Content and cancellation
Princess Elizabeth first appeared on a Canadian stamp on May 4, 1935, the same day that her father, the Duke of York, not yet the heir apparent, appeared on one of his own. Both stamps, part of a series of six to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of King George V’s ascension to the throne, were designed by Herman Herbert Schwartz, the Nova Scotian who is perhaps best known for his iconic fifty-cent Bluenose stamp from 1929. As a princess, Elizabeth graced three additional Canadian stamps before her own ascension to the throne on February 6, 1952, after which she would feature on more than seventy as a queen.
Canada Post honoured Elizabeth’s grandson Prince William for the first time in April 2011, two weeks before his wedding to Catherine Middleton. At a Rideau Hall ceremony, the governor general, David Johnston, helped unveil two photographic depictions of William and Kate, one for domestic mail and another for international. Initially, Canada Post didn’t plan on issuing stamps to mark the nuptials in Westminster Abbey, but after recognizing a surefire money-maker, it put them together in a mere ten days. As if taking a page from Hello! magazine, Canada Post printed 16 million copies, roughly triple the typical run for a commemorative design. Just two months later, the royal couple found themselves on another guaranteed-to-sell stamp, this time shown in the 1902 State Landau on their big day. Some 11 million copies of that one entered circulation.
William and Kate’s eldest, then Prince George of Cambridge, was but three months old when Canada Post celebrated him in October 2013. The presumptive future king seemed to be sleeping in his mother’s arms on the inflation-proof “permanent” stamp, which cost sixty-three cents back then but is still good for sending a first-class letter today. Young George’s scrapbook wouldn’t have a Royal Mail stamp with his likeness for another three years, when the British released a set that also included his father, grandfather, and great-grandmother, photographed in the White Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace.
Relatively speaking, then, Canada Post took its time to honour the less marketable King Charles III, who never appeared on one of our stamps as the Prince of Wales. Instead, he had to wait until his recent coronation day, when a new “definitive” stamp was finally unveiled.
The latest Canadian stamp to feature the sovereign was created by Paprika, a marketing firm in Montreal that’s no stranger to the postal service. The studio took a straightforward approach: elegant text and a black and white photograph of Charles shot by Alan Shawcross several years ago. Shawcross’s portfolio is impressive. A fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, he has worked with many merry Windsors, as well as the king of Bahrain, the president of Egypt, and the princely family of Lichtenstein. He’s also a talent when it comes to conceptual work, stills, and street life. What he’s not, unfortunately, is Canadian.
As the Canadian Museum of History points out, the story of this country can be told through its stamps: who our monarchs and prime ministers have been, how our political and social priorities have evolved, the ways we have seen ourselves, and the ways we have hoped to be seen. In 1851, the Province of Canada was the first jurisdiction anywhere to put an animal on a stamp rather than a queen or king or president. Fittingly, the “Three-Pence Beaver” was designed by Sir Sandford Fleming, that paragon of innovation and ingenuity. With our stamps, we celebrate those qualities, just as we celebrate actors and singers, Indigenous leaders, authors and astronauts: in other words, Canadian talent.
When future philatelists look back on our first Charles III stamp, they’ll find more than a king who may or may not have reflected Canada in 2023. They’ll detect an irony in a Crown corporation outsourcing the imagery on that stamp to a British photographer even as Parliament was passing the Online Streaming Act across town. Platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix will now be forced to promote a certain amount of Canadian content, yet Canada Post withheld the creative opportunity of a lifetime from one of our own photographers, illustrators, or engravers.
Philately, like the House of Windsor, may be increasingly passé. We don’t need actual stamps to send letters anymore, and we could surely restructure our federation and assume the Crown’s treaty commitments if we just put our minds to it. But the fact remains that, for now, we still have a constitutional monarchy and we still acknowledge our head of state with old-school postage. Canada Post had plenty of time to get this right. Let’s hope the Royal Canadian Mint does better when it issues its new twenty-dollar bill — with an effigy by one of us.