It was gone almost before anyone knew it was there, but a Confederate flag strung over Main Street in Smithers over the weekend has raised the ire of community leaders and the incident is under investigation by police.
“The Confederate flag is a specific symbol with a specific history,” wrote Smithers acting mayor Casda Thomas and Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach in an op-ed piece provided to this newspaper. “It’s not only connected with the Confederate States’ battle during the American Civil War to protect their ability to own Black slaves, but also reappeared as a prominent symbol of white supremacists who organized throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s to oppose civil rights for African-Americans.
“Perhaps more alarming and relevant to the Confederate flag’s use today is its direct ties with the re-emerging White Nationalist and neo-Nazi movement both in the United States and even right here in Canada.”
The flag went up early Saturday morning (Oct. 3) and was quickly removed by Town staff, Thomas said.
Smithers RCMP Staff Sgt. Terry Gillespie confirmed there is no law against displaying the flag, but they are investigating the incident as mischief because the perpetrator or perpetrators may have illegally accessed private property in order to accomplish its hanging.
He said no witnesses have come forward and they have no suspects.
The RCMP also has an open file on an incident involving Ministry of Transportation digital traffic signs being hacked the previous weekend. The road paving messages that had been displayed were replaced by messages including “Trump 2020,” “F*** Trudeau,” and “COVID-19 is a hoax.”
Gillespie said investigators have no evidence the two incidents are related, but acknowledged someone inclined to do one, might also be inclined to do the other.
This is not the first time Confederate flags have been raised on Main Street. In 2016, shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump was elected, the flag showed up on one of the Town’s flag standards.
For some, raising the flag is a matter of free speech, but for others it rises to the level of hate speech and has been the subject of much debate. In Ohio this summer a bill proposing to prohibit the display and sale of the flag in public spaces was defeated in the State House of Representatives.
Thomas and Bachrach said they want to give whoever hung the flag the benefit of the doubt, but said there is no place for it in Smithers.
“To believe in the best in people means to believe that whoever hung the flag neither understood its connection to neo-Nazis nor intended to cause harm to others,” they wrote. “If that is the case, they have an opportunity to learn. However, if they did intend to cause harm, if they knew exactly what they were doing, then leaders at all levels have a responsibility to act swiftly and decisively in denouncing their actions.”
Other leaders from across the political spectrum have also denounced the action.
In a press release Oct. 3, the Wet’suwet’en Dinï’ze, Tsakë’ze and Skiy’ze said they were disappointed to see the flag on Main Street.
“The confederate flag is widely known as a symbol of white supremacy, the oppression of people of colour, and as a symbol of hate,” the release stated. “These kinds of racist acts are not acceptable and add further harm to our families’ wellbeing, especially the wellbeing of our children. We urgently ask for the public assistance to help identify who placed the flag and they be held accountable for their actions.”
Stikine provincial election candidate Nathan Cullen took a decidedly angry tone in a Facebook post.
“Everyone should live free of intimidation and brutal signs of racism and oppression,” he said.
“Whatever coward strung up a confederate flag on Main St., Smithers — know that you are wrong, unsupported and not going to scare anyone away.”
Rod Taylor, who is running against Cullen and a tireless advocate for free speech, however unpopular, downplayed the relevance of the Confederate flag in Canada, but nevertheless was not in favour of it being displayed in Smithers.
“I acknowledge the Confederate flag is not a good symbol,” he said. “There’s no benefit and probably a lot of harm in using it as a display in Canada… I just see it stirring up trouble so I would encourage those who have done this to find another way of expressing themselves.”