When I lived in the States back in the 60’s, those of us in the anti-Vietnam War movement played capture the flag with pro-war hawks. They won, making the American flag synonymous around the world with blind patriotism, willful ignorance, and warmongering. Back then, when I saw the American flag, whether as a window decal or on a bumper sticker that read “My country, right or wrong,” it made me ashamed to live in a country whose national symbol had been debased to an icon of ruthless aggression and indifference to suffering.
When I immigrated to Canada in 1970, one of my immediate joys was adopting a flag that featured a plant part and stood not for war, hatred and racism but, well, for peace, order and good governance. And to the extent that we were noticed at all, to the world the Canadian flag represented a country of thoughtful, caring people with a commitment to global justice and equality. Not entirely deserved, of course, but then the global community largely identified Canada through our respected UN peacekeepers, with their blue berets and maple leafs on their shoulder, and the Canadian International Development Agency, which supported hundreds of projects aimed at poverty alleviation and encouraging grassroots development.
We might have been somewhat naïve, but we were a nation that celebrated our diversity, tolerance and neutrality, happy with an identity that largely depended on the stark contrast between our pursuit of equanimity and fairness with the arrogance, harshness and self-interest of our southern neighbours.
Then a few years ago I started to notice some disturbing changes. CIDA was killed off, replaced with policies designed to promote Canadian economic interests rather than providing assistance based on need. Our peacekeeping role was greatly diminished. And then I saw a Canadian flag bumper sticker that had “Fit IN” on one side and “Or f*ck OFF” on the other. It registered like a kick in the gut. Where did this anger come from? This crudeness? Did it seep across the border when I wasn’t watching?
And then there was the occupation of Ottawa.
Canadian flags flying from $70,000 pickups, horns and sirens blaring, a handful of people raided and occupied our nation’s capital. To the extent they were able to articulate any motivation other than inchoate anger with “government,” the occupiers were demanding freedom. Not the unselfish, rational freedom of an adult that balances individual freedom with social responsibility, but the infantile freedom of a two-year-old. And when they couldn’t have it, they threw a tantrum.
These horn-blaring flag wavers are not patriots saving us all from an incipient dictatorship but morally underdeveloped children with drivers’ licenses.
Piaget tells us that “moral development refers to the process through which children develop the standards of right and wrong within their society, based on social and cultural norms, and laws.” It’s how we learn that others have feelings and needs just as we do. Moral development is at the heart of any society. It is the foundation on which we build a nation. For Canada that has meant creating a country, no matter our many failings, that values fairness and expresses our generosity of spirit. Against all odds, Canada has survived and prospered because we have found a way to live together, responsibly and kindly.
Recently a friend wrote on Facebook, “When I see a flag these days, I think of hate instead of pride.” I’ve seen this game before. Of course, the American version of capture of the flag, promoted by the Nixons and Johnsons, was used to maintain support for a brutal war that killed over two million Vietnamese and 60,000 Americans, most conscripted from marginalized communities, and ultimately led to the toxic demagogic patriotism that plagues the country today.
So Dude, that’s my flag, not yours. My maple leaf does not fly next to a confederate battle flag, or an American Revolutionary banner that reads “Don’t tread on me!” It doesn’t stand next to a placard reading “Protect your 2nd Amendment Rights.” Nor does it belong in the hands of a creep that flies a grotesque “F*ck Trudeau” rag beside it.
My flag belongs to the country that is grounded in decency and strives to be better. As Jack Layton said, “Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world.”
That’s my flag. And you can’t have it.