How Flags Divide Us

Flags can be useful as tools of anti-colonial resistance, but we must leave them behind if we are going to build a new concept of community that extends past species and sovereignty and nation.

Artwork by Laura Grier, part of a collaborative series of stone lithography prints created with Yǝ́dı́ı (Spiritual Being) Kwǝ (Stone).

Glen Coulthard is Yellowknives Dene and an associate professor at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of “Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.”

Matt Hern is a co-director of Solid State Community Industries in Surrey, British Columbia.

Laura Grier is a Sahtu Délı̨nę First Nations artist and printmaker, born in Somba ké (Yellowknife), and based out of Alberta. Through the use of traditional print mediums, they instrumentalize the power of the handmade to reflect political sociology, culture, ecology and Indigeneity, and as a tool for resistance, refusal and inherent Bets’ı̨nę́.

VANCOUVER — July 1, 2022. Canada Day.

Formally called Dominion Day, it commemorates the date in 1867 when three separate colonies were united into a single dominion, becoming Canada — a “kingdom in its own right” within the British Empire. The day was renamed in 1982 when the Canadian Constitution was repatriated. It is Canada’s birthday, a flag-waving, independence-celebrating fiesta of self-anointed benevolence and beneficence.

This year though, Canada Day celebrations were a little fraught. After a few years of events muted and canceled because of the pandemic, it was supposed to be a full-on patriotic rager. But there was something off, a bit of a stink in the air, a twang of awkwardness, possibly a sniff of violence.

Our national virus-free festivities were punctured by the “Freedom Convoy” that has been convulsing the country throughout 2022 and spilling influence far and wide, instigating copycat movements across the globe. Launched by truckers as a protest against vaccine mandates, it metastasized into a big-tent movement of anti-vaxxers, white supremacists, ethno-nationalists, libertarians, conspiracy theorists, far-right insurrectionists, yellow-vesters, anti-government militia and garden-variety whack-jobs of every kind: a MAGA-north ensemble of deplorables.

The rubble from the convoy’s occupation of Ottawa at the beginning of the year hadn’t even been fully cleaned up by July 1 when the mob returned. Canada Day at Parliament Hill, normally a sea of general nationalist revelry, was fraught and tense. This time the protests were galvanized by James Topp, a Canadian soldier who walked across the country to protest vaccine mandates and arrived in Ottawa just in time for the festivities. Topp has been court-martialed for his highly public anti-vaccine stance in uniform, but he was a rock star that day. Far-right Conservative Pierre Poilievre (who was a leadership candidate then and is now the party leader) joined him for the last leg in Ottawa, and two dozen Conservative MPs hosted him and other leading convoy organizers at their offices. 

The most ubiquitous symbol of the convoy movement is its hyper-aggressive deployment of the Canadian flag. Every convoy rally is an absolute sea of red-and-white flags flying from trucks and cars, porches, backpacks, at stoplights and intersections. If you see a Canadian flag anywhere these days, it’s almost surely an anti-vaxxer, not some bleeding-red-and-white nationalist.

“The Maple Leaf was polluted by racism and the predations of empire from the beginning.”

This appropriation of the Canadian flag has caused immense consternation across the country. In the days leading up to July 1, we were swamped with media pearl-clutching that the anti-vaxxers should not be allowed to dominate the flag like this. People who were once extremely proud of the flag are now apparently repulsed by it; everyday folks are highly reluctant to display the flag anywhere and all kinds of commentators are anguished about “reclaiming the flag” and its “true” meaning — not the least of whom is Justin Trudeau, whose fiery Canada Day speech, amid heavy security, claimed that “Canada is about people who are constantly fighting for something, instead of against.”

We went to the Canada Day celebrations in downtown Vancouver. We had been camping the week before, and driving down the Island Highway from the north, every rest-stop, pull-over and campsite was flooded with convoy crazies who leapt onto the road with flags to stop traffic, their giant RVs festooned like carnival campers. We braced ourselves for a similar gong show in the city.

