Andrew Potter is the author of On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever.
Is the flag of Canada that flies over the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, along with every other flag that adorns a federal institution in this country, ever going to be returned to full mast? If the current Prime Minister of Canada has anything to do with it, the answer appears to be no. And whatever the merits might have been of lowering the flags in the first place, the problems it was intended to address have gone unresolved while untold damage is being done to the country’s binding symbolism.
The question of what holds together a place like Canada is a hard one to answer. Some countries are bound by the force of geography, or of language and ethnicity, or shared history, or sense of collective mission. None of these apply to Canada today, if they ever did. There’s a lot of duct tape and baling wire holding Confederation together at the best of times – and these are far from the best of times.
A 2014 Leger Marketing survey asked respondents “What keeps Canada united?” The number one answer was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, named by a quarter of respondents, followed by the health care system at 22 per cent. Ranked much lower were many of the things that we’re often told are central to the Canadian project, such as multiculturalism (9 per cent), official bilingualism (4 per cent) and equalization (4 per cent).
Around the same time, Statistics Canada decided to try to find out what programs or institutions were most recognized as important national symbols. Once more the Charter came out far ahead, followed by the Canada flag, the national anthem, the RCMP and hockey. Interestingly, for every national symbol that was named, immigrants were more likely than non-immigrants to believe that it was important to the national identity.
The appearance of the Charter and the flag on these sorts of lists is not a coincidence. If the Charter is what underwrites what we all share as Canadians, regardless of our race or region, our language, ethnicity, gender or what have you, then the flag is what symbolizes our collective commitment to defending those rights and freedoms. To steal a line from the American philosopher Richard Rorty, the flag is what symbolizes the shared Canadian project of “achieving our country.”
When Justin Trudeau ordered the flags lowered at the end of June, it was in response to a very specific national trauma, namely, reports of the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children who died while in the hands of the residential school system. Given the scope of these awful revelations and their proximity to July 1, it was arguably the right move to lower the flags for a Canada Day that many people were no longer in much of a mood to celebrate.
But the flags never came back up. And the longer they stayed down, the less it became about the specific shock of the unmarked graves, and more about the more general continuing difficulties Canada has in treating its Indigenous peoples fairly. Whenever he has been asked about the flags, Mr. Trudeau’s irritated response has been to say that he needs the permission from Indigenous leaders to raise them. But he has made no effort to set out for Canadians what the process would look like, to engage the leaders who would be part of the permission-giving body, and set benchmarks for what would count as sufficient progress to allow the flags to be raised.
A good opportunity to have started this conversation would have been Sept. 30th, our first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Indeed, if you’re the prime minister of Canada and the flag over the Peace Tower has been half-masted for more than three months, you’d think getting this resolved would be near the top of your agenda. Instead, as is well known, Mr. Trudeau took the day off to go to the beach.
So now the problem is measurably worse. It is bad enough that Mr. Trudeau had allowed the flag of Canada to come to symbolize Canada’s historic ill-treatment of its Indigenous peoples, but now the prospect of raising them is being held hostage by the Prime Minister’s own callousness and indifference. This is no way to run a country.
If Canada’s collective project, if “achieving our country” as symbolized by the flag, is to be defined first and foremost by how to do right by Indigenous peoples, that’s probably not a bad thing at all. But if so, it is a project that absolutely must not be left to the whims and fancies and political calculations of one man, especially one whose government’s policies, and his own personal behaviour, have consistently failed so badly on this score.
It is up to Parliament to set this right. Thankfully, Canadians had the sense to return a minority government to Ottawa, which means our elected representatives have the ability to take control of this shambolic situation. When the House of Commons finally meets this fall, this must be its first order of business.
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