Flags and Freedom: A Timeline of the Markham Community Flag Raising Policy Controversy

By: Juni Yeung, TOHK

The Markham City Council has voted just after 7PM on February 11, 2020 at 8-5 to oppose the motion proposed to amend the City’s Community Flag Raising Policy, to eliminate the flying of foreign national flags in Markham-owned facilities except during the visit of a foreign dignitary.

The council chambers gallery, which seats 200, were stuffed to capacity with residents of Markham, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Toronto of all ethnic origins. While 16 deputations were originally scheduled in the minutes of the meeting, an influx of deputation requests made by a largely Chinese audience boosted that number to over 70 separate five-minute speeches that prolonged the session to past 7PM before the Councillors could debate on the motion and vote on their decision. Meanwhile, during several deputations the uproar from the crowd disrupted the progress of the meeting, and had to be brought to order, including individuals having to be escorted out of the chambers.

The Roots of Controversy: National Flags, United Front work, and the sake for “diversity” in the community

According to Robert (Bob) Mok, one of the conveners of the “Markham Flag Raising Concerns” group, the City of Markham has to date raised seven countries’ flags according to the existing Flag Raising Policy: Armenia, China, Greece, India, Pakistan, Philippines, and Turkey. All of these countries are, according to Amnesty International, involved in some kind of rights violations issues – in basic human rights, LGBT rights, in religion and belief, women and children’s rights, and mistreatment of refugees.

While the Community Flag Raising policy has brought some criticism since its enactment in 2011 in Markham, it was the China National Day celebrations and flag raising in 2019 that brought massive, in-person protests and controversy. The People’s Republic of China’s national founding day is situated on October 1, and the local Federation of Chinese Canadians in Markham (FCCM) organized a series of flag raisings in the City of Toronto, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, and Markham every morning from October 3 to 6th. Markham’s was slated for Saturday, October 5 at 10AM in the morning.

In light of the arbitrary detainment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig by China in retaliation over the Meng Wanzhou extradition case, as well as the ongoing democracy protests in Hong Kong over the Extradition Amendment Bill (which have seeped over into Toronto and Markham), all cities have either shied away from endorsing FCCM and the event, or subsequently cancelling the event altogether. When some Markham residents inquired about the City’s decision on continuing with FCCM’s scheduling, Mayor Frank Scarpitti replied in an email that the event “has been cancelled.”

Further inquiry and investigation towards FCCM’s intentions proved otherwise, as Dr. Ken Ng wrote on October 4 in an open letter in response to public inquiry:

The letter from FCCM in response to the inquiry regarding whether the flag raising will continue on Saturday, October 5, 2019.

But most surprising of all, was despite the Mayor’s written response, he appeared on the morning of October 5 at the Markham Civic Centre and was greeted by tens of mainland Chinese individuals, hoisting various organization banners including “Federation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations” and “Canada Toronto Fuqing Business Association.” The FCCM’s logo was not visible save for a little corner on the event poster, hastily pasted on the podium and covering the City of Markham’s official insignia. According to said poster, the flag raising is co-organized along with Celebrate Markham, the City’s community and cultural grants program, and sponsored by the PRC Consulate in Toronto.

Along with the sea of personal-sized People’s Republic of China flags waved by participants and oversized Chinese letters compared to the English text, the occasion seemed more likely to be endorsed by mainland Chinese hometown and business organizations working and promoting their nationalistic fervor abroad rather than Canadian citizens and community groups celebrating a link with the land of their heritage. When the details regarding the flag raising event was questioned during the Council meeting on February 11, Scarpitti vehemently denied Celebrate Markham’s endorsement of the flag raising event, and even questioned whether the Celebrate Markham grant had a logo to use for official purposes. The City Clerk then affirmed that the grant program does have an official logo and was indeed used in the poster, despite Scarpitti’s further denials of funding the event.

Markham Flag Raising Ceremony for China’s National Day, October 5, 2019. Photo courtesy Ng Hoang.

