Skip to main content

The flag of the People’s Republic of China will still be permitted to fly outside City Hall in one of Ontario’s fastest-growing municipalities after a proposal to ban the hoisting of foreign flags on special occasions was defeated.

Markham city council voted 5-8 Tuesday evening to reject a motion to end the practice of temporarily raising foreign flags after six hours of debate featuring submissions from more than 70 speakers.

The proposal arose from a backlash last October after the red-and-yellow Chinese flag was raised to celebrate National Day in China and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. Attendees included Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti and Han Tao, China’s consul-general in Toronto.

Like several other Canadian municipalities, Markham permits the raising of flags of different nations, territories or communities outside City Hall by community groups on special occasions, subject to approval by a municipal public servant.

Proponents of a ban on foreign flags argued a Canadian city should not be hoisting a flag that represents oppression for many, including immigrants who fled to Canada to avoid tyranny, and especially not when Beijing has locked up two Canadians in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a Chinese executive in Vancouver. They also point to the detention of one million Muslim Uyghurs in internment camps in China’s Xinjiang region.

“As a Chinese Canadian brought up in Hong Kong, the flag of the People’s Republic of China has nothing to do with my culture ... and certainly does not make me proud,” said Gloria Fung, head of the group Canada-Hong Kong Link, who spoke to Markham council Tuesday. “Flying this flag endorses the state and those who are directly engaged in severe violation of human rights … freedom and democracy.”

Relations between Canada and China have deteriorated significantly in the past year after Ottawa arrested an executive for the Chinese flagship tech firm Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. on an extradition request from the United States. Beijing subsequently arrested former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, accusing them of spying.

Mr. Scarpitti, who was among those who voted against the proposed ban, said allowing flag raisings helps “build bridges.” The city’s website, citing 2016 census findings, said 67 per cent of Markham residents identify as having an Asian ethnic background and the two biggest mother-tongue languages after English are Mandarin and Cantonese.

“Council decided there is certainly a lot of value in being able to recognize the wonderful richness and diversity that makes up Markham,” he said of the vote.

Asked about concerns raised regarding China’s poor human-rights record, the mayor said no country is immune from criticism of its conduct. “The fact is you would be probably hard-pressed to find a country that didn’t have some kind of human rights ... or something in their past history that they wouldn’t be proud of, Canada included.”

Asked about concerns raised about China’s incarceration of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, the mayor said that is a matter for the federal government. “I think we leave those national issues to the national government. At the end of the day, I can tell you that all of us continue to expect a positive resolution from that particular issue,” Mr. Scarpitti said.

He said he’s not dismissing the concerns of activists. He also pointed out that Markham has continued to strengthen ties with China despite “some of the challenges” between Ottawa and Beijing.

“I am very proud to say that Huawei Technologies has their Canadian head office here in our community with more than 700 employees, over 500 of them in research and development,” he said.

Those opposed to flying the Chinese flag in Markham say it shouldn’t be defended as a celebration of diversity.

“As Canadians and residents of this great city, who promote tolerance and human rights as core Canadian values, we cannot allow these principles to be cynically co-opted by those who value political transactions and power over human dignity,” Marcus Kolga, a human-rights activist and resident of Markham, told city officials in an earlier presentation on the matter.

“Raising the Chinese communist flag anywhere in this city, is as offensive as raising the flag of any other totalitarian regime that has engaged in ethnic cleansing and violent repression. It signals acquiescence to this behaviour."