But not so much. There was a simmering anxiety that things would get weird, but a very robust police, army and private security presence — and perhaps a muted Vancouver sensibility — kept any convoy action to the fringes. We saw approximately a billion flags — on hats, hijabs, headbands, caps, capes and cars. A lot of performative thanking of police and crowds around the armed forces recruiting tents. White-guy bands on a big stage. Some tepid Indigenous displays. A young woman walking around with a baffling sign that read “Canada is just a colony with gravy fries.” (We wanted to ask but chickened out). 

But hardly any anti-vaxxers. Literally every speaker on every stage gestured with smug satisfaction at how “peaceful” it was. It felt like everyone exhaled their relief together. 

The “Freedom Convoy” movement may still have new heights to climb: The MAGA-esque Conservative Party is ascendent, and surely any new pandemic waves will resuscitate anti-vax energies. But there is a pervasive national feeling that the danger has largely passed, that “true Canadian values” — and by proxy the war for the flag — seems to have been won by the forces of reasonableness. As Trudeau put it on National Flag of Canada Day in February, “Wherever the Maple Leaf flies, it is a symbol of the shared values that unite us as Canadians — freedom, peace, justice, equality, openness, diversity and generosity.”

Those sentiments have never been shared by most Indigenous people and many other Canadians who have long viewed the flag as a triumphalist symbol of colonial violence and occupation. Many see the recent consternation over the use of the Maple Leaf as ironic at best. The “true” legacy of the flag, many of us believe, is the unmarked graves (more than 1,300 in the past year and a half or so) being discovered on the sites of former government-run residential schools, where for decades Indigenous children were force-fed colonial and cultural genocide propaganda. On the very eve of Canada Day this year, the Lower Kootenay Band found the unmarked remains of 182 more people near the grounds of a former school in British Columbia.

The “Freedom Convoy” has instigated a mini-crisis of confidence in the Maple Leaf, and all over the West, flags are being “captured” by the far-right, but instead of trying to “reclaim” it, this is a ripe time to consider the symbolic uses of flags in general. This isn’t a crisis to be overcome. It’s a moment to reflect on the failures of statism. It’s worth asking: Are flags worth fighting over anywhere? Do they really mean much?

Histories of flags often start in the 11th century BCE when Zhou Dynasty armies mustered under white banners. Outside of military uses, most flags as we know them are bound to the emergence of the nation-state and synonymous with nation-building, national identity, chauvinism and state aggression. The Maple Leaf is no exception. Polluted by racism and the predations of empire since the beginning, its core inspirations are the Cross of St. George, which was the “warrior flag” emblem of the Crusades and was planted by John Cabot when he “discovered” Canada in 1497, and the Royal Coat of Arms, which King George V unveiled in 1921. 

National flags represent an imagined community, a symbolic gesture claiming commonality and identity. The question of “community” — of who can be together with whom — has long been a central, perhaps the central conundrum of political thinking: Who is “we?” Where and with whom do we belong? Who can we be in-common with? 

“The ‘true’ legacy of the Canadian flag are the unmarked graves being discovered on the sites of former government-run residential schools, where for decades Indigenous children were force-fed colonial and cultural genocide propaganda.”

But these questions cannot be answered with any kind of fidelity in the context of settler-colonialism, in Canada or anywhere else. Refusing the flag and acknowledging its deployment as essential to colonial occupations and empire might open the door to new emancipatory renditions of being together.

The noxious nationalism of the “Freedom Convoy” or Fidesz or One Nation or the National Front or the Brothers of Italy cannot be resisted on their own terms. Far-right populist movements are correct: Without strong borders, nation-states dissolve. Eurospheric citizenship is always contingent on whiteness, just like every state is founded on racial and/or religious identities. The “we” that so many citizens fulsomely celebrate is inextricably bound to that identity.  

Responses to such movements cannot rely on exhausted reassertions of liberal statism. That doubles down on settler coloniality, violent borders and expulsions. We can imagine and enact porous, non-exclusive sovereignties: As the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe implores, a borderless world is entirely thinkable. Non-exclusive sovereignties are all around us in Indigenous, migrant justice and abolitionist movements, in the everyday border crossings of millions of people every day. 

We can think past and through flag-waving frenzies. Imagining new renditions of community beyond any transcendent identity is exactly what is required to surpass the brutal nations that stain our times. The idea of “we” can be stripped of its colonial, statist and anthropocentric fixities. It is wholly possible to embrace and refuse identity in the same breath, reaching for a concept of being together that is exposed to the more-than-human. Community needs to extend far past the human if it is to retain any force. It has to think past species and sovereignty as much as flag.