In anticipation of the event going as originally planned, the Flag Raising Concern group, along with members of the Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and Hongkonger communities in Markham and York Region also attended the flag-raising event in protest, touting their own their own Canadian flags as well as flags of Democratic Vietnam, Republic of China (Taiwan) and Hong Kong — flags that would not be eligible to fly on the flagstaff, under the City’s Community Flag Raising Policy.

October 5’s counter-event protest, featuring Canadian flags along with the flags of Democratic Vietnam (centre, yellow with red stripes), the Republic of China (far left and far right). Various flags and symbols of Hong Kong and Hong Kong’s fight for democracy are also present. Several People’s Republic of China flags also are strewn on the ground in the counter-flag raising. Photo credit Ng Hoang.

The two groups were kept largely separate by York Region Police and security on site, but a side episode occurred when someone from the pro-China side attempted to drive by the counter-demonstrators while revving the engine loudly on neutral gear to intimidate them, similar to a previous incident at Toronto’s Old City Hall in mid-August last year. Police on scene immediately lit up their sirens and pulled aside the driver for questioning.

A car attempted to intimidate the counter-protest with a high-speed drive-by, and was promptly arrested by York Regional Police. Photo by TOHK staff.

Committee Meeting: Revealing Dirt on Symbolic Faux-Pas

In response to the massive outpouring of counter-demonstrators to the Markham flag-raising ceremony for China’s national day, Deputy Mayor Don Hamilton motioned to investigate the current flag raising policy on October 7, and the motion was seconded by Ward 5 Councillor Andrew Keyes went through as General Committee resolution on October 22, 2019. The agenda went through to General Committee discussion on the morning February 3, 2020, and was attended by members of the Flag Raising Concern Group to make deputations. The committee in the end passed the motion to council with a 6-5 vote with Councillors Joe Li and Jack Heath absent.

The deputations dealt with not only with the concern about the limited number of actual national flags risen in Markham (all of which have significant cases of human rights issues and its displaced populations in Canada), but the opacity of the Community Flag Raising application’s administrative and logistical process itself. Spearheaded by Mok, the concern group listed out 5 major points of criticism against the City from the China flag raising event:

Markham Flag Raising Concern Group’s statement, February 3, 2020.
  • A lack of transparency regarding the event’s scheduling. Both Dr. Ken Ng of FCCM and Mayor Frank Scarpitti were accused of deceiving public scrutiny, as to “diminish the number of expected protesters at that event next day.”
  • The Policy was preferential and lax: Once approved, subsequent flag raisings for the next 5 years are automatically approved, without any checks for re-approval as “circumstances of any country’s human rights violations or relationships with Canada” change.
  • The Group believed that under national flag policy, the order of the flags was misplaced; meanwhile the Canadian flag flown on that day was faded, tattered, and significantly smaller in dimension to the guest Chinese flag. Furthermore, a flagstaff mechanism malfunction led to the Canadian flag being flown at least 1 foot from top position, thereby visibly depreciating the position of the host country and “a disgrace when it was hung like that on Oct 5, 2019.”
  • The Flag Raising ceremony does little to celebrate heritage and culture, but rather (especially in the case of China) fan nationalist fervor and promote values contrary to Canada’s values and laws on human rights. To continue with raising the flag in equal status would demonstrate to the public that the government is “complicit in them in silence.”
  • FCCM created separate posters for each of their flag raising events of every city, which includes their own logo and the logo from each facilitating city as a co-organizer. But instead of the Markham’s official logo, the Celebrate Markham fund was listed instead, implying sponsorship. Although FCCM was notified on their misuse of the logo, by then the poster has already gone to print and “no evidence that newer versions were issued or that a submission of such poster was made to the city afterwards.”
The Canadian flag beside the guest Chinese flag was smaller, faded, tattered, and flying at least 1 foot from the top position of the mast. The Concern Group accused the City of Markham for allowing this embarrassment to national dignity to happen.

Asides from Mok, Shanta Sundarason, longtime Unionville resident and founder of numerous local community organizations, argued that national flags do little to represent the pluralistic expression of communities here who may or may not choose to identify with their state of origin, citing that all nations which have flag raisings in Markham have current serious human rights issues. Peggy Leung specifically states that the Chinese flag raising “was not a celebration of Chinese culture; [but] support for the Chinese flag and the state it represents.” Citing the now year-long political detainment of the two Michaels, this is an inappropriate time to be honoring that state as equal partners.

