Has the symbolism of the Canadian flag changed since the Ottawa convoy? What does it mean to be a settler of colour in Canada?
As we approach Canada Day — and the prospect of the return of "freedom" protests in Ottawa — let's consider the meaning and symbolism of the Canadian flag.
After weeks of the so-called "freedom convoy" last winter, many of us took a hard look at the symbolism of the Canadian flag and its recent association with white supremacy. Some felt a new fear or anger at what they feel the flag represents.
But other communities have always felt this way about the Canadian flag.
After unmarked graves were found at the sites of former residential schools, the Canadian flag was flown at half-mast in many places to show shame for our collective history and solidarity with Indigenous communities. And last year on Canada Day, many people called for people to wear orange instead of red and white.
Both of our guests on this episode of Don't Call Me Resilient have studied multiculturalism, citizenship and belonging. Daniel McNeil looks at history and culture and the complexities of global Black communities. He is a professor and national scholar chair in Black studies at Queen's University. Lucy El-Sherif is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in ethnic and pluralism studies.
The Conversation Canada: Full Show Notes for episode 20
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This is an unedited Transcript
MUSIC Ow! Ow, ow, ow, ow.
Vinita From the conversation this is. Don't call me resilient. I'm Vinita Srivastava.
Lucy Really think about what stories are attached to the flag. So for me, as somebody who became a Canadian travelling the world on a Canadian passport, how the Canadian passport is received, the stories that people attach to me as a Canadian when I'm abroad that may be are different stories than they would have touched me if I had an American passport. It's really important to think about what are the stories that are evoked by the flag.
Vinita What brings us together today was my realization of how viscerally afraid of the Canadian flag I have become. When I see somebody flying the flag now, I think white supremacy. And when I say now, I mean after the convoy in Ottawa. And I really took a step back to explore this. And I'm not speaking for any other communities. Perhaps many people already felt this way about the Canadian flag. After the graves were found at residential schools. The Canadian flag was flown at half-mast in many places to show solidarity with Indigenous communities. And last Canada Day, many people called for orange instead of red and white. But I'm a child of the seventies, and I grew up to think that this was kind of a safe patch that I put in my knapsack when I travel. And I think a lot of people, regardless of their generation, feel proud to be Canadian. But symbols can and do change. That's part of the reason we started thinking about this kind of a conversation. And I know that protest movements like Land Back and Idle No More and Pride and Black Lives Matter have all raised awareness about challenges to Canadian nationalism and belonging. Both of our guests today have deeply studied concepts of multiculturalism, citizenship and belonging. Daniel McNeil is a professor and Queen's National Scholar Chair in Black Studies at Queen's University. His scholarship is intersectional and looks at history and culture and the complexities of global black communities. Also joining us is Lucy El-Sherif, a PhD candidate in Ethnic and pluralism studies at the University of Toronto. Lucy explores questions of belonging and citizenship and asks, What does it mean to be a settler of colour in Canada as she holds up a mirror to her communities?
MUSIC Way. Way.
Vinita Welcome, Lucy, and welcome, Daniel.
Lucy Thank you so much for having me.
Daniel Thanks so much.
Vinita When I first started my job at the Conversation Canada, we were coming up to Canada 150.
Trudeau speech CLIP: Hello, everyone. Happy Canada Day. Today we celebrate 150 years since Confederation. It's a day to celebrate our past and look boldly towards our future.
Vinita So we were sitting in our newsroom and there was a lot of debate about whether we should acknowledge the colonial anniversary.
PROTEST150 RESISTANCE Of indigenous peoples living in.
PROTEST150 RESISTANCE Third world conditions in.
PROTEST150 RESISTANCE First World Canada. Just one night here.
PROTEST150 RESISTANCE On Algonquin, Unceded and Unsurrendered Territory.
PROTEST150 RESISTANCE Our people have suffered hundreds of years of colonialism. The celebration of 150 years. Of 150 years of colonialism. Policies of genocide.
Vinita And finally, we decided that instead of talking about Canada 150, we were going to talk about Canada 2167, 150 years into the future, because there was one thing that we could agree on. We could talk about our future in a way that was positive and not necessarily celebrate the 150 years of colonialism. Well, we're only five years removed from that now. And I know that in our little corner in our newsroom, things have really changed.
PROTEST SOUNDS: BLM DON'T Shoot Black Lives Matter protest
Vinita We've really grown as journalists. We've really learnt how to challenge that colonial project 150 year idea. And I wonder what you feel. Lucy Have things changed? If we've grown as citizens since then?
Lucy What's really interesting about your lead-up in the question is how you phrased whether we should acknowledge the colonialism of Canada's 150th anniversary. And I think it being a question is really a very privileged position from which particular people like myself as an immigrant to Canada or like many other people can take. For many, there's really no question about it. And it's really growing. Indigenous voices, indigenous resurgent indigenous voices are being perceived in Canadian mainstream today. It just seems ludicrous, looking back at a time when we actually thought, Oh, do we need to acknowledge the genocidal nature of colonialism and Canada 150 or not? And the way that in 2022, the ludicrousness of that question is really hard to ignore. I joined graduate school in 2012. I had just become a Canadian citizen. I had just made an oath of allegiance to the Queen of Canada, which is very interesting because I was born British and I never had to swear allegiance to the Queen.
Oath of allegiance I swear that I will be faithful and bear true.
Oath of allegiance Allegiance to Her Majesty. Queen Elizabeth the second. Queen of Canada.
Lucy And now here I am becoming a Canadian citizen. I don't have to suddenly affirm or swear allegiance to this personage. And what really strikes me when you ask that question, Vinita, is how early voices who were pointing out the ludicrousness of Canada 150 as a celebration of Canadian nationalism and who really question the basis that underpinned that celebration. These people were really vilified and they had to go through a great deal of hate speech. What comes to mind is the young woman with children at Dalhousie University. She's a brown woman. She wears hijab. And at the time, she put forth a motion to suggest that Dalhousie Student Union not celebrate the 150th Confederation celebration. And the motion was put to a vote and the motion passed.
Vinita Basically Canada 150, according to the Student Union. We should not be celebrating this. We should instead be discussing the true history of Canada.
Lucy Exactly. Her motion was not for all of Dalhousie University. It was for Dalhousie University Student Union. She was vilified and people came after her personally.
Lucy And the attacks that came at her were very well known, attacks that are directed at people of colour and black people and indigenous people. Whenever we question what's going on with Canada. Who do you think you are? Go back to where you came from. You should be grateful that you came to this country and particular attacks were directed at Macron in relation to her wearing hijab when there are very specific Islamophobic attacks that were made at her. And what's also interesting about this is this Khan was not an immigrant. Macron was born in Canada. She had lived in Canada all of her life. Her parents had immigrated a few decades ago. They she was as Canadian as anybody else, except for the fact, of course, that she was brown and she wore hijab. The attacks that came to her were incredibly hateful. She responded to some of them, and what ended up happening that was really mind boggling is that Dalhousie University tried to discipline her for the responses that she made to the hate speech that she was facing. So what does it mean for a person of colour to make a statement like this? Whereas if you're going to step out of the lines of white liberalism in this country said so you're really sticking your neck out and you could face very serious consequences. We really need to think about what does it mean to be a person of colour living as a settler on indigenous lands? And what does it mean for us to express solidarity with Indigenous people?
Lucy The stakes for people of colour are very different.
Global News Maybe we can bring Daniel into this conversation.
Daniel It's important, connexions, not just to think about how we approach this in a Canadian context, but also a lot of my work is thinking about transnational or trans local connexions. In my forthcoming book of Thinking While Black, we talk about a famous book that was written in the 1980s called The No Black in the Union Jack. And that was one of the chants that hooligans and members of the far right used the chants of football games and in marches to try and exclude and alienate people of colour in the UK.
SONG No Black in the Union Jack. Send it back. Send it back. etc.
Daniel And in that time, in the 1980s, Black was a political term that included people from Asia, Caribbean and Africa. When we think about this as a long story rather than just a recent story, we get to think about what's changed, but also what's continued as a graduate student in the 2000. I think back to that period and I think back to what were the narratives that were being shared and being repeated in the media? And when I think back to that time, I was still hearing the narrative and still hearing the phrase that Canada is a nation of immigrants.
Daniel Have we challenged that narrative? Is that still being repeated? And I think it has been challenged effectively to avoid people using that again. But the legacy of it, the memory of it continues to inform a lot of debates. And to come back to the first point I was saying around the rate no black in the union Jack. Oh, the rate no black in the maple leaf. I don't think we have those types of narratives anymore. But the question then becomes on what grounds is blackness permitted or supported or recognised when it does enter into the Canadian public sphere?
Daniel I think that's an interesting conversation that we still have to have. And as Lucy articulated so beautifully, we still have to struggle for.
Vinita You're talking about the Canadian flag. And is blackness a part of Canada? Can we just ask that question?
Daniel My sense would be that blackness is part of Canada, that lots of people have struggled to ensure that it is recognised. But I think a lot of my work and a lot of the work of great scholars like Richard Ayton, Katherine McKittrick and others, is to address not just how marginalised groups have fought for recognition within a state that has so often demonised them, but also to think about the limits of that recognition. And so that's why I wanted to bring up that point around. It's not just about blackness being recognised, it's also about acknowledging the limits of that recognition. Also, these strategies of recognition can also be part of what Glenn Coulthard and others have called a colonial politics of recognition that is intended to sublimate or marginalise or incorporate voices to try and. Limit and soften or even reduce the radical demands.
Vinita I think that's partly what you both write about when you talk about the brand of Canada. We're talking about your analysis of Canada's multiculturalism and multicultural policy. What would you say is Canada's current brand? What would you prefer it to be?
Lucy I'm an immigrant to Canada. I had to do the citizenship exam. The oath of affirming allegiance to the Queen is really setting the terms of what Canada's brand of multiculturalism, of what its brand of social relations is. You're all going to live in this country, and your allegiance is to the queen, which is allegiance really to white supremacy. Therefore, in relating to indigenous people, I am expected to relate to them through the oath that I have made to the Queen, or through the expectation that white supremacy organises my relationship with Indigenous people, with black people, with people who are from other social groups. And so what does it mean for me to come into Canada as an Arab Muslim who is racialized? All of the Muslims are racialized in very particular ways. And then to say, well, I want to relate to indigenous people in a different way that you made this oath and the terms in which I came into Canada, where about white supremacy? These are the social relations you are expected to have. The really a very interesting encapsulation of what the social relations we are expected to have with each other with the land of Canada. If you look in the citizenship exam and how it describes our relationship to the land of Canada, there is extraction. There is tourism. But it doesn't really talk about indigenous relations to place. Yeah, indigeneity is always this kind of prehistoric existence. So if I was to go back to the question that you ask, what is the brand of multiculturalism in Canada? We are all subsumed under this title of whiteness and we relate to each other the white supremacy. That's how it is. Multiculturalism is really an avenue for us to express my belonging to Egypt, my belonging to the Arab world, my expressions as a muslim. But really, beyond that, anything that is more political than that is not really in Canada's brand of multiculturalism. So when a young, courageous woman like Missy Mahone says We shouldn't be celebrating, Canada wants to see this as a celebration of indigenous genocide. She has stepped outside that contract outside the brand of multiculturalism that she was expected to have. Interestingly enough, if a white person makes that statement. I'm not saying it's going to be smooth sailing for them, but the kinds of arguments, the kinds of hate speech that are mobilised are different. Who gets to articulate problems with this model that we have? Certainly not people of colour and not with the same stakes either.
Vinita That's why I was talking about the brand too, because it's this idea of We should be grateful. Can I ask you that same question, Daniel, about the brand of multiculturalism?
Daniel Is the audience for multiculturalism presumed to be the Queen? Justin Trudeau And the generic imaginary white middle class Canadians.
