Flag Flap: Is Canada a Flag?

I am a proud Canadian.

That shouldn’t even need to be said, but before I launch into the rest of this I think I should make it clear right off the hop. I am third generation Canadian, and I have never taken for granted this incredible nation or the people who inhabit it; but this week I found myself both disheartened and disappointed by the response to my most recent blog post.

In that post I shared my excitement at the Pride event coming to Fort McMurray this summer, and I mentioned a controversy I had noted regarding a flag that has surfaced at other Pride events across the country. It is a modified Canadian flag, and as there is no prohibition on modifying the flag it breaks no laws; and yet it has become quite a lightning rod for dissension.

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What was most disheartening to me was that when I chose a photo of the modified Canadian flag to accompany my blog post on my professional freelance writing Facebook page, what readers focused on was not the content of my post but rather that image; and while there were a few flag purists in the crowd who simply believe the Canadian flag should never be modified, it became increasingly clear that for others the problem was not with the modified Canadian flag, but rather with LGBTQ Canadian people. And it was very clear that many did not even bother to read the accompanying blog post, reacting solely based on the image that accompanied it, displaying a knee-jerk reaction that was rooted in something far deeper than a simple attachment to the flag.

Within a period of 24 hours, I was forced to delete more comments and ban more people from accessing my Facebook page than I have done in the entirety of the last five years; and the comments deleted and individuals banned were not because they disagreed with me as I am quite okay with that, but rather due to the sheer level of hatred and anger expressed by them. It was an appalling thing to witness in 2017, and it simply reminded me that even though so much has changed, we have a long, long way to go to truly end discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It is intriguing that during the discussion taking place on my Facebook page, another was taking place on the page of a well-known beer manufacturer. This manufacturer was using the Canadian flag to promote beer sales, and in cases of beer purchased one could find one of two flags: one was the traditional Canadian flag, and the other a modified Canadian flag.

It was fascinating to see that for the vast majority this did not seem to raise any sort of concern, and even for those who thought it wrong to modify the flag the response was rather more muted than the virulent expression of disgust I was seeing with the modified Canadian flag displaying rainbow colours.

The dichotomy was striking. And it was very clear that many of the comments expressed about the Canadian Pride flag were rooted not in concern over the flag, but in bigotry and hatred for the people it represented, although those expressing these concerns often tried (in vain) to wrap themselves in the Canadian flag in an attempt to hide their hatred.

It didn’t work. These individuals expressed no concern over the hatred and discrimination faced by LGBTQ people as I mentioned in my post; they showed no outrage over the fact that LGBTQ people continue to face physical violence in our country simply due to their sexual orientation. All their concern and outrage was reserved for the flag, in this version not red and white but rather a rainbow of colours. What was exposed was the undercurrent of bigotry that remains in this nation, and it was deeply troubling to witness it so closely. If I am to be very honest, it broke my heart as I thought of my many LGBTQ family members and friends, who are as Canadian to the core as any of us are.

I am a proud Canadian.

If I walk down a street and see a Canadian flag burning next to a Canadian person burning, let me be clear: I am not going to save the flag. I will save the person, as flags do not have feelings and nor do they feel pain or injury; and yet in this country it seems we are willing to see other Canadians burned through discrimination and even physical violence with nary a peep, yet we will raise a ruckus over a modified flag.

People must come before symbols, no matter what the symbol happens to be. As much as I love the Canadian flag, I think it serves us well to remember that flags are fundamentally “brands”, a way of identifying and unifying a group, but as with all brands they can change. In fact, the Canadian flag (or “brand”) changed in 1965:

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And the adoption of the maple leaf flag we now know and love was not without controversy, as my parents told me many resented the change to the current flag and protested it with vehemence, claiming it desecrated and disrespected the “real” Canadian flag. Yet over time we adopted the maple leaf, and in fact few who were not alive in 1965 would even recall that once there was a different flag flying over our nation.

Flags matter. They act as symbols of national pride and unity and they have relevance and importance, but know what matters more?

People.

Living, breathing people of every colour, religion, sexual orientation and every other thing that makes us different and yet somehow also makes us exactly the same. Every single thing that makes us Canadian, in fact.

Canada isn’t a flag.

Canada has a flag.

Canada is the people.

Perhaps we can try to remember that.

Pride, Fort McMurray Style

At the end of August this year, Fort McMurray will welcome an event unlike any other we have welcomed before; on August 26, Pride will arrive in Fort McMurray.

Several other communities recently celebrated Pride events. For the most part, the events were greeted warmly and openly, although there have been some troubling incidents that should be seen as evidence as to why Pride events are still needed.

In Lethbridge, a rainbow crosswalk was the target of vandals, who looked to mar the symbol of LGBTQ pride and solidarity with black paint.

In Edmonton, the rainbow Pride flag at a local school was cut down and removed, undoubtedly serving to further marginalize LGBTQ students who already face challenges in feeling safe in their school environments.