The deputation process was mainly an exchange between deputants and supporting councillors versus pro-China councillors who were opposed to the motion, and the resolution ascended to City Council after two and a half hours to a 6-5 vote. While Councillor Andrew Keyes emphasized the difference between representing and celebrating a nation and its people versus a regime or the state it supports (which is not the people), Councillor Amanda Yeung-Colluci counters that banning national flags would deprive people of the right to relate and express the pride of their heritage.

Before the Council Meeting: Mustering a Filibuster

Alarmed by the the motion now officially brought to council and one step away from potentially becoming official policy, the councillors against the policy amendment joined hands with FCCM and the various mainlander merchant associations, and began drumming up support in the community.

One appeal by Wen Jianye or Kenny Wan reads, “racist councillors” in Markham, referring to the ruckus caused by “Hong Kong separatists and Falun Gong anti-Communist individuals, now have an excuse to cancel out the flag-raising ceremony.” Wan argues that “there is no need to bring Chinese politics to Canada. The flag raising uses the Chinese flag because this flag is recognized by the Canadian, as well as most other governments in the world, to represent Chinese people,” yet politicizes the issue by recognizing that “utilizing other countries’ politicians (ie. Markham Councillors) is shameful and unwise.”

大家好!请大家于下周二2月11日下午1点到万锦市市政厅,地址:101 Town Centre Blvd, Markham, ON L3R 9W3 Highway 7和Warden西北面。无论你是否居住在万锦,请来支持市政府继续为是内各族裔进行升旗礼。这是政府对多元文化的体验和对我们族裔的专重。有种族歧视的市议员籍机去年的升旗礼,因有香港港独和法轮功的反共份子前来搞局,现有借口取消升旗礼。我的一贯立场是我们居于外国,是想安居乐业,受当地政府,官员和其他人民的专重和谐生活。没有必要把中国政治带到加拿大。升旗礼用的是中国国旗是因为这国旗是加拿大政府,全世界大部分国家和联合国承认,是代表中国人。我可以专重这些人的不同政治立场,但利用别国政客分化自己中国人,让别国人丑化自己人,实为不智和可耻。有幸万锦市长和其他资深议员明白事理。请大家2月11日下午1点正聚在万锦市市政厅,给支持中国人的议员打气,也是为自己和子孙在加的安居乐业谋幸福。谢谢! 温建业

A message signed WEN Jianye, urging people to attend the council meeting on February 11. Wen, or Kenny Wan by his Anglicized name, is a Chartered Accountant operating in Markham. Translated citation above is in bold.

The FCCM mobilized to create TWO petitions on Change.org, as well as started to circulate messages on WeChat to garner support, and which garnered differing receptions. As of the morning of the Council meeting, there was just a little over 60 signatures on the Change.org site, as the petition (as well as the site) was written in English. In one of the responses was Chris Colluci, husband of Councillor Amanda Yeung-Colluci, noted that all the Councillors motioning for the revision “were all white,” and despite claiming that he’s “NOT making any inferences,” states that the act would be a detriment to the celebration of diversity in Markham.

The Change.org petition was sparsely signed partially because the site is inaccessible on the inbuilt WeChat browser and unshareable on WeChat Moments. Meanwhile, personal pleas like Wan’s circulate in Torontonian community and business groups on Wechat. In a group called “Support Markham Mayor Scarpitti,” a chat record dated February 9 denounces FCCM’s efforts as “a flashy and impractical action” and “a bunch of opportunists.” The message poster would rather “see those who’d do more practical things [i.e. make real contributions] rather than making a spectacle just to get on the news.” The poster also criticizes that in the poll on FCCM’s website, the only two choices at the end are “I support Markham to raise foreign flags in ceremony” and “I very much support Markham…,” which invalidates any response from submitted from any meaningful form of dissent.

