The times may be a-changing after all, who knows? The Municipal Council passed a resolution at their last meeting to have the Franco-Ontarian flag raised on the flagpole outside the Municipal Centre on September 25. This was in response to a request by the Conseil des ecoles publiques de I’Est de l’Ontario, and will mark Franco-Ontarian Day. This is an official day in the Province, and the flag was officially recognized by the Ontario Government as the emblem of the Franco-Ontarian community in the Franco-Ontarian Emblem Act of 2001. Eastern Ontario has one of the largest concentrations of Franco-Ontarians in the province.
All this may seem straightforward and uncontroversial, but it was not always thus. In fact, when two residents requested Council to raise the flag in 2010 to mark the first Franco-Ontarian Day, Council refused. Believe it or not, the mayor and council thought it inappropriate to favour one ethnic group over another: if the French got their flag, maybe the Spanish, or Japanese, or Irish would want theirs too! Tim Sutton, Councillor at the time, stated: “Any flag that would put one ethnic group above another – I don’t know how proper that is. We already have a provincial flag for all Ontarians.” Given this pathetic ignorance of Canadian History, it was not surprising that the mayor also saw it as an insult to Canadians to have a hyphenated flag.
Councillor Tobin, the only one still on Council today, came up with the compromise of flying the flag – inside the Municipal Centre. This rather dishonourable stand has now been officially reversed by the current Council, and means that, perhaps, we have finally moved away from the traditional anti-French attitudes that were once personified in G. Howard Ferguson, local boy made Premier. In his day, he fought very hard to restrict the rights of francophones in Ontario to have french language instruction in their own schools. Many today still remember Regulation 17 with distaste, if not anger.
Maybe Canada is growing up in its 150th year. The Trudeau Government have announced plans to reorganise the Indian Department and, eventually, do away with the Indian Act, a piece of legislation which former Prime Minister, Paul Martin, has called racist. This is a word with which no-one familiar with that piece of apartheid-style law would disagree. Speaking of ethnic origins: how would you feel if a piece of Canadian legislation defined and restricted your identity? If you are of British extraction, or birth, would you like it if the Canadian Government decided for you whether your children were really British, or Canadian? What if bureaucrats in Ottawa had the right to decide where you could live, what language you could speak, whether you owned your own home?
There are children in this country who cannot drink the water coming into their homes because it is polluted, who have no chance of a decent job, housing, education, or even the hope of a healthy life. This is not because they won’t take care of themselves, it’s because their ancestors were forced to settle on land that was no good for anything, with no economic development potential. Land that no-one else wanted. But they had no choice, because the Indian Act wouldn’t let them live anywhere else and still maintain their traditions and culture.
In this anniversary year, Canadians have a great deal to be proud of. They have a reputation for compassion, integrity, fairness and generosity to the less fortunate. Yet, hanging over Canada 150 is the enormous stain and shame of the Indian Act, the Indian Department, and everything they represent. Can you imagine a Jewish Department, a Catholic Act, that discriminates in law against people on account of their religion or culture? The situation we face is not new, and will not be solved easily. It is the product of almost two centuries of the White Man’s Burden, colonial and imperial racism enshrined in law. Sadly, most Canadians have no real idea of how and why we got into this disgraceful and shameful situation, nor have many tried to find out. Far easier to perpetuate racists stereotypes about Indians, than to learn the facts.
We are all human beings, none of us perfect, whether indigenous or settler. There are those on all sides who have learned to use the system to their advantage. But that should not deter us from knowing the truth, and doing something about it. It is even more important than agreeing to raise a flag: it is a question of our soul as a nation, as a people, as individual human beings.