And in our own community I have seen dissension about the Pride flag (and whether or not it dishonours the Canadian national flag), and this despite the existence of many flag modifications we seem to accept or tolerate without much controversy or even comment, like the following, as well as the national flag appearing on every imaginable item from mugs to underwear with nary a whisper of outrage or offense:

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And sadly I have seen comments like the following:

  • So, when is straight pride day?
  • I don’t think those people need to rub our noses in their lifestyle.
  • I have no problem with gay people, but this Pride stuff is bullshit.

And here’s my questions for all the straight folks in the crowd:

  • When was the last time you were threatened with physical violence for your sexual orientation?
  • When was the last time you were assaulted due to your sexual orientation?
  • Have you ever felt you had to hide or lie about your sexual orientation?
  • Have you ever been afraid to hold the hand of your significant other in public because of the potential reaction of others?

The reality is straight pride day is every day, 365 days a year. And I say that as a straight white woman who answered “never” to the questions above, and who sees heterosexuality celebrated by popular culture in every single way on every single day.

The truth is that those who identify as LGBTQ continue to face significant challenges in our society. We have come a long way in terms of acceptance, but we continue to have a long way to go. And mere “acceptance” and “tolerance” aren’t the benchmarks we should be seeking; until we can say we genuinely celebrate diversity of every kind, we cannot claim to have achieved equality.

It is a bit startling that in 2017 we remain so preoccupied with the lives of others, including their sexual orientation. Our interest in it betrays our discomfort with it; and if we truly have “no problem with gay people” as some claim then we should have no problem with Pride flags, crosswalks or parades. These things shouldn’t even be a blip on our radar if we really have achieved the kind of equanimity we like to think we have.

The reality is we haven’t. Vandalized crosswalks, controversy over flags and dissension over LGBTQ events betray the truth: we haven’t come nearly as far as we think we have, and a lot of straight folks still have no idea what it’s like to be openly LGBTQ in today’s world.

Pride Fort McMurray has my full, unequivocal and vocal support. My daughter’s involvement in co-founding the region’s first GSA opened my eyes to issues I thought had been laid to rest long ago: discrimination, hatred and, if we are to be honest, fear. Every time we express our discomfort with some aspect of Pride we betray our own discomfort with LGBTQ individuals and we portray why rainbow flags, crosswalks and Pride events are still very much needed.

Pride sums it up well; I am proud of those who not only find the courage to be themselves but who support others in doing so as well. I am proud of those who are unafraid to celebrate our diversity and who seek to develop welcoming communities. And I find great pride in those who can empathize with others despite our own narrow experience of the world and understand that they may face challenges we cannot and will not ever know.

Take pride, Fort McMurray. Take pride in our tremendous diversity in this region, including our LGBTQ community that has chosen to join with others across the country in celebrating. Know that rainbow crosswalks, flags and parades are celebrations of our country, our people, our diversity and our unity. Take pride in us – in ALL of us, no matter our religion, the colour of our skin or our sexual orientation – and truly feel the joy and wonder and yes, pride, in simply being Canadian, part of the true north strong and free.

    

Sustainival: A Success Story

One day in September, 2012, my daughter witnessed something that helped her to form the future trajectory of her life.

When we have kids, we never know what might have the most profound influence on them; and I certainly never expected a carnival would affect my daughter’s entire career path, but then again it wasn’t just any carnival. It was Sustainival, the world’s first green carnival, on their inaugural visit to Fort McMurray.

That year the creative minds behind Sustainival offered local media like me the chance to see the magic and witness the biodiesel being used to fuel the rides be made on site. This biodiesel, made from used cooking oil, meant that the very oil used to fry the mini-donuts one day could be fuelling the Tilt-a-Whirl the next, and it was a bit of a mind-boggling introduction to innovative and creative sustainability.

And while it impressed me, it had even more impact on my daughter.

A few days after she witnessed the cooking oil conversion and spoke with Joey Hundert of Sustainival, she asked me if I thought renewable resources were being used in space exploration.

I, of course, had no idea.

A few months after that, she advised that after years of moaning she had no idea what to do with the rest of her life, she had decided: she was going to pursue mechanical engineering, followed by aerospace engineering with an eventual goal to work on developing sustainable technology for aerospace exploration.

Aside from being somewhat stunned by this suddenly very detailed career path, I found myself completely humbled as I knew what started this train of thought for her.

You see, when she went to Sustainival it was like watching a tiny baby bird begin to find their wings. They flutter them gently at first, stretching them out to see how far they go, and slowly and gradually they begin to gain strength and courage until one day they glide from the nest, only sky above them and the ground far below.

On that day the concept of sustainability and innovation went beyond a dry subject my daughter had heard taught in a classroom and discussed on television; she saw how innovation, creativity and a desire to simply do something differently could actually change history, like developing the world’s first green carnival.