There’s no hope for the Canadian flag, no escaping its brutality. It was birthed in the Crusades and raised as a blunt tool of settler colonialism. It should not be reclaimed or fought for. The MAGA-north Maple Leaf-waving mobs can have it: They are its true inheritors, and their capture of its symbolic iconography brings a certain kind of clarity to the situation. The Canadian flag is no more redeemable than Old Glory or the Union Jack. 

The question of how to undermine a symbol that demands representation is really a question of how to fight the colonial state. Flags are unworthy symbols to rally around, but they are powerful tools. Warrior flags strike fear in the hearts of enemies and give people strength. Flags instigate a kind of solidarity, but they are perilous tropes.

“We can imagine and enact porous, non-exclusive sovereignties. A borderless world is entirely thinkable.”

Consider Quebec nationalism. From the 1960s through 90s, the righteousness of Quebec independence was inescapable. Pretty much every (white) leftist and progressive in Canada supported Quebec’s claim to an inherent right to self-determination. Anglophone colonialism was threatening to destroy Quebecois language, culture and society, and the answer was obvious: a robust assertion of Quebec as a national project, the aggressive protection of its language and culture on every level. And it worked, more or less. 

Quebec now has a very particular status within Canada, a kind of quasi-national autonomy, a very significant amount of political power and a vigorously defended national identity. Quebec is one of the flaggiest places you will ever encounter, awash in blue-and-white Fleurs De Lis. But all that patriotic fervor is locked and loaded, ready to turn from proud cultural celebration to terrifying jingoism in a hot second. 

More specifically, it will turn swiftly hostile if you are an Indigenous or immigrant person, a threat to cultural integrity. Consider the infamous Bill 21, which passed in 2019 and bars all public servants from teachers to police officers to bureaucrats from wearing any religious symbols. In effect, the law unapologetically and overtly targeted at hijabs and turbans. The bill remains widely popular among Quebecois as a defense of their culture but has instigated a sharp decline in the safety of Muslims, Jews and Sikhs, as well as a steep rise in hate crimes. 

This has not come as any surprise to the province’s Indigenous people who have long seen their claims to territory and sovereignty aggressively suppressed by Quebec’s nationalist logics, and of course anti-Indigenous racism is endemic throughout the province. Quebec’s impervious and unshakable nationalist claims do not allow for dissent and pluralities, which are understood as existential threats to Quebec itself. This story is repeated from India to Ireland to Israel: Newly sovereign nations, born from oppression and resistance, often double and triple-down on their own essentialist identities that cannot tolerate leakiness: replicating and producing new forms of domination in the name of flag and state. 

But post-coloniality is not a monolith, and blindly or blandly dogmatic anti-nationalisms are not useful, particularly when considering Indigenous nationhood. Every independence and nationalist movement has its own distinct material conditions and routes to resistance. What we want to know is whether flags — and by proxy state nationalisms in general — are inherently vehicles of domination and colonialism. If so, what could come after? What might alternative or postcolonial sovereignties rally around, if not a flag? 

All languages are fraught, and anti-colonial and Indigenous movements that deploy grammars of sovereignty, nationhood and property are producing subjectivities and subjects that groove dominatory ways of being in the world. The drive for recognition produces good subjects; the languages affect us in the deepest recesses of our hearts and forge political path dependencies. Flags and national discourses are subject-forming from their very conception. 

Indigenous people have been genocidally dispossessed and have fought with every available tool to make themselves visible and survive. The Lockean tradition insists in part that only sovereign, recognizable nations have a claim to territory, and without that they do not exist and thus can have their lands stripped and communities dispossessed without recourse. And so Indigenous and anti-colonial resistance movements have had to resort to those same colonial languages and institutions, invoking law and sovereignty and ownership and property as blunt instruments of liberation. If colonialists are only capable of listening to their own languages, if that is the only route to legibility, then of course those languages have to be deployed. What the hell else are Indigenous people supposed to do? 

“As constructive narratives, as something to build on, flags replicate and replace the same systems of domination.”

