The slogan is everywhere. On stickers in car and truck windows. On signs outside legions and businesses and homes. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a tartan design. Sometimes it’s over or beside the near-ubiquitous graphic of the province with a heart in the middle.
The slogan, of course, is “Nova Scotia Strong.”
It’s quickly become so familiar that even an elongated blue blob with a heart spray-painted beside it on rocks by the side of Highway 103 is immediately recognizable as an offshoot of the slogan.
“Nova Scotia Strong” started to appear at the time of the Portapique tragedy, and spread as the province lived through a series of horrible events, all coming on top of the pandemic. There was the disappearance of young Dylan Ehler from Truro. The sailors killed when their helicopter crashed in the Mediterranean. The Snowbird crash that took the life of Jenn Casey. All in the space of a few weeks.
“Why strong? Why not ‘Nova Scotia Together’? It has to do with feeling under threat, right? It was COVID, it was Portapique, it was all the other things that were taking place, the death of a toddler — I think many people were really pushed to the edge,” said Fiona Martin, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Dalhousie University, in an interview. “How much more really troubling, tragic news could they take?” (Disclosure: Martin is my sister-in-law.)
In that context, Martin said, the appeal to strength made sense: “In some ways, that reference to strength was kind of like, hold on, you know? You can hold on and hang in there because we’re all with you. We’re going to help you stay strong.”
But over time, Martin wonders if the slogan has started to lose meaning. “The early expressions of ‘Nova Scotia Strong’ were very tied to people communicating their sympathy and solidarity with the victims of the tragedy. But now that it’s many months later and you’re seeing the message everywhere, on donuts and t-shirts — the more something becomes commodified, often the less meaningful it becomes,” she said. “That widespread acknowledgement is a good thing. But it’s also clearly about trying to become a branding exercise as well, which is kind of uncomfortable.”
Tim Hortons launched a Nova Scotia Strong donut in late April, complete with support from local hockey heroes Sydney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon. Proceeds went to the Red Cross’s Stronger Together Nova Scotia fund. Other brands have appropriated the slogan or its variants, and “Nova Scotia Strong” remains on billboards and store signs.
Look up the #NovaScotiaStrong hashtag on Twitter and you’ll see it attached to everything from photos of kids going back to school, to people lifting weights, sunsets, folks watching sports on TV and shots of the Bluenose. And in addition to Nova Scotia Strong, there are variants on billboards and elsewhere: “Nova Scotia Stronger” or “We are stronger together.”
Before “Nova Scotia Strong” there was “Fredericton Strong,” after four people in in that city were shot and killed in 2018. And before that, there was “Boston Strong” — a slogan that was taken up by the city’s sports teams, among others. Other American cities have also adopted the phrase after experiencing tragedy.
“Strong” as a response to tragedy goes back to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and the slogan gives a nod to the US Army’s “Army Strong” advertising campaign, which launched in 2006.
Chris Dobens, co-creator of the Boston Strong slogan and t-shirts, wrote in a 2017 Medium post:
We wanted to convey a message of resiliency, similar to that of “Army Strong” and “Live Strong”…
Looking back on this campaign, it’s hard to process how far this movement has come. Nick, Lane and I never thought that Boston Strong would go beyond the city of Boston. We never thought it would be the rally cry of major New England sports teams, and even the inspiration for other cities that have endured similar tragic events. Boston Strong has become a unifying theme for those who are still suffering from the attacks on April 15th. As someone who has personally witnessed the traumatic effects of that day, I can say that this shirt, and the community behind it, have been a beacon of hope against hatred and senseless violence…
For now, Boston Strong will continue to be a phrase meant to support the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. It may have different connotations after being adopted by various city initiatives, its original meaning is far from lost. In time, I hope that the phrase will continue on as a reminder that this city and its people will not go quietly into the night.
For Shanks, Army Strong is clearly tied to a particular kind of rugged toughness:
Army Strong is more than muscles; it’s the Soldiers who can endure long patrols constantly alert for hidden dangers, or run faster and further than they ever thought they could.
Army Strong is more than sheer military might (tanks, helicopters, artillery, missiles, etc.); it’s the Soldiers who drive, fly or shoot all that hardware.
Army Strong is more than completing tough training; it’s parachuting out of an airplane at 800 feet when you’re scared to death of heights.
Army Strong is more than being smart; it’s having the knowledge and tenacity to develop a way to solve seemingly impossible problems.