My daughter graduated from high school this spring. She has worked hard throughout her academic career, and has racked up the impressive grades to prove it. She applied to several universities and was accepted to all, and from one received a very generous scholarship. And so this fall she will enter mechanical engineering, right on target for her future plans of a career filled with innovation, sustainability and creativity.

And it all began at a little carnival called Sustainival in 2012, where she found inspiration and encouragement to not only dream, but do.

So if you visit Sustainival, I want you to remember something. We never know what will impact our children; I certainly never predicted a visit to a carnival, even a green one, would determine the future my daughter chose.

And yet it did. I am so grateful to Sustainival and all the people behind it, because while my daughter has always had wings, it was they who showed her how to fly.

Sam Wells, Sustainival 2012

I am so delighted to share that since 2012, Sustainival has experienced great success, and has returned to Fort McMurray every year. And while I consider them to be a tremendous Albertan success story, they helped to create another success story: a young woman who found her future while eating mini-donuts and riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. I will always feel not only deep gratitude to them, but pride in their continued success just as I find deep pride in hers.

Sustainival is in Fort McMurray this year from June 15-18 – you can find more information here: Sustainival in Fort McMurray

Of Bison and Babies; Have We Lost Our Minds?

A plywood representation of a bison created from small pieces of wood; trying to define what qualifies a child as a “fire baby”; what do these two things have in common?

They are moments in time when I had to step back and wonder if we have entirely lost the plot on the concept of community, and if the critics are right and the idea of “Fort McMurray Strong” really has kicked the bucket.

The plywood bison are small pieces of art created from inexpensive wood, added to some of the municipal planters around town. Apparently they were created by municipal parks employees in the off-season – you know, the guys and gals who work their asses off trying to keep our city public spaces looking presentable. Well, someone noticed one of the bison was sporting an additional tail; instead of simply appreciating the piece as a nice if subtle addition to the landscape, they posted a photo with a snarky comment, which evoked further snarky comments about the waste of money (plywood) and using the money not on public art but to instead build Willow Square (yep, that $50 of plywood is gonna go a long way to that goal).

Never once did the armchair critics consider who might have spent time making the pieces or the pride or enjoyment they might have derived from them; nope, a small error on one was enough to unleash the hounds.

And then there are the “fire babies”, an ill-defined term for babies born or conceived during the wildfire of 2016. The parameters on this are loose indeed, as who is in a position to judge what child is and is not a fire baby? And yet the topic enraged people who argued about what constitutes a fire baby and whether or not some children deserve this title.

It is enough to make you weep, my friends.

Have we become a town of curmudgeons?

Or to put it more bluntly, have we lost our fucking minds?

OMG, the plywood bison has an extra tail. And can you believe those people are calling their kid a fire baby when clearly it falls outside of the imaginary timeframe I devised in my own head for that qualification?

I fear we are becoming a city of complainers, whiners and arguers. We sit back on social media and type out our criticisms of everything and everyone. But if we have these concerns, do we really step up and do anything? Are we involved on the boards and committees that make decisions on things like public art? Do we volunteer our time? Do we go to public engagement sessions? Do we fill out the surveys?

Bro, do you even vote?

And do we ever consider that maybe sometimes we should just shut the hell up and think that other people might have feelings, too?

As the next few years pass by, I can guarantee we will face enough challenges coming at us from outside that we do not need to be creating any internal drama to supplement it. If ever there was a time to begin rowing together, this is it. We need to begin from a place where we assume every person is doing their best and means well; and while we may be wrong some of the time in that, for the most part we will be right. And if we can come from that place then we can also begin to treat each other with kindness, consideration and understanding. And maybe before we fling out criticisms and nasty-isms we would pause and consider there may be things we simply don’t know.

There is something I do know; the unkindnesses I have witnessed recently left me not only deeply sad but discouraged. In a time when there are real battles to be fought, like the one for the rebuilding of our community, we are instead punching at plywood buffalo (OMG did I just call the bison a buffalo? In the immortal words of the Pet Shop Boys, “call the police, there’s a madman in town”) and fire babies. If it wasn’t so disheartening it might almost be funny. Almost.

And if you are reading this and feeling angry at me and indignant and thinking that this is about you…well, if you think this is about you maybe that’s because you have been involved in the conversations I have mentioned or similar ones of equal unkindness. These conversations are mean-spirited at best and embarrassing at worst; if I saw them happening in another community I would have serious doubts about the people living there. And I don’t mind you being angry at me if it makes you think for one moment about these acts of unkindness and whether they move us forward as community or if they simply serve to make others angry, miserable or sad.

I actually don’t believe the concept of Fort McMurray Strong is dead; I think like all of us it has taken a bit of beating over the last year and is feeling a little weary as a result. But I also believe that with our conscious decision to be kinder, thoughtful and come from a place of optimism and belief in others that we can breathe new life into it.

And I know that if we spend our time gnashing our teeth and flapping our gums over plywood bison and fire babies we are going to have one helluva time claiming the name Fort McMurray Strong.