Confederate flags still flying in Ontario, prompting call for change

After a Belleville, Ont., police officer's photos with a Confederate flag sparked outrage earlier this month, some Ontario residents say it's time to ban the racist symbol altogether.

Petitions to ban racist symbol gather signatures as U.S. Marine Corps, NASCAR take a stand

A Confederate flag flies over a house in Collingwood, Ont. It was taken down after recent community backlash. (Submitted by Abigail Hitchens)

Kyra Nankivell remembers the first time she saw a Confederate flag. It was around Grade 9, and she was at a party at a friend's house. The flag was draped over a basement couch.

"I felt super uncomfortable," said Nankivell, now 19. She was one of only a few Black students at her high school in Wellington County, Ont. 

It wouldn't be her last encounter with the symbol associated with slavery and anti-Black racism.

"[One or two] people had them flying out the back of their trucks in my high school," Nankivell said.

Anybody who says that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of hate, or that it is a symbol that is not deeply injurious to people of African descent, really is a person that doesn't know their history very well.- Barrington Walker, Wilfrid Laurier University

Earlier this month, photos of a veteran Belleville, Ont., police officer with the same flag on his shirt and flying from the back of a golf cart sparked outrage. But some Ontarians say it's not an entirely unusual sight, whether waving from trucks, on bumper stickers or flying over homes.

While some see it as a sign of rural pride or a harmless image from the Dukes of Hazzard TV show, "it's failing to acknowledge what that piece of history actually represents," said Belleville resident Kayla Koomans, who co-organized a vigil in her city following the death of George Floyd.

Confederate flags aren't a daily sighting in her community, Koomans said, but there are still "more than we should be seeing."

Kyra Nankivell, now a student in Toronto, said she felt very alone as a Black high school student in rural Ontario. (Submitted by Kyra Nankivell)

For her fellow co-organizer Sydney Jarvis, it "makes me think that those people who are flying the flag think that people of colour [like me] still deserve to be in slavery."

'Symbol of country living' ignores racist history

Some in Ontario see the Confederate flag as a "harmless symbol of country living, of rural identity," said Barrington Walker, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor who specializes in Black Canadian history.  But that ignores the "long history of white supremacy, segregation and Jim Crow" the flag represents, he noted.

The Confederate flag was flown during the Civil War by the secessionist states, notoriously by General Robert E. Lee's army that fought to preserve slavery.

The symbol was later resurrected during the civil rights movement by those opposed to equal rights for Black people, and has since been associated with white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. To this day, the symbol remains in a corner of the state flag of Mississippi.

Const. Todd Bennett, a 29-year veteran with the Belleville Police Service, is seen on the left riding on the passenger side of a golf cart with a Confederate flag attached, and on the right wearing a T-shirt with the same flag pictured. (Facebook via Katie MacLeod)

The debate has long raged in the U.S. over whether the Confederate flag represents southern pride and states' rights, or racism and hatred.

"Anybody who says that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of hate, or that it is a symbol that is not deeply injurious to people of African descent, really is a person that doesn't know their history very well," Walker said.

For Dwayne Edwards, who is Black, seeing the Confederate flag on vehicles is yet another way he feels targeted in his largely white community of Belleville. 

"I think [Belleville] is very friendly for Caucasian people," Edwards told CBC's Ontario Morning. He described being profiled in stores, getting dirty looks and hearing backhanded comments, and said he and his wife, Emily, have decided they don't want to raise their three young boys there.

"I think we need to open the chapter on how we treat Black people on a day-to-day basis," Edwards said. 

Emily and Dwayne Edwards live in Belleville, Ont., with their three young sons. (Submitted by Emily Edwards)

Petitions gain momentum

Residents of other Ontario municipalities are petitioning their towns to ban the controversial flag.

Collingwood, Ont., Mayor Brian ​​​​​Saunderson said two "Civil War re-enactors" were flying Confederate flags in his town. One of them recently took the flag down as the petition surged to more than 28,000 signatures.

Clearview, Ont., Mayor Doug Measures has asked for a legal opinion on whether a ban is possible, noting the flags are "not common at all."

Emily Edwards took this photo of a Confederate flag on the rear window of a truck near Belleville, Ont. (Emily Edwards/Facebook)

Jacey Sampson, who started the Clearview petition, said she's "seen this flag my entire life" on car windows and bumper stickers, and believes most people are ignorant about its origin.

Collingwood town council will vote Monday on a motion to look into options for prohibiting "symbols of hate and racial intolerance."

Abigail Hitchens started that town's petition last year after a neighbour hung the Confederate flag in his yard, which she passed each day with her young son. She revived the petition in recent weeks after her son started asking questions about George Floyd's killing, and support took off.

The man flying that flag, Dennis Morris, has now taken it down after community backlash. In a message to CBC, Morris said he participates in Civil War re-enactments, and said to him the flag doesn't stand for racism, "it means history."

Hundreds of people attended Belleville’s march and vigil for Black lives this month. (Submitted by Kayla Koomans)

History of controversy in Ontario

It's not the first time the Confederate flag has sparked controversy in this province. In Hamilton, a man was fired after proudly flying the flag from his truck in 2017. A year earlier, Norfolk County Fair vendors were told to stop selling Confederate flags after complaints.

Last year, a Chatham-Kent councillor refused to take down a Facebook post showing a Dukes of Hazzard "General Lee" toy car, which has the Confederate flag on its roof, after complaints from a local resident. The councillor, Trevor Thompson, told CBC it was a childhood toy, and said only one person had complained.

Sutton High School, north of Toronto, banned students from wearing Confederate flag paraphernalia in 2013, with some students telling the Toronto Star they saw it as representing "country values" rather than racism. A year later, four teens at the same school were charged with assault after a black student was beaten while onlookers yelled racist slurs.

Georgetown High School had the Confederate flag on team merchandise until 1989, and only dropped "Rebels" from its team name in recent years.

Toronto Coun. Neethan Shan pushed for a ban on the Confederate flag from city-owned spaces and events in 2017 after a Dukes of Hazzard General Lee replica turned up at the Highland Creek Festival.

Belleville Mayor Mitch Panciuk said he does see some decals and licence plates with the flag, but called such sightings "unusual."

Regardless, Kyra Nankivell thinks Ontario should acknowledge its own legacy of racism and consider banning the Confederate flag from public display.

"Even if people don't tie it directly to oppression of Black people and slavery, the fact that a marginalized community does tie it to those things — and it makes them feel uncomfortable — should be a big enough reason." 

With files from Ontario Morning and Ryan Patrick Jones

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now