As claims against harm, the lure of sovereignty and nation and flag are compelling, and tremendously effective in many respects. But do they seal in irreparable ways of being in the world? That’s the point Audre Lorde was making: “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” 

In some ways this is echoed in the core questions Robert Nichols asked in “Theft is Property!: Dispossession and Critical Theory.” Nichols wondered whether framing colonial violence as dispossession ordered political theory and resistance in specific ways: “Since dispossession presupposes prior possession, recourse to it appears conservative and tends to reinforce the very proprietary and commoditized models of social relations that radical critics generally seek to undermine.” 

Nichols carefully examined the binds implied, and via the arguments of Indigenous scholars and activists, he concluded that dispossession was “a unique historical process, one in which property is generated under conditions that require divestment and alienation from those who appear, only retroactively, as its original owners. In this way, theft and property are related in a recursive, rather than strictly unilinear, manner.” 

This offers insight on how we might think about flags and national resistance as part of specific, materialist historical movements. As symbolic resistance, as moments of opposition and refusal, the tropes of national aspiration, defense and identity can be highly effective. Flags can rally spirits, identify comrades, give people something to organize around. But as constructive narratives, as something to build on, flags replicate and replace the same systems of domination. 

By definition, flags are arguments against criticality and nuance, plurality and relationality. States efface the plurality of relations in their very being; they demand adherence to a transcendent identity, one that supersedes all else. Flags are homogenizing and prescriptive if they are apprehended as an end in themselves, a recuperation of racial capitalism if recognition as a nation-state is the pinnacle of anti-colonial resistance. The closer nationhood gets to success, the worse it becomes. 

Indigenous nationalism is wholly different from settler-colonial state occupations. It suggests a commitment to community in relationship to the land and others, a specific relationality expressed in flexible territoriality, porous sovereignties and permeable identities. When invoked, colonial languages and nationalist symbolic images and tropes must only be a temporary repurposing of tools that are fundamentally unsuited for the task. 

“We have to be ready to leave flags behind, to build new, post-statist, post-colonial symbols.”

If the Maple Leaf and every other colonial flag are unworthy of our fidelity, are there other flags, other symbolic representations of nations, post-statist or otherwise, that might replace or displace them? Is the lure of flag and nation and recognition useful? Maybe, but only if they are temporary tools of circumstance. Recognition from the settler state, or from other colonial nations, is a perilous trap. 

But we can speak multiple ideas in the same breath. As a tool of resistance, fly that flag! And at the same time refuse to be trapped by the dead ends of colonial languages and blunt symbols. When it’s time to fight, not much nuance is needed. When we are trying to build something beyond imperial sovereignties, when we are trying to imagine new socialities, new ways to be together, our imaginations can conjure something far more malleable, leaky and unstable than a damn flag. 

Even the greatest flags are never gods; they are always worthy of suspicion and doubt and re-imagination. Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall, a Kanien’kehà:ka (Mohawk) artist and author of “The Warrior’s Handbook,” designed what became the “Warrior Flag” in the mid-1970s for “Indigenous unity, nationalism and resistance.” Since then it has galvanized Indigenous movements across the globe and been seen in anti-colonial struggles from South America to New Zealand to Palestine.

The Warrior Flag was essential to the resistance at Kanehsatà:ke and terrifying to the Canadian army. Katsi’tsakwas, also known as Ellen Gabriel, the spokesperson for the longhouse during the Oka crisis and still a revered Indigenous thinker and activist, says she has mixed feelings about the flag: “On one hand, I am proud because it is a symbol of the resistance of 1990. but my experience of it firsthand in the community wasn’t so pleasant.” She has spoken often about how the warrior stance is so powerful in battle, but at home the flag nurtured a misogynist tendency that is difficult to disentangle: “There hasn’t been an in-depth discussion in our communities about that machismo and how it hurt a lot of us afterwards.”

Just as every imperial flag of occupation should always be disrespected and refused, the Warrior Flag should be honored. As long as anti-colonial struggles are required, flags like it will be useful. But even as we celebrate that struggle, we have to be ready to leave flags behind, to lay down those tools and build new, post-statist, post-colonial symbols. If we can think beyond sovereigns and domination, we can think beyond flags.