French and Indigenous Ontarians deserve to not be reminded of oppression and injustice every time they look up a flagpole
Mississippi is currently in the process of replacing its official state flag, the banner in question bore a confederate ensign on its upper left corner. After the widespread Black Lives Matter protests of the past few months, it comes as no surprise that there were massive calls to remove and replace the problematic emblem.
The bill to replace the flag was quickly approved by the state legislature as it was clear to both lawmakers and protesters that the flag did not represent heritage, but rather a defunct and racist part of American history.
Consequently, considering Canada’s superiority complex over the United States, especially on matters regarding policy, governance and social issues, it’s a surprise that similar calls for removal have not been made about Ontario’s provincial flag.
The flag, a bit like that of Mississippi, has in its top left corner, an emblem that represents a fundamental disrespect to human rights and a reminder of a shameful part of our nation’s history. The difference is that we don’t bear a Confederate flag, but rather a Union Jack.
This emblem is a call back to our subservient time as a colony of Great Britain. It reminds many Ontarians, most notably Indigenous and French-Canadians, of the horrors enacted upon them by British forces. They carried out brutal executions, false imprisonments, forced deportations, mass theft of land and property and outright genocide. As Ontarians, we must be aware of these atrocities and having such a symbol on our flag dismisses the pain felt by those communities and condones the colonial violence that was used in the founding and subsequent governing of this province.
Ontario’s provincial flag was initially created in 1965 and passed by the conservative government of John Robarts. At the time, the country as a whole had just undergone a national debate about the creation of the new Canadian flag which was adopted in 1964.
Before the iconic maple leaf, the national flag was known as the Red Ensign and Ontario’s flag closely mirrors its design. This is no coincidence. John Robarts’ main political base, which was anglophone and white, disliked the new maple leaf design and its lack of connections to the United Kingdom. Thus, in an attempt to solidify the province’s English roots, a flag nearly identical to that of the Red Ensign was adopted — a red background and Union Jack in the upper left corner. It’s important to note that in recent times the Red Ensign has taken on a different connotation. The flag has been co-opted by white supremacists and Canadian nationalists in an attempt to reflect their idealized version of Canada which is entirely white and English.
Additionally, many critics of such a replacement argue that heritage has a part to play in the flag’s significance and that we must not replace our history simply because of a few bruised egos. Such an argument, however genuine, disregards the fact that white supremacy is the foundation of much of our institutions and by proxy, our province. History must indeed be conserved and not forgotten, which is why the current Ontario flag belongs in a museum and not proudly displayed at the foot of Queen’s Park.
We should use the ongoing dialogue in Mississippi as an opportunity to rebrand this province as an inclusive one. One that acknowledges our colonial past and continuously works to end its century-long consequences. French and Indigenous Ontarians deserve to not be reminded of oppression and injustice every time they look up a flagpole.
The Union Jack is an outdated colonial emblem that encompasses both British imperialism and violence, as well as the darker side of our province’s founding. Instead, we should begin to write a new chapter in Ontario’s history and not let our representation be held hostage under the watchful eye of Britannia.
Trevor Stewart is a fourth-year student in conflict studies and human rights at the University of Ottawa. He is the founder and president of the Front Culturel Franco-Ontarien and holds various positions in political associations at both the provincial and federal levels.