John Boyko is the author of eight books, including The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.
Last weekend I drove four hours to Ottawa and passed several farms with large Canadian flags at the ends of their long driveways. With each flag, I cringed. The Maple Leaf used to afford me a sense of communal pride – there, I used to think, was someone who, like me, is proud to live in one of the world’s most peaceful, democratic, egalitarian countries.
But instead, over and over, I felt repulsion. Each time I passed a red-and-white flag, blowing in the wind, I wondered if the owner believed in a free and democratic Canada, or in the vitriolic vision of our country on display at the trucker convoy last month.
I am saddened by this newfound uncertainty, and frustrated that our Maple Leaf flag has been captured, in a sense, by the small minority who support the convoy and its negative anti-government, anti-science, anti-democracy and anti-God-knows-what-else messages that few among them seem able to clearly articulate. But this isn’t the first time that a symbol has been stolen for nefarious purposes.
Some of those who attended the Ottawa occupation and border blockades were waving flags with Nazi symbols on them. While it is now inextricably linked to the Third Reich, the swastika is in fact an ancient symbol – in the Indian Sanskrit language it signified good health, and by the early 20th century it had become a universal symbol of well-being and good luck. Prior to the Second World War, Finnish pilots sewed swastikas on their flight suits; it was carved onto the Federal Reserve building in Washington in the 1930s; it was even used by Coca-Cola and was a popular symbol for the Boy Scouts.
Adolf Hitler, of course, wrecked all that. Nazi scholars convinced him that links between the German and Sanskrit languages represented a shared Aryan heritage. He swiped the swastika and made it the symbol of his Nazi party, which in turn associated the swastika with the horrors advocated by Hitler’s twisted tactics and evil goals.
The capture of the English flag was at one point so pernicious that it was banned in England. Many will recognize that one of the symbols within the United Kingdom’s Union Jack flag is England’s own St. George’s flag, with its white background and red cross. In the 1970s, the flag was adopted by the racist Nationalist Front; for decades it was waved at football matches and protest rallies with the chant: “There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack.” The white supremacist English Defence League then took the St. George’s flag as its own. Despite efforts to reclaim it, the English flag still makes many an Englander’s skin crawl.
And now it’s happened in Canada. As the trucker rallies and border blockades dragged on for weeks, hundreds of Canadian flags fluttered in the wind among banners with swastikas, anti-vaccine symbols and expletive-laden slogans.
We need to steal our flag back. We need to fly the flag at our homes and wear it on our lapels not because Canada is perfect or has a spotless history, but because we are patriotic. That is, we are not nationalists who claim superiority and embrace aggression against anyone deemed “the other,” but patriots who are proud of the values and aspirations that form the foundation of our country. Those values are democracy and the rule of law, a celebration of diversity, and a fundamental decency that inspires us to do better, informed by our desire for peace, order and good government.
We must reject the tremendous power of algorithms that trap us within echo chambers, reverberating with confirmational bias and conspiracy theories. We must embrace humility and accept that there is always more to learn and that, sometimes, we might be wrong. We must somehow rebuild a foundation of agreed-upon facts, starting with a basic knowledge of how our federal system of government works. We must also accept that freedom has essential limits and is accompanied by responsibilities.
It has taken a long time for Canada to fall into the trap that was first sprung in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and again a few weeks ago in Ottawa. It will take a long time to disassemble that trap and leave it behind us, but we must make the effort. We can seek inspiration from the tenacious Ukrainians who are demonstrating what fighting for freedom really looks like. If we can summon the courage, we can do what is needed to recover from our moment of darkness.
On Sunday, hundreds of jubilant soccer fans enthusiastically waved Canadian flags as Canada qualified for the World Cup. Perhaps that joyous display of shared happiness and patriotic pride may be the first step in recapturing our flag. Now comes the real work.
Editor’s note: (April 1, 2022): This version of the story clarifies that while there was at least one person photographed waving a Nazi flag at the Ottawa occupation and border blockades, there were multiple instances of flags with Nazi symbols on them at the demonstrations.
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