Trudeau The cultural mosaic that we have. And what does that actually mean? And I think Canada actually has a really, really important story to tell. And it's woven into one of the things we say all the time, which is diversity can and should be a source of strength. It's that we no longer define ourselves if we ever did, through a traditional or stereotypical identity of a typical Canadian.
Daniel And I think when we do talk about multiculturalism, we're often thinking about how do minority or ethnic groups translate their identities to a presumed white audience and a white audience that is imagined to be fearful or somewhat ignorant about those groups. And so that often leads to a certain oversimplification of ethnicity. So it's not as if Iranian groups are encouraged to engage in conversations with indigenous groups. It's not as if Caribbean groups are encouraged to engage with those from Africa. There is a presumption that these groups are all in competition with each other for the attention of a white audience. Part of the work I'm doing with students to think about an immigrant's go to Canada, where the presumption is not. Here's how we encourage and train individuals to fit in to a presumed Canadian norm. But how do we listen more carefully to the inside? Of migrants to Canada who have interesting things to tell us about the liveliness, the radical ness, the ambiguity, the messiness of Canada. So again, we're getting back to this idea of avoiding narrowly confining what Canada is and thinking more broadly and more creatively about how Canada can move in multiple directions. The sense I get of branding Canada as multicultural is also the idea around defining Canada as welcoming to others and defining Canadians by their positive traits of fairness, openness and generosity. So I haven't gone through citizenship on a permanent resident and profoundly ambivalence around swearing in allegiance to the Queen. I haven't gone through that. But when I have studied the citizenship documents, when other scholars have addressed these documents, that's what they've tended to find that these citizenship documents continue to address. And imagine Canada as it's open and generous. These documents do acknowledge racism in Canada. They do acknowledge crimes, but they tend to acknowledge those crimes against indigenous groups as distinct to the essence of Canada that those crimes happen to the states and Canadian institutions can rectify them. These abuses against minority and ethnic groups are not seen as constituents of Canada. That's an important distinction. Addressing history becomes so important. Because is there is this presumption that. Migrants have been given freedom when they arrive in Canada. Then it's what a lot of philosophers have called a horrible gift of freedom, because it not only takes away the agency of our ancestors who struggled for their freedom. It also says that because we've given you freedom, you should eternally be grateful for it. And any type of expression of rage, of anger, of frustration, is seen as illegitimate.
Vinita You wrote an article for us that said that black Canadian activists are pressure to be quiet, pressure to be quiet leaders. The terminology that you use also in that article is shy, elite ism.
Daniel what I'm trying to get at with the question around show elitism or the concept of elitism. Is this idea that Canadian society may talk a lot around incorporating prominent migrants such as Rosemary Browne into Canadian society.
Vinita Rosemary Brown, the first black woman to run for a federal leadership.
NEWS CLIP CBC Rosemary Brown Sisters and brothers. I am here today to ask you a very important favour. I am here to ask you to select me to be the new leader of our party.
Daniel: What I'm thinking about with Shay Elitism is this idea that. She's given a degree of prominence because of her connexions to McGill, because of her connexions to prominence institutions in Canada. So there is this form of elite ism in terms of saying what types of respectable figures can be brought in to Canadian society. What I wanted to think about with this concept of shy elitism is how that can be a shy form of racism in Canada, where there is this emphasis on McGill U of t queens as elite institutions. But at the same time, people are told don't appear elitist. Rosemond Brown famously talked about how to talk about transformative issues. Her and other immigrants would say that it has to be communicated in the most banal possible way to the everyday Canadian voter. And what I worry about with this is the emphasis around oversimplifying fails to acknowledge the capacity of audiences, to think critically, to do the kind of work to search out information.
Lucy What's interesting for me is how invested Canadians are in this idea of multiculturalism. And in my research, when I asked young Arab Canadians, what are the things that you're proudest of about being Canadian? And they always say the same two things. Multiculturalism and peacekeeping. Both of those things are incredibly problematic for various reasons. When you talk about being a child of the seventies, I was also a child of the seventies. I was born and raised in the U.K. in my early years. And when I was in Canada and I had my children in Canada, I was also amazed that Canadian multiculturalism, I was invited to come into the classroom and talk about Ramadan. I was encouraged to share Arabic songs with my children's teachers.
