Lowered flags symbolize a nation’s sorrow — and the need for concrete action

The Canadian flag outside the Harrow Research Station continues to fly at half-mast, as do the flags at the Kingsville post office and the entrance to Point Pelee National Park. According to Canadian Heritage Services, flags on all Government of Canada buildings and establishments across the country will remain at half-mast until further notice.

The occasion for this symbolic act is listed as “Discovery of remains at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

A Government of Canada website offers these words: “The half-masting of flags is a well-established procedure whereby countries bestow honour and express a collective sense of sorrow.”

As a preacher and worship leader, I work a lot with the symbolic power of language, actions and images. We use symbols to point to things we can’t define or explain or easily put into words. Symbols are also helpful for those “loaded” moments in which there are multiple things to say and we may not agree about what can or should be said.

When the flag is half-masted on the occasion of the death of a former parliamentarian or a foreign dignitary the message is clear — we are showing respect, expressing sympathy, offering condolences. In this case, flags across Canada have been lowered in recognition of the deaths of children at federally funded residential schools and their undignified and inhumane disposal in unmarked graves.

The Canadian flag flies at  half-mast outside the Harrow Research Station. Flags at federal buildings across the country were lowered to honour the victims of the residential school system.To some, the half-masting may represent our collective sorrow. To others, it may represent an admission of sorts — we failed the thousands of children who were in the care of the residential school system and we continue to fail their families and communities.The half-masted flags say that we are sorry. As a parent, I learned that part of the needed response when one of my kids said “sorry” was to help them sort out what they could do to make things better.

In its final reports in 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission told us that the pervasive influence of racism that made the residential school system seem an acceptable, laudable approach to the “Indian Problem” is not just a thing of the past.

Something to be cautious of when it comes to symbolic gestures such as the half-masting of the national flag is to not let the gesture be the “last word,” or to mistake the symbolic act for something more concrete.

I remember hearing in the lead up to “Canada 150” in 2017 that the enormous sums set aside by all levels of government for parades, fireworks and other sesquicentennial celebrations could have gone a long way to addressing basic needs of First Nations communities, such as clean and safe water. There was almost no political traction for reducing the budget for the big party so that we could do better as a country.

Recently, it was announced that our federal government will commit nearly $8 billion to settle class-action lawsuits from First Nations over water quality problems faced by people living in dozens of communities across Canada. There are thousands of people living in Canada who’ve relied on bottled or boiled water for generations because of decades-old water-quality advisories. Here in Kingsville, folks complain about poor service from ELK when our lights flicker, or there’s a power outage during a storm. What if we couldn’t turn on our taps and get fresh clean water, not just for a few hours, but for years? I don’t think we’d need a class-action suit to get the problem fixed.

The flags are at half-mast and I think that’s a good and necessary symbolic action in light of the discovery of all those children in unmarked graves and in light of those families who never saw their kids again. But it’s more like a beginning than an end to what needs to be done.

These graves contain the remains of thousands of children, many of whom were shipped off to residential schools against their wishes and against the wishes of their families. In addition, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented that more than 6,000 students died as a result of their school experience.The odds of dying for a Canadian serving in the Second World War were 1 in 26. The odds of dying if you were a child sent to a residential school were 1 in 25.Try to imagine that instead of it being the children of First Nations families, four per cent of all school age kids in Essex County simply disappeared. What if 1 in 25 kids from our local schools just never came home again?

We’d want more than flags at half-mast.

Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.

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