Raising a flap

Montreal and Quebec flags are outdated symbols of the people they are supposed to represent

Symboles nationaux

The Quebec flag suggests a nostalgia for the good old days when Quebec was all French.
Since Jan. 1, the 62-year-old flag of the former city of Montreal flies over the entire island like that of a conqueror over its newly annexed territories - which is exactly what the former suburbs are.
The Tremblay administration has announced plans to adopt a logo for the new island-wide city as a friendly gesture to the former suburbanites still bitter over being forcibly merged with Montreal. It's supposed to symbolize a fresh start, forgetting about the past and looking toward the future and all that.
"It's something that has to be done," said Peter Yeomans, former mayor of Dorval and now a member of the Montreal executive committee.
"We're building a new community. There's got to be something in there that represents the newness, but we never want to lose track of our heritage." Actually, it's more like 29 heritages, which is the number of former municipalities that make up the new city.
At the same time, however, the new Montreal has apparently decided to keep its old flag and the coat of arms adopted a year earlier, on which the flag is based. In doing so, the city is passing up an opportunity to do away with an outmoded design based on ethnic symbols that now represent only a part of its history and people.
"It would be a shame to throw away these things that are heritage-related," Yeomans told The Gazette's Linda Gyulai. "The city flag is very precious because it represents the founding communities."
Actually, it doesn't. The flag is divided into quarters by a red cross, each quarter containing a national floral symbol: the lily of royalist France, England's rose, Scotland's thistle and Ireland's shamrock.
Of the four communities represented by these symbols, only the French can accurately be described as European "founders" of what became the city of Montreal, which had previously been inhabited by aboriginals. The English, Scots and Irish all arrived well after the French had already "founded" the place.
More likely, the choice of communities to be represented on the flag was nothing more than a political concession to the ethnic power structure in the city when the coat of arms was adopted in 1938.
But the city was evolving. Immigrants from other countries had already changed the city's ethnic composition. And now the flag is nothing more than a symbolic snapshot of Montreal as its powers-that-be liked to imagine it 64 years ago.
Where does the flag pay homage to the contributions of the Chinese, the English-speaking blacks from the United States and the West Indies, the Jews, the eastern Europeans, the Italians, the Greeks and the Portuguese? And the more recent arrivals, the Vietnamese, the Haitians, the Latinos?
Montreal without any of them is unthinkable, for it would no longer be the Montreal we know. Isn't each of these groups as vital to the city, as deserving of recognition in its symbols, as the Scots from whom I am descended? And since it is impractical to redesign those symbols every time another group is added to the mix, wouldn't it be better simply to design a new, enduring flag and coat of arms for the new city without references to ethnicity and religion at all, symbols that don't favour a few privileged groups while ignoring all the others?
I've made a similar criticism in the past about the Quebec flag, whose 54th anniversary was yesterday. That flag's design and all its elements refer back to the French ancien rÈgime. Its message is that the history of Quebec did not truly begin until the French arrived here, and that nobody who was here before them or came after them matters as much as their descendants. It expresses nostalgia for the good old days, before the arrival of "the others." It is a poor symbol for a Quebec that is supposed to have become ethnically diverse and inclusive.
It is as unrepresentative of the people it is supposed to symbolize as was Canada's Red Ensign, dominated as it was by British symbols, before it was replaced by the present Maple Leaf in 1965. If Canada and other countries can successfully change their flags, Quebec and Montreal can do it, too.
- Don Macpherson is The Gazette's Quebec-affairs columnist, based in Montreal. His E-mail address is dmacpher@thegazette.southam.ca.

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