage at Pemberton Fest, a one-off three-day festival outside Whistler, B.C., in 2008, the crush of young, almost entirely Canadian fans in front of the stage burst into an impromptu a cappella rendition of their national anthem, “O Canada.”
At Sasquatch! 2010 at the Gorge, Nave Sharbi danced in ecstasy in the summer heat, draped in a Canadian flag. “I love America. My mom’s American,” Sharbi said, “[but] they don’t share the same enthusiasm about stuff, whether it’s music or patriotism.”
It’s commonplace to see Canadians make their national pride known at summer festivals like this year’s sold-out Sasquatch! at the Gorge over Memorial Day weekend or Bumbershoot over Labor Day. They fly the maple leaf at random, work themselves into a tizzy during sets by the B.C.-based New Pornographers, and add a festive punctuation mark when Ben Gibbard name-drops Calgary during Death Cab for Cutie’s single “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”
“Every time we’re having fun, we’re patriotic,” said Colin Smith, who drove down to Sasquatch! from Vancouver Island last year. “We wear it on our chest.”
Such outward expression of national pride is unheard of among their stateside peers. If someone waves an American flag at a rock festival in the United States, it probably boasts a peace symbol, a pot leaf, or a subtext of irony.
“In my experience there is broad openness toward expressing national pride in Canada that crosses social groups,” says Adam Zacks, a dual citizen who founded and books Sasquatch! “It’s just more accepted and part of the culture to express it outwardly.”
Fans and bands blame the lack of outward patriotism on a perception that the American flag represents the country as a macho, international bully, and is a symbol that has been co-opted by the anti-gay-marriage/anti-abortion political right and the modern country/NASCAR set.
Diana Michelle Hood is a Sasquatch! veteran from Colorado who plans on draping herself in red, white, and blue this year, though without a political motive—along with dozens of others, Hood is attending the fest dressed as Waldo. She agrees that there is a stigma to flying the American flag—though, she notes, it’s probably not as strong at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo as at Sasquatch!—and says that despite her national pride, she’d never wave one at a festival, and she’d avoid those who did. “It seems that these days, sporting the American flag has been appropriated to mean Republican, and for a Democrat to do so at a liberal setting such as a rock festival is embarrassing,” she said in an e-mail. “The connotations of hicks, rednecks, the NASCAR community, the country-music community, and the far right are so prevalent that it almost doesn’t make sense for a liberal to wave the flag anymore.”
It is in part to try to correct the flag’s right-wing associations, says Kirk Huffman, that his Seattle band, Wild Orchid Children, have made the stars and stripes a big part of their image. They drape their instruments in flags, wear them in promo pics, and feature them so prominently at their shows you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.
“It’s kind of silly to just be, like, ‘woo-hoo’ about the American flag,” Huffman says. “But coming from a stance of, like, a bunch of crazy, loud dudes, it’s like a different perspective of what that flag is supposed to represent that doesn’t always get [out].”
Kathryn Calder, a Canadian and member of the New Pornographers who plays a solo show at Rendezvous on Thursday, says the American flag comes with a lot of implications, and represents a mentality that “everyone else is just squashed and can go to hell.” The perception is unfortunate, Calder says, because she knows plenty of Americans who don’t feel that way. “It sucks, because you should be able to go outside with a T-shirt on of the country you’re from,” she says. “You wear an American flag and all of a sudden you’re a target. People notice.”
Canadian artist Sam Roberts, appearing at Sasquatch!, says he’s also noticed the difference in national pride, and thinks Americans are more regional and proud of their home state. But he has another theory about the disparity: “[Americans] don’t need to remind yourself . . . who you are,” he says. “I think we’ve struggled so much to identify what it is that’s at the heart of being Canadian. In our case, Tim Hortons coffee seems to mean more than political ideology in a lot of ways. And hockey, you know. It seems so simplistic, but it’s the truth: In the U.S. you’ve got baseball . . . NFL, and NBA, and hockey, and this and that. We got one thing.”
Even those who aren’t flag-phobic admit to moments of weakness. Huffman says that the last time Wild Orchid played Vancouver, the band ditched its normal red, white, and blue wardrobe, a move he says was due in part to some level of national shame. “A lot of people just think we’re stupid,” Huffman says. “Which is totally, like, understandable.”