Opinion: Expecting More Than Lip Service

If you walked down King Street in downtown Kitchener in the last few months, you likely noticed the giant Canadian flag hanging down the front of THEMUSEUM. Until it was taken down in late July, it was pretty hard to miss. It sparked conversation when first unveiled, and even more so on July 1st when a banner reading “150+ Years of Resistance #Unsettling 150” that was draped over it by an unknown person or group. An unidentified black substance was dripped down the front of the flag.

The banner was removed within a few hours, the black substance remained. The banner was then placed in THEMUSEUM’s current exhibit A Cause for Celebration: First Things First, a decision CEO David Marskell said was made about 20 minutes after the banner was taken down. A few weeks later, THEMUSEUM hosted a Reconciliation Dialogue, moderated by board of directors member Mike Tennant, with drew a crowd of just over 50 people.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: the banner in question outside THEMUSEUM and the black substance dripped down the front of the Canadian flag was vandalism in the legal definition; it was not a hate crime. Most importantly, neither of those designations really matter in this conversation. That was a thought expressed many times by several different people in the audience.

“Why are we talking about vandalism? That really isn’t what is important,” said audience member Kelly Fran Davis, who identified as Haudenosaunee, in response to moderator Mike Tennant’s choice to open the dialogue with questions about whether the act was vandalism or a hate crime. No one in the audience vocalized agreement to either points and many made comments about the importance of shifting the talk away from criminal accusation.

“When I think about criminalizing the act and the assumption we’re making that it was Indigenous people that hung the banner, we are inadvertently perpetuating the over incarceration of Indigenous people and we’re normalizing that,” said Dr. Laura Mae Lindo. That statement was immediately followed by Tennant asking the audience “Is there anyone here who feels it might be a hate crime?”

“When you open a conversation around questions of legality, around the criminality of what this may or may not be, what it does, it just reinforces the settler-colonial relationships. It’s all about establishing a hierarchy and I don’t really see how we can have a productive conversation here, unless we remove that from the debate,” said one audience member.

Just over 50 people were in attendance at the dialogue. Only one person, Linda Fabi who is on THEMUSEUM’s board of directors, expressed offense that it was a Canadian flag that had been damaged. No one vocalized opinions that it was a hate crime, though Tennant continually brought the dialogue back to that topic.

Kevin Chalk, the deputy chief of Waterloo Region Police Services was the first invited to speak by Tennant. It wasn’t until the event was nearly done that an audience member pointed out the harm of having police be given the first chance to speak.

“In my mind, the police starting off this dialogue, meant that this dialogue wasn’t neutral anymore because of the histories of policing and its connections to colonization,” said Adam Lewis during one of the last comments of the evening.

Several audience members made comments about the contradiction of taking the protest banner off of the Canadian flag while still claiming to support Indigenous rights and reconciliation. Marskell repeatedly pointed to THEMUSEUM’s current exhibit about Canada 150, curated by three Indigenous artists and one new Canadian, as evidence of the institution supporting Indigenous rights and recognizing the issues surrounding celebration of confederacy.

“We built an entire exhibit to educate people. And how many people have been up to that exhibit?” Marskell asked the audience when questioned about why he chose to remove the banner off of the flag. “Oh, I’m impressed,” was his response when about half of the people in the room raised their hands.

“Throughout the year already we’ve celebrated many different diverse voices in the community…We had the KW Muslim women’s art show, we had the refugee art show, we’ve got a number of other events coming up, so we couldn’t not celebrate the 150th anniversary of confederation. But at the same time, our anchor exhibit gave a voice to the Aboriginal community so they could use our stage… so that was our thinking,” Marskell said on why the flag was hung outside the building.

The issue that a few audience members raised, was that the exhibit exists in a private space that required money and time to access, while the Canadian Flag, though on private property, is hanging in public view. In a written statement released the following day, Marskell pointed to THEMUSEUM’s need to earn revenue as one of the reason the exhibit, and now the resistance banner, have a cost of admission to view.

THEMUSEUM is non profit, not owned by the city or region and the revenue argument is valid, if the aim of the business is revenue over education. The consensus of the audience at the dialogue was that the flag never should have been hung in the first place. At least, not in such an ostentatious way, forcing its message on anyone walking by, without including an equally public display about the oppressive history associated with it.

For many, the Canadian flag is a symbol of colonialism and the British and Canadian governments’ attempts to erase Indigenous culture. The removal of the resistance banner and placement inside THEMUSEUM further demonstrates the institution valuing nationalism and profit over engagement. The banner was a way of calling out the Canadian flag and our celebration of it as being problematic. By putting it behind a paywall, THEMUSEUM is in turn profiting from resistance.

There are Canadian flags hanging in public all over our country, and millions of people celebrated Canada 150. THEMUSEUM hanging the flag itself is not unreasonable, however claiming to be recognizing the harsh truths that go along with our confederacy while the flag hangs is contradictory. Especially after removing the resistance banner. You don’t deserve a pat on the back without doing the work.

“I challenge you really, take the time to read those 94 calls to action and then challenge the space that you’re a part of,” said Shawn Johnston of the University of Waterloo Aboriginal Centre, referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to actions.

We need to challenge our audience and community and not expect Indigenous people to do the work for us. THEMUSEUM is a highly visible organization in our community and we expect more from them.