Come Aug. 14 and 15, some in the Pakistani and Indian-origin Canadian communities will fly flags and sing national anthems to celebrate the independence days of their respective former home lands – ironically, the very countries they left voluntarily to enjoy the Canadian way of life.
The display of flags originated on battlefields to identify warring factions. Though national flags have come a long way from this, they are still a potent political symbol of nationalism, much like the national anthem, which also praises a country. What fascinates and baffles is that many immigrants waving the flags of their country of origin were not brought here under duress or against their will, but felt strongly about leaving their homelands and headed here of their own accord.
St. Patrick’s Day, Vaisakhi or Caribana are cultural and religious events, not political ones, and don’t evoke dual political loyalty. Loyalty is the key word here. Singing national anthems and saluting flags of former homelands evokes images of dual loyalty and patriotism. (I do not find it as offensive to see Canadians of Italian or Chilean origins run around waving Italian or Chilean flags during soccer World Cup.)
In today’s multicultural Canada, one enjoys the luxury and liberty to speak one’s mother tongue, eat one’s ethnic cuisine, dress in one’s national attire and partake in numerous cultural events. All this country expects is that political loyalty be to one flag and one national anthem – those of Canada. Enjoy your emotional baggage indoors, I say, but do not display it in public.
The problem of divided loyalties has its roots in Canada’s British political class. Canada’s two political tribes, English and French, imported their historical political and cultural rivalries to the new country, with no regard for the existing indigenous peoples. As a result of English-French battles in the new country, the victorious British designated the Union Jack, their flag, as the new Canadian flag. It flew across the country with no regard to feelings of French-origin Canadians, until the current Maple Leaf was adopted in 1965.
Foreign diplomatic missions fly their flags on their office buildings and residences. Foreign national days are celebrated receptions, hosted by diplomatic missions, on embassy premises or in hotels. Canadians, at large, and those with roots in those countries, are invited and appropriately attend. However, I believe it is inappropriate for Canadians to involve themselves in hosting or organizing events to celebrate national days of their former homelands.
In the 1990s, Ottawa’s mayor decided to fly the flag on the national day of each country that has diplomatic relations with Canada. He would invite Ottawa residents originally from each of these countries to mark those national days. This was no more than a crass vote-getting tactic. It backfired when, in September 2014, Vietnamese Canadians held a large protest against flying the flag of Communist Vietnam – the very regime they had fled to seek refuge in Canada.
Some may question: “What’s in a flag”? Well, after the close defeat of the 1995 referendum on Quebec separation from Canada, then-deputy Prime Minister and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps decreed that all Canadian federal government buildings across Canada fly the Maple Leaf, as a public symbol of the federal government presence.
Canada, as a relatively young country, is engaged in building Canadian institutions. What Canadians need to do is to effectively contribute to these efforts and desist from displays of split loyalty and patriotism. As at the Olympic Games, one can participate under only one flag and sing only one national anthem. Hence, at these community events, the only flag that we need to fly is the Maple Leaf, while singing “O Canada.” The only National Day we need to celebrate is July 1, the anniversary of Confederation. It is the least one can expect, in return for what Canada offers.