Flying in the whipping wind of protest How has hoisting of Maple Leaf at rallies changed how we see symbol of tolerance and compassion?

Last week, the Forks North Portage Partnership posted a call to hire a consultant to “gather input from Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations, private and public partners of The Forks, and members of the public regarding Canada Day programming.”

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Opinion

Last week, the Forks North Portage Partnership posted a call to hire a consultant to “gather input from Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations, private and public partners of The Forks, and members of the public regarding Canada Day programming.”

For most Winnipeggers, Canada Day at The Forks is a day where tens of thousands come downtown to experience fireworks, music, dance and whole lot of nationalistic pride.

Featuring one of the largest gatherings this side of Ottawa, The Forks on July 1 is usually blanketed in flags, citizens singing bars of O Canada, and proud Canadians clad in red and white shirts, pants and face paint.

The Canada of 2022 isn’t quite the same as it once was.

Recent truths about the country including unmarked graves at residential school sites, rampant systemic sex abuse in the military, and racism against Black Canadians, coupled with a so-called “freedom convoy” movement that featured Canadians brandishing swastikas and the Confederate flag comfortably alongside the Maple Leaf, have changed the face of this country.

For some, these are horrific, new discoveries. For others, these are facts known all too well — coupled with relief that the nation is finally catching up.

Quietly over the years, The Forks has been diversifying its programming on Canada Day, featuring more Indigenous, people of colour and Manitoba-specific acts and programs.

I’ve been a part of this movement.

In 2017, I became Indigenous curator at The Forks and in 2021 I appeared in its online Canada Day celebration.

Now, The Forks wants to ask Winnipeggers how to make this Canada Day the most inclusive — indeed, the most Canadian — as possible.

The main question is what to do with the flag.

Recent truths about the country including unmarked graves at residential school sites, rampant systemic sex abuse in the military, and racism against Black Canadians, coupled with a so-called “freedom convoy” movement that featured Canadians brandishing swastikas and the Confederate flag comfortably alongside the Maple Leaf, have changed the face of this country.

I, like many others over recent weeks, have watched as individuals clad in Maple Leaf flags have occupied downtown city spaces and border crossings across Canada, attempting to impose their beliefs surrounding vaccine mandates and health restrictions under terms like “freedom” and “rights.”

Polling shows the vast majority of Canadians do not support these desires or actions.

The courts don’t support these beliefs either. No court, anywhere in Canada, has said workplaces and restaurants cannot legally require vaccination and mask requirements that limit “rights.”

While scientists may not all agree on the specific government measures taken to control the spread of COVID-19, virtually all agree some restrictions are needed.

So, despite the fact the majority of Canadians don’t agree with them, a small minority of Canadians have co-opted the Canadian flag into a symbol for anti-vaccination, the elimination of health restrictions, and the overthrow of democratically elected governments.

What protesters may also not realize is the original intention of the Canadian flag doesn’t fit their movement either.

In 1965, when the Canadian flag was adopted and flown for the very first time (replacing the Union Jack and Canadian Red Ensign), Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson announced: “may the land over which this new flag flies remain united in freedom and justice… sensitive, tolerant and compassionate towards all.”

Despite the fact the majority of Canadians don’t agree with them, a small minority of Canadians have co-opted the Canadian flag into a symbol for anti-vaccination, the elimination of health restrictions, and the overthrow of democratically elected governments.

Of course, the 1960s was the time of the civil rights movement but was also Canada’s first real attempt to break from its colonial past — a time characterized by the theft of Indigenous lands and resources, violence against racialized groups like Black and Chinese Canadians, and laws that entrenched Caucasian superiority.

Most of these actions continue to exist today, but any historian will tell you that the flag has also come to represent some monumental, unifying moments since 1965, too.

Most involve art, culture and sport, like the Olympics. As in every Olympics previous, nearly every single person in this country cheered for people who may not look like them but sport the Maple Leaf.

Some involve politics, like the first gay rights protest in 1971 which led to the huge, dynamic Pride events in virtually every city today.

Others involve individual acts of Canadian heroism, like Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda.

Last week marked the anniversary of that first raising of the Maple Leaf flag on Feb. 15, 1965.

I wonder what Pearson would think of Canadians using it to promote insensitivity, intolerance and selfishness.

I bet he’d be less than impressed.

I’m not a flag waver. Far too much violence has been perpetrated by Canadians to Indigenous communities like my own to ever make me wear it proudly.

I do, however, respect my relatives — many of whom take the symbol of the flag very seriously.

My two grandfathers, who both put their lives on the line for Canada, respected it, and that’s good enough for me.

For them, the flag was everything it was promised to be in 1965.

I wonder if Canadians still see it the same now.

Or if we can, in a place like The Forks, see it in a new way. A better way.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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