The symbolism and meaning of a ceremony at Vancouver City Hall to mark the 67th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China is raising concerns with some Chinese-Canadians.
On Friday, about 300 Chinese government supporters turned out to watch acting Mayor Kerry Jang and Richmond East MP Joe Peschisolido don red scarves and raise the national flag of China in front of city hall.
When news of the unpublicized event was posted online over the weekend, it sparked strong reaction from those in the Chinese-Canadian community who don't support the communist government.
"Our first reaction was, we could not believe this was happening at city hall," said Louis Huang, the spokesman for The Alliance of the Guard of Canadian Values.
The group, which is composed of immigrants from mainland China, is fighting what it says is the growing influence of the Chinese government on Canadian politicians.
"I think as a Chinese-Canadian, it is my responsibility to warn them to be cautious," said Huang.
Huang, who immigrated from China to Canada in 2002, says he has no problem with politicians talking with Chinese officials or with other diplomatic initiatives, such as the recent exchange of visits by Justin Trudeau with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
But he says it's troubling when local politicians appear to be endorsing the communist government.
"Right now they raise the national flag of China in front of city hall. What will be next? We worry when they are dealing with the Chinese government. Do they put Canadian values in first or second place?"
Symbolic red scarves
Huang's also very concerned that Jang and others at the ceremony were wearing red scarves, which he says are a historically recognized symbol of the communist struggle worldwide.
"The red scarf — everybody who comes from China — we all know what that means," said Huang.
"It has very, very unique political implications in China. That means to struggle for communism, to spread the ideology to everywhere in this world. This is what we are taught from our childhood [in China].
"During the ceremony, there is no reason to wear this red scarf. It doesn't make any sense. It means they accept communist ideology."
"My family and I suffered greatly under that national flag. During the infamous Cultural Revolution, the red guards wearing red scarves came to our home and took everything valuable. They abused my aging grandmother and threatened my parents," said Wong in the post.
"The current justice system in China is not separated from its Communist Party control. Many activists are in prisons. No, I don't want to see the Chinese national flag raised in the City of Vancouver on civic property and by a city counsellor."
The City of Vancouver's stance on the the Chinese government has been controversial in the past. In 2014, it won a six-year legal battle to have Falun Gong protesters remove their shack outside the Chinese embassy on Granville Street.
For his part, Coun. Kerry Jang, who was acting mayor on Friday, refused to comment on the issue, saying it has generated too many racist comments online already, and he "didn't want to feed the trolls."
But over the weekend, he did tell other media he felt the criticism was racist and denied the red scarf he wore was representing the communist struggle.
Peschisolido, who also participated in the event as a Liberal MP, said it was a good way to engage with the Chinese government and promote democratic reform.
He said he was told the red scarf was a symbol of "the cultural background of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization."
"For me, it wasn't an endorsement of a particular regime or ideology," he said.
"My view was it was a celebration not only of government-to-government ties but also of the important contributions Chinese Canadians have made here in Canada," said Peschisolido.
He said he understands the "legitimate pain" felt by those who criticized the event, and said he raised concerns about human rights and freedom of the press in his speech.
A similar event was held on Friday by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne at Queens Park in Toronto.
City rules on flag raising
According to the City of Vancouver website, flags of other sovereign nations, non-profit societies and other local organizations can be flown at the east side of the main entrance, "at the discretion of the city clerk."
The events are organized by the groups that request them, which are also responsible for how the event is promoted and which media are invited, said a statement issued by the city on Monday.
"The decision to fly the flag of any nation neither implies nor expresses support for the politics of those nations," it said.
Officials confirmed Friday's event was organized by the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations (CACA) which has come under fire in the past for organizing events to celebrate the founder of the Peoples Republic of China, Mao Zedong.
According to the statement, other flags raised this year include those of Greece, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Slovenia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Mexico.
When they are raised, they do not replace the Canadian flag, which is flown on top of city hall.