What does the Canadian flag mean to you? The answers to that question are as diverse as Canada itself. For some, it stirs notions of pride, of accomplishment, of history and of place. For others, it is a symbol that carries the painful legacy of cruelty, racism or even genocide. To mark this Canada Day, the Star asked a series of Canadian writers for their thoughts on what the red-and-white maple-leaf flag symbolizes in our complex modern era. This piece is one in a series of their responses.
It’s a complicated relationship, my relationship with the Canadian flag, and it’s certainly changed.
When I was younger, I had this understanding of Canada as a welcoming place, as a wonderful place. It’s what I was taught overtly in school, subtly by the media, and it’s certainly how my parents, as immigrants from Haiti, saw this country.
I’ve grown to see and experience what Canada really means and that, in many ways, the welcoming, neutral, utopia is a myth. It’s a nation-building myth that supposedly unifies us under one flag, but this flag has such deeply different meanings to different folks, and is deployed conveniently as a reminder.
I saw what it meant to be a Canadian citizen but to be constantly seen as an outsider, as an immigrant, as “not from here.”
From the instances of the “Freedom convoy” or even the constitutional rally in Montreal (in the late 1990s), when I was in college, it became clear that not only will I always be an outsider, an uninvited guest on stolen lands, but that the running of this nation relies entirely on our ignorance, apathy and a strong belief in a myth built on violence and the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous folks.
For my parents, the flag means something entirely different. My parents always voted Liberal or Conservative. They would talk about the senior Trudeau and how he “opened the door to immigration” and their ability to leave a dictator-led country (fully supported by Canada, France and the U.S.). I think they had to tell themselves that story even while my mother worked as a caregiver and domestic worker, looking after old folks with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and with families children couldn’t or wouldn’t care for. My father worked in a broom factory in Winnipeg where he nearly lost his eye. He eventually went on to work with a real-estate company, where his boss would post racist jokes on the staff bulletin board.
More recently, my father has come to see his own country, Haiti, as a place of birth and not home. His family and home is here in Canada. I had a chance to share my perspective with him, noting that similarly the place I’m born in, is “not my home” for a variety of complicated reasons. My father is pained when I say this, but he is open to hearing my experiences of being “Canadian,” being born here, travelling wearing the Canadian flag sometimes to no avail, as I am seen as a faux or not a “real” Canadian.
lt is an odd place, to be the child of immigrants and to also see how my parents have struggled in this country, because of racism and their status of outsiders — good enough to do the “dirty work” most Canadians won’t do.
I recognize the privilege and irony of my citizenship and passport, and it comes at the cost and subjugation of others — such as access to potable water as many Indigenous communities continue to be under a boil-water advisory, and Indigenous women continue to go missing. That Black, Indigenous, racialized folks, and those made marginalized due to their socioeconomic status, mental health, sexual orientation, etc., face extra surveillance by the state in the form of police checks, profiling, arrests and are disproportionately imprisoned.
People don’t like to face discomfort, or face accountability. Nobody likes to think that “this is what this stands for.” And yet it is important to recognize that this Canadian nation is built on a myth and built on violence.
I think of the story by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The city of Omelas is this Utopia built on the sacrifice of a child locked in a cage under the city.
In a lot of ways, Canada is this Utopia dependent on the dispossession of “others.”
And so it feels disingenuous to celebrate Canada Day, given what we are actually celebrating.
We can be like the ones who walk away horrified (but do nothing), or we can face the fact that Canada Day, and the Canadian flag, celebrates genocide and dispossession and work together to recognize that our fates, our lives and freedoms are bound up together.
Let’s be thoughtful about what we are celebrating. Get together with your loved ones, but use that time to say, ‘Hey, I understand what this day means,’ and have concrete actions and meaningful ways that dismantle the myth of Canada Day.
It doesn’t have to be a day that everybody has this collective shame. I don’t think shame moves people forward. But when we’re not talking about it, we end up having these celebratory events without acknowledging the deeply problematic context.
Like I said, it’s a complicated relationship. But I feel as though it’s one of those relationships you keep trying to make work and you kind of stay in it, hoping you can find healthier ways to move forward with folks who truly want to divest from our nation-building myth, and build new, holistic, relational and respectful relationships and connections that are not exploitative and extractive.
Junie Désil is a poet born of immigrant (Haitian) parents on the Traditional Territories of the Kanien’kehá:ka in the island known as Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and raised in Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg). Junie’s debut poetry collection “Eat Salt|Gaze at the Ocean” (TalonBooks, 2020) was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.