To mark the 201st birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald, we went down for a skate at the Sens Rink of Dreams in front of the Ottawa City Hall. The days are growing longer, but not so long that. by 5:30 when we took to the ice, there was anything but a sliver of twilight left. The temperature was minus 10 but the wind was more brisk than expected. The flags at Marion Dewar Plaza weren't exactly snapping in the breeze, but they were stretched out enough to see them in their full unfurled glory. All in all, a cold night for bare knees.
The Rink of Dreams is a wonderful facility -- an oval lit overhead and with illuminated sideboards that change colours. At that hour, there were only a handful of skaters, but more and more arrived as the evening darkened.
Sue and Mike joined me for their first skate in Ottawa after 15 years of serving Canada in various consulates south of the border. For Sue, this was the first time she had skated on ice crafted smooth as glass by a zamboni. It was a revelation for her: so much easier to skate than the outdoor rinks she remembered, or the Rideau Canal Skateway when they used to flood it by drilling holes through the ice and piping water up through a gasoline-powered pump.
Mike moved on the ice like someone who'd played competitive hockey. In his first posting, he joined a league in Atlanta, and he talked about how high the calibre of men's league was down there. Atlanta has only four hockey rinks, and if you're going to play on them, you're likely to be very good indeed. He took hold of our Scottish Society of Ottawa kilt skate banner and whirled around the ice with it. A Scottish saltire fastened to a hockey stick: "You can't get much more Canadian than this," he said.
And in some respects, he's right. That Scottish flag fastened to a hockey stick attracts attention wherever we take it. But I wonder what Sir John A. would have made of it? In recent years, the saltire has become a political icon for the Scottish independence movement. Colleagues in the Scottish Society of Ottawa, and friends both in Canada and overseas are deeply divided on the issue of Scottish devolution. We don't want to imply a political stance when we fly the saltire, and I hope others understand.
Sir John A. himself, I have no doubt, would have voted NO in last year's referendum. "A British subject I was born," he said, "and a British subject I will die." But certainly attaching a union jack to a hockey stick would not carry the same symbolism for the Scottish Society of Ottawa as the saltire. Nor would we use the red lion rampant on the yellow field as our standard symbol of kilt skating. Technically, that's the flag of the Royal Family in Scotland, and should be used only by Her Majesty or her representatives, although it's come to be regarded by some as an alternative flag for Scotland.
But as we skated around the oval with the saltire fluttering merrily, we could look up at the the Cartier Square Drill Hall, where a similar flag, slightly altered with a coat of arms in the centre, flew proudly from the corner tower: the flag of the Cameron Highlanders. If a regiment that has proudly served Canada for over 150 years can use the saltire as its regimental flag, then our modest kilt skate is not going to get fussed about those who may mistake a St. Andrew's cross for a political statement other than we're proud of our Scottish heritage.
Skate on ... and keep the flag flying!