Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What flag? Our own...

In today's Globe and Mail, there's an article asking under which flag we should honour Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge was a huge battle in France in the First World War in which Canadian troops played the central role. It was a rare breakthrough victory, and it has often been said that Canada, as a nation, was born there.

So the question is asked, under what flag should these soldiers lie? The battlefield is, actually, Canadian territory. It was ceded to Canada by France — a gesture I have always found moving and wholly amazing. Protocol dictates that the only flag that can fly on Canadian federal territory is the Canadian flag... that is, the Maple Leaf flag.

The problem is, that was not the Canadian flag in 1917. At the time, the official flag of Canada, as part of the British Empire, was the Union Jack. But tradition of the day had made the Red Ensign, a red flag with a combined coat of arms made up of those of the provinces in the fly, and with the Union Jack in the upper left corner, the unofficial flag of Canada of the day. The Maple Leaf, the flag that we have come to know as ours today, wasn't instituted until 1965.

Some veterans are championing the 1917 flag as the one that should fly at Vimy Ridge. I can see the point, but I respectfully disagree for a couple of reasons.

First of all, while I recognize that Canadians fought and died under that flag, and that it meant a great deal to them, it was not really even technically the flag of Canada. It was never officially sanctioned; its use was merely a convention. More importantly, it is certainly not associated with Canada today. Anyone arriving on Vimy Ridge and seeing it atop the flag pole might be forgiven for assuming it was a battle site of the colony of Bermuda, whose modern-day flag it most closely resembles. "Canada" would certainly not spring to mind, especially in the absence of the universally recognized flag we have today. If this monument is meant to memorialize Canadian soldiers, it ought to first and foremost unequivocally identify them as such. A forgotten flag from a century ago does not.

Secondly, Canada is not just an object or a moment in time. It is a continuum, threaded through millions of lives and across centuries, that existed before them, was sustained through them, and continued beyond. Those men fought and died for a country that lives today. Its emblem to the world was declared, definitively, in 1965. This flag is the heritage of those men; in part, it exists as the result of what they did. They earned this flag. They helped make real the nationality that proclaimed and upholds it. Every Canadian, living, dead, or yet to be born or join us from abroad, has a right to have their flag upon that soil. It is no disrespect to the men who lie there that the flag of their country as it lives should stand over them, even if time has changed it. It stands as the banner not of dead men, but of the living pride they inspired, now and into the future. In fact, in denying these men the representation of the flag of their living country, we are saying to them, "You are something else; something from the past we have left behind. We do not recognize you as part of this living nation. By our choice of symbols, we divorce you from it. We relegate you to history." The idea saddens me deeply.

If it must be one or the other, then it must not be Canada as it was and is no more, but Canada as it is, and will continue to be.


Jay said...

They fought so that Canada could be what it is today, not so that it could get stuck in time.
The Canadian flag (the actual, present one) is beautiful, and it deserves to fly proud and represent us all, past, present, and I hope, future.

Mez said...

Here in Australia, one of the arguments people use to keep our current flag when there's others saying it should change, is that our armed forces fought under it, and used it as a national symbol in earlier wars. I tend to agree with you and jay.

See www.anbg.gov.au/oz/flag.html for a bit of history and discussion, and pictures.

loneprimate said...

Hi, Mez, thank you! I've been interested in Australia's ongoing journey to a flag of its own for some time now. Sometimes I visit pages like the one you recommend. Some of the designs to be found there are truly striking, and it's hard to pick a clear winner. Many nicely and neatly represent Australia in clear iconography. In a way, I feel a bit envious because I missed out on this process in Canada's history; it was a fait accompli by the time I was born. But in Australia, anything is still possible...

I find some of the arguments I've encountered odd. One that amuses me is the idea taking the Union Jack off Australia's flag is tantamount to declaring Australia a republic. Of course, that argument holds no water. Several Commonwealth Realms -- including Canada -- have their own flags not derived from Britain's, and yet we retain the Queen as our (respective) head of state. And besides, republicanism is more advanced in Australia than in Canada... Australia held such a referendum, and as I recall, it was turned down. I've often thought of how strange it would be for Australia to break its constitutional ties with the UK before even removing the reference to the UK from its national flag! :)

There's no shame or disrespect to Australia's fallen, should Australians freely choose to change the symbol of their nation. Quite the opposite: it respects their sacrifice by exercising the rights for which those people fought and died. And so advance, Australia fair. :)