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A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina January 17, 2012.

CHRIS KEANE/REUTERS

The flag of the Confederate States during the American Civil War has been the subject of recent controversy in two places in Ontario. Though it should not be prohibited as hate speech, Canadians should not regard the flag as a harmless cultural symbol. There would have been no such Confederacy and no such emblem if slavery had not existed in the southern United States. What some Southerners euphemistically called the "peculiar institution" was at the very core of the war.

In Hamilton, a two-location barbecue restaurant called Hillbilly Heaven displays the Confederate flag, giving offence to many in an area that was a leading destination for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. And in Sutton, Ont., on Lake Simcoe, the local high school has banned the use of the same flag on its premises; many students had adopted it by association with country and western music.

Hillbilly Heaven should be allowed to use the Confederate flag, just as people should be free not to eat there. The school is another matter; a public institution should not condone an expression of racism and human bondage on its grounds.

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The distinction between the South and the North was that in one region slavery was permitted and not in the other. The immediate cause of the secession of the Southern states was the election as president of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the extension of slavery to new states in the West.

Apologists for the Confederacy, then and now, have argued that slavery was not the essential issue at stake; it was about states' rights, they say. In truth, Lincoln and the Republicans did not propose to alter the powers of any of the existing states. Only toward the end of the Civil War was slavery abolished – soon to be replaced for about a century by an apartheid-like subordination of blacks in the South, for which the Stars and Bars was often waved as a symbol.

Canadians should express themselves through their own symbols, not through barely understood American ones – and certainly not through a flag that is irrevocably marked by human bondage.

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