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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

I am one of these small “p” patriots who flies a Canadian flag over the garage. My flag is quiet, not boastful just gently fluttering in the wind. People fly flags for many different reasons. For me, I suppose, I feel blessed to be a Canadian. I’m not a “do or die” or “a love it or leave it” type of patriot, but I’ve lived in two European countries, four Canadian provinces and have visited 46 out of the 50 United States. I’m not by any means a world traveller but I do know that living in Canada is a privilege and I’m lucky to live here.

Recently, and for only the second time, I have displayed and embraced a second flag. The first time was after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. I still remember then British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying that an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us. That sentiment struck a nerve, and when my local newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, published a full-colour American flag (and continued to do so for some time) this sealed it for me. The newsprint Stars and Stripes fit perfectly in my garage-door window. I left it there for a year before I took it down. Some of my neighbours and friends wondered if I was becoming American (usually distasteful to the Canadian psyche) but I just laughed it off and was content in standing behind Tony Blair’s comment.

A couple of decades later, I have chosen again to fly another country’s flag alongside my Maple Leaf: the Ukrainian blue and yellow. The words that came from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on February 25 echoed Tony Blair’s from years ago: “We provide the absolute security guarantees under the Washington Treaty Article 5. An attack on one will be regarded as an attack on all.” This tugged at my heart.

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For me, it’s an important gesture. All democratic countries are in this together. We’re suddenly all Ukrainians. When my Ukrainian flag first appeared, a new neighbour wondered if I had Ukrainian ancestry. Far from it. My mother’s ancestors emigrated from the Isle of Iona in Scotland in the 1700s and settled in Prince Edward Island and they were there for over a hundred years until a great grandfather (who was Lucy Maud Montgomery’s father) settled out west in Saskatchewan. On my father’s side, I’m related to United Empire Loyalists.

But I also think that perhaps unintentionally, we all became Ukrainians on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Akin to 9-11, this is a pivotal democratic moment. Many might think that Ukraine is so far away and what does it really have to do with my little corner of the world? But whether it is Hitler or Stalin or Napoleon, the idea of stopping a ruthless dictator has to be supported. Democracy is a fragile thing and it is easy to simply sleepwalk through such events and notice how your own little world might be uncomfortably altered at some point.

I have noticed that when people walk by my house that they glance at my Ukrainian flag. It’s probably subliminal, sort of a subconscious observation, but many stop briefly and look for a few moments, then walk on. Others will slightly turn their head as they are walking and talking with someone as they pass.

The Ukrainian tragedy is so overwhelming that many people don’t wish to even discuss it but, in their hearts, and minds they know the seriousness of it, and perhaps even smile at my flag, but it is not a joyous smile, it is a smile or an eyebrow lift that silently says, “Yes. I get it, and I’m with you.”

Honestly, it’s hard to say how much my flag registers with passersby. Advertising is like that; one little message goes a long way and I cannot measure the ripple effect unless, of course, someone stops when I happen to be outside and talks to me about it.

Some homeowners like to display everything from peace signs to political comments on their property, and people will walk by it and think, “Ya that guy is like that, he’s always flaunting something.” I’m reminded of the Five Man Electrical Band song, Signs, written by Les Emmerson: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” Sign pollution definitely is an issue but flying another country’s flag is not cluttering the air; it’s an important statement for the dangerous times in which we live.

Flying the Ukrainian flag won’t change the outcome of the Russian invasion, but everyone should participate in whatever way they can. Flying the Ukrainian flag over my garage is my sign, my own little way of saying, “Yes I support you in my own little way.” If someone does walk by my house and has Ukrainian ancestry, then they will probably understand – and perhaps even stop, look up and smile.

Douglas Cornish lives in Ottawa.

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