I’ve never been a flag waver. My patriotism is a little closer to the bone. It doesn’t need bells and whistles. Since the late 90’s, however, I have made a point of flying a flag on Canada Day, but the one I fly is the Red Ensign. Here’s why.
In the late 90’s I was playing a series of Arts and Culture gigs in rural Manitoba. Playing for local Arts councils is usually a good time. Most of the tickets are sold on subscription, so no worries about attendance. The sound is often great because you are playing in the local theatre or arts centre-the equipment has been kept up to date and the sound person is a professional.
On one of the stops on the tour, though, things went sideways.
The Theatre was beautiful-one of those halls built in the 1920’s when all music was acoustic music. There was going to be a good sized crowd.
I arrived at the appointed time for the soundcheck. The President of the arts council was there to greet me and show me around. As I was putting my stuff on the stage she introduced me to the sound guy. She apologized and said that their regular tech wasn’t there but that X would do. She seemed dismissive of him, but I didn’t think much of it.
Then we started the soundcheck.
It was obvious that the guy didn’t have a clue. It’s wasn’t that he was a sound guy and was useless. He really didn’t have a clue how the board worked, what a monitor was…anything. The Pres could sense the tension and started berating the guy, which really wasn’t helping matters.
I didn’t have time to get bent out of shape about it. I’d mixed enough to know I could get it all up and running and sounding decent. I went to the sound desk, got levels into the ball park, labelled the board and then had the guy make minor adjustments. Once we had it sorted, I showed him the master volume. “ That’s the only one you have to worry about,” I said.
The Pres had left by this time and it was just the tech and me in the hall. I asked him why he was doing the sound, it was clear that he didn’t know what was going on.
He said that he would help out the regular tech on concert nights because he just couldn’t afford tickets. They had just assumed that he could do the job when the other guy couldn’t.
I asked what his regular gig was and he looked a bit shy.
He was just out of prison, he said. He took whatever work he could, but jobs were hard to find for him. It was a small town, everyone knew he was an ex-con.
It clicked for me why the Pres had been dismissive of him.
After the show I helped him pack up. He asked me if i wanted to get a beer. I said sure. He didn’t like going to the bars, too easy to get into trouble, he said. We went back to his bachelor apartment and he cracked some beers.
We talked about this and that, keeping it light.
After about an hour I was done in and wanted to get some shut eye.
He thanked me for hanging out and then rummaged in a box in the bottom of his closet. He pulled out a red piece of cloth and put in front of me.
I want you to have this, he said.
I unfolded it. It was a Red Ensign, the old unofficial flag of Canada before we adopted the maple leaf in 1965. He found it, he said, in a store room at York Factory, on the shores of Hudson Bay. He’d been part of a prison work party who had gone up there to clean the place out and get it ready for its designation as a national historical monument.
Thanks for being kind, he said.
That guy was trying his best, but he would forever be an ex-con. He’d paid his debt to society for whatever it was he had done. He was rehabilitated, but neither the Pres of the arts council or the local bartender were ever going to let him forget he had been a convict.
I fly that flag every Canada day to remind me of the Canada that we are supposed to be living in. The Canada that my parents worked to create. A place where we take care of the hindmost, and who aside from an ex-con is more in need of our help and encouragement?
That Canada is being dismantled before our eyes. As a nation we have become meaner, less caring, less involved in community, more polarized. This is something that has been done from the top down by people who should know better. It’s being done by people who want to burn the ladder they climbed up on. Flying a flag won’t change that, but it will remind me that everyday, we have to try to build a more caring and inclusive country.