Lucy And when I compare that to the seventies in the UK where there were lots of people who would not even talk to me because my parents were from Egypt, relatively. Canada was amazing. I also immigrated to Canada from the United States after 911, and when I compare that to what the situation was like for me and my husband in the U.S. after 911 and my husband was an Arab Muslim student coming to Canada, there was almost a sigh of relief.
Vinita Daniel You called multiculturalism the myth of the Easter Bunny.
Daniel: There was a presentation in the U.K. and there was a Canada research chair. On the panel. There was also a scholar from the U.K. called Paul Gilroy. Gilroy made a comment around the lines of, We need to think about transnational conversations in which American voices and North American voices do not drown out all the others. And the Canada Research Chair interjected and said, Surely you mean us. You mean U.S. voices dominating all of this. And Gilroy said, No, you're not getting off the hook here. This is also about Canada. You've been going around the world selling multicultural snake oil for years. So many times in the 1970s, people could say, well, we're not as racist as the U.S., so we're not as racist as South African. That's clearly not the point. The point is not for us to have this sense of distance that allows us to feel a little less guilty.
Vinita Superior rights, the idea that Canadians are exceptionally superior. We're better than those other places.
Daniel We don't just want to think about guilt. We also want to think about the idea that shame may be a more productive emotion. By that, I mean. One can often live with guilt. You live in it with your private environment, but you still go into the public. And part of what shame forces us to do is to say that we can't go on simply repeating the same things, simply managing expectations and having a sense of muddling through, managing things, simply implementing policies. Sometimes we need to step back and actually ask these deeper, perhaps more existential questions around what is this project? Not just what is this brand, but what is this project? What constitutes our identities? And in performing those identities and cultivating those identities, what are we doing? What are we excluding? What violence are we feeling or perpetuating? And how we often feeling the ongoing dispossession of land?
Lucy What kinds of existential questions should we be asking ourselves in order not to perpetuate the violent system that we're brought into? And when I think about how, as communities of colour in Canada, how many communities are struggling to survive or struggling for recognition? What's really important for us to consider is what does it mean for us to think about our relations with other social groups outside of white supremacy? What does it mean for me as an Arab Muslim woman with white passing privilege to struggle for recognition in a system that ultimately subjugates and is anti-black, that it's fundamentally against indigenous people? What does it mean for us to be Canadians? Who do we want to be as Canadians? The real issue, in my view, was white supremacy. It's really insidious how it organises our relationships with each other as people of colour. So if I can make gains on the ladder of social and racial mobility by walking over or stepping over or climbing the ladder on the backs of other people, is that ultimately what we want for ourselves as a community? The really important to think about how the system consistently rewards communities and people for engaging in violence towards other social groups. It's interesting how I learnt this actually from the Citizens City Guide.
Lucy Now the first person of colour, the first black person to receive the Victoria Cross in Canada was a man who participated in the siege of Lucknow, which is a city in India. The British were bombing Lucknow and of course Canadians have sent forces to support the British. And this black person had participated in that siege of Lucknow so well that he got the Victoria Cross. And what that spells out to us, the way in which this person who is a black person was rewarded for participating in the oppression of brown people. It's really insidious the way the white supremacy organises our relationships with each other.
Vinita My ancestors are from Lucknow.
Lucy Oh really?
Vinita Not even my ancestors. My dad.
Daniel If we recognise someone who predominantly white communities racialised as non-white and we're moving forward in quote unquote race relations. So what I'm reminded of with these reflections is wonderful philosopher Louis Gordon, who talks about bad faith and anti-black racism. And when Louis is talking about anti-black racism, he says that an anti-black world doesn't just say, number one, be white. It also says, number two, if you can't be white, don't be black. And by that, he means connected to communities, connected to a sense of being in the world that is not governed by euro modernity.
Vinita Let me ask the very basic question because we started off with this idea of how the spark started for this episode. And my question to you both is, has the Canadian flag become a symbol of violence?
Lucy I think it always has been. Again, it's something that is red depending on the context. Who is reading it? When are they reading it? Where are they reading it? But I think it's important to remember that for indigenous communities in particular, it was always seen that way. And now we're starting to feel the trepidation that many people view the Canadian flag with.
Vinita We need to ask ourselves so many questions. And I think because of the things that you were talking about with the citizenship guide and the things that were taught in school about who we are as Canadians, how proud we are about our multiculturalism, all of those things. I think like Daniel, use the word unsettle, unsettle those relations. We've not been taught to unsettle. We've not been taught to shake the carpet beneath us.
Lucy Also to really think about what stories are attached to the flag. Yeah. So for me, as somebody who became a Canadian, travelling the world on a Canadian passport, how the Canadian passport is received, the stories that people attach to me as a Canadian when I'm abroad that may are different stories than they would attach to me if I had an American passport. Yes, it's really important to think about what are the stories that are evoked by the flag.
Vinita Daniel, can I ask you the same question? Has the Canadian flag become a symbol of violence?
Daniel There's a danger of reducing it to a single story. So the flag is not just violent. The flag can be many different things. The critical question is to ask why are those who acknowledge its violence depicted as killjoys or marginalised or stigmatised? And that's the key thing for me to think about how by flying the flag or by using the flag in particular ways, there's often this power move to try and silence the voices to claim it for one particular narrative. The other way that I think about this is to think about it in relation to not just is or is not the flag violence or can be violence, but to think about when we use it, does it prolong violence? And so how as scholars, we don't just find a way for acknowledging pain, acknowledging suffering and for pessimism, but also how we address the joy in struggle, the different ways in which people have worked together to make the feelings, the issues legible and audible and visible to different communities. Thinking about, yes, we have these feelings that we're associating with a flag, but taking seriously how others may associate that flag with pleasure or with joy? Yes. And how do we open up space for those conversations about different historical memories?
Vinita It kind of reminds me of this idea of Langston Hughes that sometimes one of the most patriotic things that one can do is to challenge your nation. This idea of citizenship. This idea of belonging as a fluid. And we need to keep challenging it. Thank you both very much. I really appreciate both of your taking the time to speak with me today about these very complex issues.
Daniel Thanks so much.
Lucy Thank you so much.
Vinita That's it for this episode of Don't Call Me Resilient. Daniel and Lucy, thank you for coming on and talking about this challenging subject as you roll into this year's Canada Day. Let us know what you're thinking after that conversation. You can email us the old school way or find us online. I'm on Twitter at right vanitha. That's at w r i, t, e v, i n i t a And don't forget to tag our producers @conversationCA. Use the hashtag. Don't call me resilient. And if you'd like to read more about multi-culturalism, nationalism and the Canadian flag, go to the conversation icon. We have all kinds of information in our show notes with links to stories and research. This is our last episode of the season. If you missed any of our episodes, they're all posted on our Web site and wherever you get your podcasts. If you missed any, go back and have a listen. Finally, if you like what you heard today, please tell a friend. Help spread the love. Leave a review on whatever podcast app you're using. Sound used on this episode come from Black Lives Matter. I Can't Breathe and Black Lives Matter Don't Shoot Boat from free zone to talk. Canadian anthem is by sultans of string. The news clip with the Muslim Akon is from Global News sounds from the Canada 150 protests come from resistance 150 Twitter account sounds of the honking trucks in Ottawa come from the K guy sounds from the great Canadian oath on the reaffirm your citizenship Canada day in 2012 from the government of Canada by. Don't Call Me Resilient is a production of the Conversation Canada. This podcast was produced with the Grant for Journalism Innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me Vinita Srivastava. My series co-producers are Hayley Lewis and Sound Editor Lygia Navarro. Vaishnavi Dandekar is an assistant producer. Jennifer Moroz is our consulting producer. Lisa Varano is our audience development editor and Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. And if you're wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that's the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.