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What ideas were left on the cutting room floor in passport redesign? We’ll never know

“We laughed. It looked like a C-minus effort.”
The new Canadian passport is unveiled at an event at the Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Canadians will never know what ideas were considered and rejected before the federal government finalized the newly reimagined and often lambasted design for the Canadian passport. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Garry Keller recalls the first images passport staff brought before the then-Conservative government for consideration during the last major passport overhaul.

“We laughed,” Keller recalls. “It looked like a C-minus effort.”

The original concepts featured a Canada goose, a beaver and a maple leaf — ideas the government found uninspired and “lowest-common denominator.”

Keller served as chief of staff to John Baird, who oversaw the passport redesign as foreign minister. Baird and his team sent the department back to the drawing board.

“I think we delivered a passport that was certainly esthetically beautiful in the inside, but also pulled from the historical story of Canada,” Keller said.

When he saw the latest redesign of the Canadian passport unveiled last May, he said it reminded him of those early concept images.

Canadians might never know what ideas were considered and rejected before the federal government finalized the reimagined and often lambasted design for the passport.

When a request for earlier proposed versions under the Access to Information Act turned up no result, the Immigration Department said draft artwork for the new passport wasn’t stored for security reasons, since the artwork is considered a security feature in and of itself.

“Due to the classified nature of the passport design during its development, (Government of Canada) restrictions on the storage and communication of classified information and the difficulties of operating during pandemic restrictions, the passport program does not store information concerning drafts of the passport design,” the department said in an emailed response to the information request.

The government doesn’t even own the early drafts or proposals since they were produced by an outside contractor, the department clarified in a later statement.

The department said the esthetic and thematic content in the passport serve solely as a support for what they call “secure line work.”

“Security features and the artwork therefore cannot be dissociated,” the department said.

Experts say the design is sure to have gone through several iterations before the Liberals landed on what critics have called a generic document that rejects the previous historic motif.

The theme was first identified more than 10 years ago and approved in 2020 after much consultation, the Immigration Department said in a statement Friday. Only one theme was approved for consideration and developed into a design, the department said.

“The esthetic design must be completed at the beginning of the process to feed the downstream steps mentioned above,” the statement read.

The final version features new security measures and stylized artwork.

Historic images representing Canada’s past have been replaced with pastel tableaus of Canadian life and fauna on the visa pages.

On one page, children in colourful parkas build a snowman outside a barn while a snowy owl looks on. On another, a boy appears frozen mid-jump off a dock as canoeists paddle by.

Under ultraviolet light, the owl takes flight and the boy splashes into the lake.

The result sparked instant controversy, with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre accusing the Liberals of injecting their “woke ideology” into the passport design.

The Royal Canadian Legion expressed disappointment that an image of the Vimy Memorial in France would no longer be featured in the passport, calling it a “poor decision.”

The Terry Fox Hometown Run also expressed regret that Fox’s Marathon of Hope run won’t be honoured in the pages of the passport anymore.

“I think it’s important to say that this is not partisan,” Social Services Minister Karina Gould said at a press conference at the Ottawa International Airport in May, standing before poster boards of the new designs.

“The design of this passport started 10 years ago and this is really about ensuring the security of the document.”

The passport goes through a major overhaul every 10 years or so and changing the artwork — an element deemed a novelty a decade ago — is considered part of the anti-counterfeiting effort.

In 2012, when the historical images were first introduced, they replaced identical visa pages that featured a large red Maple Leaf surrounded by smaller blue maple leaves.

The immigration department said none of the alternative concept images from the 2012 redesign were kept either.

The images in the 2012 passport were part of a governmentwide rebrand that was underway when the Conservatives came to power, said Alex Marland, the Jarislowsky Chair in Trust and Political Leadership at Acadia University.

The Conservatives “were obsessed with co-ordinating government so that it could be communicating variations of the same message in different ways that were very much connected to the party’s messaging,” Marland said in an interview.

While most people would hope government decisions are made in a non-partisan way, the reality is that government is politicized all the time, he said.

This time around, the passport resign was underway at the same time as a polarized debate over certain aspects of Canada’s history.

Many have questioned whether monuments to Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, should continue to stand, given his role in the establishment of residential schools.

The Liberal government also tends to take a different approach to projects like the passport, and usually opts to rely heavily on focus groups, Marland said.

“It’s very different than the Harper Conservatives, which (were) far more ideologically focused,” he said.

The government consulted with several federal departments, Indigenous groups, and others, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said at the presentation of the new design.

“One of the things that we heard is that we want to celebrate our diversity and inclusion, we want to celebrate our natural environment … and try to bake those elements into the design,” he said.

“But to be absolutely clear, we’re extremely proud of Canada’s history.”

For his part, Marland said it would have been in the public interest to release any concept designs that were part of those consultations.

Canadians will soon see the final design, expected to go into circulation this summer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press