Opinion

Hart: Ontario’s flag represents our history. Let’s not change it

The Red Ensign is accused of not being reflective of a modern province. This argument misses the point of our symbols.

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Imagine an Ontario-themed beach towel. Red, white and gold with maybe a trillium or two.

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That’s the sort of bland and meaningless design some would have if there is any support for a recent proposal to change Ontario’s flag. It is charged that the flag is a symbol of colonialism, subservience and not reflective of contemporary, multicultural Ontario.

I disagree.

We can surely marvel at the sheer longevity of the Union Flag’s association with Ontario. The Hudson’s Bay Company first flew the modified Red Ensign as early as 1682. Our provincial flag’s symbolism can therefore represent a continuity between Ontario’s past, present and future spanning a period of almost 350 years. Impressive by any North American standard.

The Union Flag can be associated with many past ills and injustices. But acknowledging this and seeking to be better is not to exclude that its symbolism can also be equally emblematic of success. The cornerstones of our prosperous, open, inclusive society — parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, free trade and our conception of human rights and liberties — have been derived from British institutions. Make no mistake, these are now adopted and adapted as Canadian institutions. Nonetheless, our provincial flag is a polite nod of gratitude to their origins.

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Can we please get over our colonial cringe? We are a nation that has been self-governing since 1848 and whose Constitution is amongst the oldest in the world. If we retain a flag from our colonial past it is because it is a genuine symbol of Canadian nationhood. The British Union Flag and the French imperial fleur-de-lys, paired together on our National Coat of Arms, are both legitimate Canadian symbols.

The Ontario Red Ensign is accused of not being reflective of modern Ontario. This argument misses the point of our symbols. It is the red and white Maple Leaf that alone represents us as Canadians, regardless of background. Our National Flag says who we are — and who we shall be — as a diverse multicultural society. Provincial flags, by contrast, reflect the rich heritage of our origins: from the symbolism of Nunavut’s inuksuk to Quebec’s Royal Banner of France to Nova Scotia’s Scottish Lion Rampant. Vive la difference!

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Ontario’s political origins lay as a destination for the Loyalists: Indigenous and American refugees who came to this land fleeing persecution from the newly formed United States of America. Under the Union Flag, they found safety and security and forged a new society, laying the foundations of the vibrant Ontario of today. Later, the Union Flag again represented the symbol of freedom and security, this time for escaped American slaves fleeing to British North America with the Underground Railroad. I think there can be no more profound statement of our provincial flag’s continued relevance than that, more than two centuries later, refugees from every corner of the Earth continue to seek and freedom and security under that very same emblem.

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The Fiji national flag flutters next to captain Jerry Tuwai of Fiji prior to the Men’s Rugby Sevens Gold medal final match between Fiji and Great Britain on Day 6 of the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The Fiji national flag flutters next to captain Jerry Tuwai of Fiji prior to the Men’s Rugby Sevens Gold medal final match between Fiji and Great Britain on Day 6 of the Rio 2016 Olympics. Photo by Mark Kolbe /Getty Images

Our symbols can be what we wish them to be. Canada in the 1960s rejected the Red Ensign as an emblem of immature nationhood. Yet it was also recently endorsed by a majority of New Zealanders who chose to retain it in their national flag. Charges of ethnic exclusivity would be met with bemusement by Fijians. Half-hearted proposals to change Fiji’s iconic “noble banner blue” were shelved after its flag — inclusive of the Union Flag — became the focal point for the South Pacific nation’s pride after winning its first Olympic Gold medal in 2016.

So, change Ontario’s flag? No thanks. It symbolizes our proud heritage of success as we look to the future. Let’s keep Ontario-themed beach towels on the sand, not flying from our flag poles.

John Andrew Hart is from London, Ont., is a graduate of the city’s South Collegiate Institute and now studying for a PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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