Army Strong is more than combat operations that destroy an enemy; it’s the Soldiers and leaders who plan and execute it – it’s boots on the ground.
Michael Orsini finds the notion of using “strong” as a way to convey resilience and unity troubling. Orsini is a professor in the faculty of social sciences at the University of Ottawa. In 2016, he and Anne McGuire, a professor in the University of Toronto equity studies program, wrote a critique of a fundraising ad for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The ad presented kids as warriors, fighting to overcome their conditions, and trumpeted that “Sick isn’t weak.” Orsini and McGuire called the ad “a textbook example of ableism.” And Orsini worries that ableism is also a subtext of Nova Scotia Strong.
“The idea of being strong, or the community being strong, or the city or province or whatever, doesn’t leave much room for people to be vulnerable and to feel like they’re not sure,” Orsini said in an interview.
“Is there kind of a will to be strong? And what does that do for people’s ability to say, actually, I don’t feel particularly strong today. I feel kind of powerless and weak. And that doesn’t mean I’m less than. It doesn’t mean I’m inferior. It means that I’m human.”
Talk of being strong in the face of adversity, Orsini said, “can crowd out real feeling… I think it’s appropriate to ask why we have to have this focus on strength in the face of adversity, versus kind of saying that the way we deal is the way we deal.”
When I asked University of King’s College professor Laura Penny for her thoughts on Nova Scotia Strong, she initially replied in an email with, “Unsurprisingly… I do not care for this slogan.” But Penny, author of the book Your Call is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit, went on to give a more nuanced view, saying she thinks a lot of what it means to be Nova Scotia Strong depends on context.
“I’m sympathetic to the initial impulse here, which was to reassure people, to console people, to try and support the victims of this horrible shooting,” she said in an interview. But “there’s a big difference between a little kid drawing a sign that says ‘Nova Scotia Strong’ and putting it in their window because they know that things are pretty grim locally as well as globally for the last couple of months, and the Tim Hortons Nova Scotia Strong donut. It’s the same phrase, but I would say that they are two different impulses.”
Penny lives in the North End of Halifax, and says Nova Scotia Strong signs and their variants in and around Northwood have a different feel to them than, say, stickers with the slogan on the back window of a big truck.
“What does it mean to be strong? Does it mean to be empathetic? Does it mean to be resilient? Does it mean to be a community that takes care of its most vulnerable people? Or are we talking about strength as force, about the RCMP or someone who’s armed?” she asked. “It seems to me that second definition of strength is not a very sustainable one. The kind of force displayed by the police across North America this summer? It doesn’t look very strong to me. It looks hysterical and brutal.”
Orsini also struggles with the near-ubiquitous use of the word “resilient.”
“My pet peeve is the notion of resilience. It’s everywhere. Everyone’s resilient,” he said. “And I think it’s kind of problematic in the same way as Nova Scotia Strong or Boston Strong. It kind of does set up that the only way you can move forward is through flexing your muscle… Sometimes all the strength you can muster is not going to change the structure — is not going to deal with racism, is not going to deal with sexism. I guess that’s the part that I think is more interesting about it. What does it summon? What does it say? What is it trying to do with the word?”
Penny and Martin both linked the rapid spread of the slogan to the pandemic. For Martin, it had to do with an overall sense of responding to threat. Penny thinks in a time of distancing, slogans are one of the ways we communicate.
She said, “I think Nova Scotia Strong catching on is part of a broader blooming of slogans all over the place, in the absence of sociability. When I’ve been taking my state-approved constitutional, I can’t help but notice that there are signs in windows all over the North End. In the part of North End where I live, which is more hipster asshole professionals like me, and poor people and students, you see a lot of Black Lives Matter. A lot of ACAB. Whereas in parts of the North End older people live in… you see a lot of Nova Scotia Strong. You see a lot of support for Jenn Casey right now. You see a lot of messages supporting health-care workers. I think this kind of desire to place your political or ethical commitments in your window has a lot to do with the fact that we’re not really socializing in stores or at work or on the street anymore.”
Despite the issues with “strong” as a descriptor though, at the end of the day, Penny said, “I mean, what was their other word choice? Nova Scotia Sad? Nova Scotia Heartbroken? Nova Scotia Grieving? I think if the goal is to reassure people and offer empathy for something objectively terrible, then I see why they’re picking strong. But again, I think one of the things that’s actually promising about this horrible summer is we’re kind of thinking about the fact that we need care workers and maybe we do not need expressions of physical force.”
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