Flags are powerful symbols. And their meaning can change over time, and they can mean different things to different people.
Take the Canadian flag, for example. There have been times when the Maple Leaf stood for tolerance, respect, diversity, and peace. But Indigenous folks might not see it that way. And last spring, when the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation found the unmarked graves of children in a nearby residential school, many non-Indigenous Canadians saw the flag and felt shame.
Flags tell complicated stories.
Our national flag has been co-opted by a loud and angry mob in the past six weeks. The so-called “freedom convoy” uses the flag to push a different view of Canada. They say they are fighting for the “real” Canada. As if Canada doesn’t mean lots of different things to different people.
The convoy felt a bit like watching American news. Remember last January, when an angry mish-mash of extremists ransacked the US Capitol? Trump’s conspiracies and lies fueled the mob. Well, what a difference a year can make. Folks in the convoy sound a lot like those conspiracies. Like it or not, Trumpism is here in Canada.
Yes, these are complicated times. The country’s COVID rules have often been confusing, sometimes over-reaching, and at other times just plain wrong. People are tired of public health protections and face masks. We get it.
There’s a lot to be upset about. That’s not the issue. But the nature of how we disagree with each other certainly is.
Protest is a super important part of democracy. We need protest for democracy to function properly.
But the Ottawa occupation and border blockades took things in an ugly direction.
Sure, some folks in the convoy had some real concerns. They had real questions about what kinds of decisions the government gets to make on our behalf.
But there were others who flew the Maple Leaf next to American Confederate flags and signs that said “F%$K Trudeau.” They intimidated and spat on reporters who were trying to cover the event. They called for the removal of a government we elected and said they should be installed instead. And they shouted an incoherent message that seemed more about chaos and disruption than anything else.
Sound familiar? Yup, Maxime Bernier was in Ottawa high-fiving protesters. That’s no surprise. Intolerance is squarely in Bernier’s wheelhouse.
What’s more worrying is that this emboldened fringe has found a home within right-wing elements of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Throw in all the shout-outs Trump and his merry band of wingnut conspiracy theorists were giving to the convoy, and it says one thing: it’s time to double down on our democratic institutions.
Our democracy, like all democracies, is not perfect. Yes, Justin Trudeau can be entitled and obnoxious and shallow.
But populist leaders like Trump, who sell lies, are dangerous. In Trump’s world, opinion pretends to be fact and honesty is seen as weakness.
People wearing MAGA hats in Ottawa need to face an uncomfortable truth. Trump gives zero F&$Ks about truckers, autoworkers, or anyone in his base. He cares about power. He cares about protecting his rich kid’s real estate empire, and winning at any cost.
So does Vladimir Putin. Putin built a palace on the Black Sea with funds he stole from the Russian people. Then he invaded Ukraine on a bunch of lies. And he can get away with it because he has basically squashed press freedom and regularly jails folks who disagree with him.
That’s why we find it more than troubling to see the Canadian flag and the word “freedom” being associated with extremism. If the only “real” Canada is one based on Trump and Putin-style lies, we probably don’t want to live in that Canada.
It’s time to take back the Maple Leaf.
It’s a messy symbol, like democracy is messy.
But it’s ours.