Smithers is a good community. It’s a place where people look out for each other and pull together when times are tough. This caring spirit has been more evident than ever during the past months of this pandemic. Smithers has also become increasingly welcoming of diversity and more inclusive in our shared sense of who belongs.
Why would someone who lives in a town like ours wish to make their neighbours feel unsafe and unwelcome? This past weekend that is exactly what happened when someone went to great lengths to string a Confederate flag across Main Street in the community we love and call home.
It’s not the first time this has occurred. In 2016, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, someone hung the same flag off one of our town’s municipal banner poles. We immediately tore it down and the next day another was in its place.
As leaders, we could simply turn our heads and look the other way but we feel we have a civic duty to directly confront these hurtful actions.
The Confederate flag is a specific symbol with a specific history. 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.
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. 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.
Surely, you’ll agree that the hatred and intolerance symbolized by the Confederate flag has no place in our communities, nor in Canada. We’ve said it ourselves, yet if that were actually true, we wouldn’t be where we are now. By collectively turning away we’ve allowed it to have a place here. It shows up in all sorts of mundane everyday spots – on bumper stickers, at the end of people’s driveways – blind to the deep hurt it causes others.
South of the border, we can see how leadership that fails to address hate allows it to propagate and fester. We must not allow that to occur here. We must call it for what it is and confront it with every ounce of courage we can muster.
Black people, Indigenous people, other people of colour, and LGBTQ people all deserve to feel safe in our communities.
The Confederate flag sends the opposite message and it should be tolerated no longer.
Casda Thomas is Smithers’ acting mayor
Taylor Bachrach is the MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley