The Canadian Flag on Parliament hill was lowered at the end of May after the discovery of the remains of more than 200 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia and the subsequent discovery of hundreds more including 751 unmarked graves discovered at Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. Here in Hamilton the Flags at all City of Hamilton facilities were lowered on Monday June 28th for the same reason.
The flags are still down.
In answer to an inquiry about flag lowering protocols, a spokesperson for the mayor wrote, “Only the Mayor has the authority to approve the lowering of City flags, and the length of time that they are to be lowered. With respect to the current lowering, flags at all City sites were lowered Monday June 28, and they will remain lowered indefinitely in support of the Indigenous community in the wake of the discovery of the remains of Indigenous children at multiple Residential School sites.”
The lowering of flags as a sign of respect and solidarity with indigenous people was completely appropriate, but at the end of the day it is a gesture, rather than something more concrete, like actually doing something about the drinking water crisis in First Nations communities. Or maybe telling Revenue Canada to stop harassing elderly, mostly female and poor indigenous people over back income taxes. One suspects indigenous people would prefer to see some movement on these fronts, rather than a Prime Minister self-consciously kneeling in a gravesite with a teddy bear. If the flags are to stay down until we reach a mutually satisfactory state of reconciliation with indigenous people, we may never see the flags up again in our lifetimes.
Yesterday Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, a supporter of reconciliation with indigenous people, said it is time the flags went back up. “I’ve been talking to Indigenous leaders since I became Opposition leader. Reconciliation will be important for me as will be pride in Canada, building it up, making more opportunity for more people including Indigenous Peoples. That will be my priority and I do think we should be proud to put our flag back up.”
During the time the flags have been lowered, in Ontario at least, we have missed the opportunity to mark the death of Premier Bill Davis, who, among many accomplishments, transformed the Ontario post-secondary education system. His passing might have rated the lowering of flags for a day or two. As well, in Hamilton, at least, the recent vandalizing of the statue of Sir. John A MacDonald, suggests the flag lowering has not had the desired effect in terms of a gesture of reconciliation.
Part of the problem is the lack of a uniform protocol for the lowering of flags. It’s easy to lower them, but in the absence of a defined length of time for the ceremonial period, it now requires a conscious action to raise them again, and hence the risk of being accused of not caring about indigenous people any more. As a result the entire gesture becomes empty, at a time when empty gestures have become a substitute for the hard work of tackling real problems.