Summer 2021 adventures of the Ontario flag reflect bigger issues .. how long can this keep going on?

Jul 20th, 2021 | By | Category: In Brief
“Time Zones” by Michael Seward, July 2021.

COUNTERWEIGHTS EDITORS, EAST TORONTO OFFICE. Back on Canada Day 2021 Mano Majumdar, a lecturer at Western University’s Ivey Business School, started a petition to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, “to replace the provincial flag with a more distinct and inclusive flag, chosen by democratic means.”

For those who may have forgotten (“You mean Ontario has a flag?”), the current provincial banner dates back to 1965. The Conservative premier John Robarts proposed adopting a version of the old federal red ensign (with a British Union Jack in the top left-hand corner) as a flag for Canada’s most populous province.

The ensign had been rendered obsolete by the new Canadian maple leaf flag adopted that year, against the protests of federal Conservatives. In the end, however, all but two Liberal members of the Legislative Assembly at Queen’s Park voted for the Robarts proposal — including 22 of 24 Liberals, and all seven New Democrats.

The more recent past

Current Ontario flag as depicted in Mano Majumdar’s 2021 petition for a new flag.

Mr. Majumdar’s petition for a new Ontario flag 56 years later is far from the first gesture of its sort in the more recent past. On the 50th anniversary of the Ontario red ensign in 2015 Roberto Martella, owner of Grano Restaurant on Yonge Street in Toronto, launched a campaign for a new flag. He wanted to better represent “the nearly 60 per cent of Ontarians who don’t describe their origins as either English or Scottish.”

The next year, 2016, Terry Miller at the Brampton Guardian took up the torch : “Over the past 50 years, Ontario has changed … the 2011 census showed only 42 per cent of Ontario’s population identified with the British connection.” The province needed a new flag to better reflect its new demographic realities.

One online proposal for new Ontario flag today.

Late in 2018 Bob Hepburn at the Toronto Star argued that “it’s time Ontario scrapped the current flag. It should be replaced by a flag that no longer reflects a pro-British bias and instead heralds the fully independent province that modern Ontario is today.” Mr. Hepburn acknowledged that : “Maybe the timing to push for a redesign of Ontario’s flag is bad given that the tradition-bound Conservatives are in power.” At the same time, “as the decades slip by this stark reminder of Ontario’s colonial era will become increasingly anachronistic. Why wait any longer?”

Just last year in 2020 the youthful Trevor Stewart at the fulcrum.ca website urged : “Mississippi is changing its flag and Ontario must do the same.” Mr. Stewart argued that, whatever else, Premier Robarts’s Ontario red ensign has now “been co-opted by white supremacists … to reflect their idealized version of Canada which is entirely white and English.” He went on : “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.”

Racist backlash against the 2021 petition

The so-called “Pearson Pennant” of 1964, favoured by Prime Minister Pearson, but not finally accepted by Parliament for Canada in 1965. Some might like this as new Ontario flag in 2020s?

Meanwhile, some of the reaction to Mano Majumdar’s Canada Day 2021 petition for “a more distinct and inclusive” new Ontario flag, “chosen by democratic means,” suggests that the symbolism of such things as provincial flags may have more depth than we sometimes imagine. And it probably is a good idea to start thinking seriously enough about a new Ontario flag, that somehow reflects all 14.8 million people who live in Canada’s most populous province today.

See, eg, Norman De Bono’s July 14, 2021 article in the London Free Press (London, Ontario for any who may wonder) : “A London man wants a new Ontario flag. The racist backlash has been ugly … A London man who created a petition for a new Ontario flag, has suffered an ugly backlash, forcing him to take a lower profile over concern for his safety.”

Proposed new Ontario flag featuring the official provincial wildflower, the trillium.

If the Canada Day petition had been started by, say, Bob Hepburn or Trevor Stewart, things might have been a little different. Mr. Majumdar is a Canadian who was born in India. In response to his flag petition he has received all too much of “the usual stuff, just what you would expect: Telling me I should respect Ontario’s British history and go back to where I came from.”

Yet as Trevor Stewart aptly observes : “History must indeed be conserved and not forgotten.” And one key point here is that even Ontario’s so-called modern history is not in fact uniquely “British.” Along with the 10,000-year and more evolution of the Indigenous First Nations that even “Western” archaeology concedes (and “Ontario” like “Canada” is an Indigenous word), there is the long early modern era that begins with (probably) Étienne Brûlé’s journey to the Algonquian peoples west of the Ottawa River in 1610.

Another trillium-based new flag concept that might especially appeal to Ontario Liberals.

Then there is Samuel de Champlain’s further westward journey of 1615 to the remarkable Iroquoian society between what we now call Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, whose striking history was told by the archaeologist Bruce Trigger in his 1976 Ontario historical classic, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660.

And then there is the long story of the multiracial and multicultural “Indigenous-European” fur trade brilliantly told by Harold Innis in 1930, and then in a different way by Richard White’s The Middle Ground : Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815, which first appeared in 1991.

Finally, as just one of many such cases in point, there is a remark of the Mohawk leader Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant (whose c. 1800 house on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario is now the Joseph Brant Museum, 1240 North Shore Boulevard East, Burlington).

A “Canada First” prospect that might appeal to up-to-date Ontario (Tory blue) Conservatives.

Brant was commenting on the impact of the notorious first Lieutenant Governor of the old (pre-Ontario) British North American Province of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, back in the late 18th century. In Thayendanegea’s view : “Governor Simcoe has done a great deal for this country. He has changed the name of every place in it.”

Sign the petition today?

It will do, we submit, both Ontario democracy and Ontario voters a great deal of good to learn at least a little more about the long modern history of the quite vast territory north of the Great Lakes, west of the Ottawa River, east of the Lake of the Woods, and south of Hudson’s Bay.

The real Ontario history is not just the part of it that takes place after the British empire took over in 1763, or after the first wave of mass anglophone settlement in what is now Southern Ontario, coming almost entirely from the adjacent new United States of America, 1784–1812.

It would also do Ontario a lot of good, we altogether agree, to adopt some kind of new flag at some point soon enough. If you agree too, you can sign the petition that Mano Majumdar started . (As have more than 1780 others as of 2 PM EDT, July 20, 2021.) To do this CLICK HERE. (And in case anyone is interested, it’s against our principles at counterweights.ca to give money to petitions of this sort when we first sign them.)

As for what the new flag might look like, the various prospects culled from the world wide web today to illustrate this piece show how this debate has already begun!

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