The Council Meeting: Chewbacca defenses, (non)debates, and decision

As the Committee motion passed in the absence of two Councillors – Joe Li and Jack Heath, the Council vote hangs in the balance with these critical votes. While pundits from both sides canvassed with the petitions and personal emails to the Councillors, the stake differences between community non-profit organizations versus merchant associations become quite apparent, and shows in the argument they take during the Councillors’ debate, despite the 60+ deputations made just before.

As deputants, audience, supporters, and mass media congregate outside the council chamber doors since late morning, Councillor Yeung-Colluci was seen handing out deputation forms to the Chinese anti-amendment party, claiming that it was a form “to sign and show support for the flag raising. Even if one was not confident of their command of English, [they] are welcome to speak to indicate their disposition for diversity.” This is why despite the initial agenda showing only 16 deputants registered, the actual number exploded with a large line of Chinese supporters making statements that address largely the same argument.

“As a Chinese Canadian brought up in Hong Kong, the flag of the People’s Republic of China has nothing to do with my culture — and it certainly does not make me proud.” Gloria Fung, founder of Canada-Hong Kong Link and worked for over 20 years in the City of Markham testified before Council, rejecting the argument by Councillor Yeung-Colluci that every nation has its one equivalent flag and represents the heritage and culture to celebrate.

Markham resident and anti-amendment supporter Kenny Wan provocatively declared as he pulled out a face mask and dons it on his face, “I wear this mask, not only to prevent the coronavirus; it is to prevent the virus of unrest in other countries being spread into Canada, into Markham.” but but then immediately took down to continue his speech amidst applause from the Chinese crowd. Meanwhile, another resident Anthony Nguyen listed the human rights violations by the CCP, such as organ harvesting, detainment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but was stopped short by Mayor Scarpitti as Nguyen was about to present proclaimed ‘graphic evidence’ onscreen, to much protest by the pro-amendment camp as a form of censorship, and a five-minute holdup of proceedings as the crowd protested against the Council and each other, overheard with plenty of foul language in Mandarin.

Compared to the Committee meeting’s deputations in the previous week, statements in the council meeting was often chaotic and off-track. Since the primary members from the concern group have already spoken during the Committee meeting and by Council regulations were not allowed to speak again, the more technical aspects regarding the October 5 incident as expressed by Mok were not mentioned during this session. Instead, the arguments were mostly moral, often focusing (and digressing) on the totalitarian mishandling of human rights – and by extension, values counter to the Canadian Human Rights Charter.

So then it becomes ironic when Michael Chan, former Liberal MPP of Markham-Unionville was the first deputant after the original 16 on the agenda, who argued that the proposed motion, effectively banning national flags from the Community Flag Raising, was infringing on the personal freedom of expressing their cultural heritage as granted by Section 27 of the Canadian Human Rights Charter (CHRC). This statement was given in direct ignorance of the speech directly previous by Markham resident Norman Beach, who reminded the distinction between nationality and culture. “Canada’s flag represents none of the cultures here, it represents nation[…] a nation that these cultures have built, hence this is why we call ourselves a multicultural state. So this debate about the Chinese flag has nothing to do with multiculturalism, it is about national culture, about a nation.” Beach argues that by flying national flags on city flagpoles on municipally-owned public space, it de facto represents the City of Markham’s stance and endorsement of nations and national politics, despite the Councillors’ denial to the fact.

After all deputations were made at around 1815h, Councillor Usman begins the discussion after also submitting the petition to preserve the existing flag raising policy. “This is exactly what racism is about…it took years to repair the relations with the Chinese when the same issue was raised with Chinese signs in the city.” He emphasized that the Community Flag Raising is an initiative by the community that the City only “celebrates with them.” When he later stated he would support any national flag being raised, a member of the audience provoked him with “How about the Nazi (German) flag?” to which he responded, “OK, usually I won’t respond to a question like that, but I will: You think the Nazis are a country? Is that what it is? Come on!” (Video 5:19:30 to 5:20:01)

Councillors Keyes, McAlpine, Irish and Rea voiced concern that the flag issue is indeed political and incidents like the October 5 flag raising being divisive and, in the words of Irish, “no matter how well-intentioned to the populace, imposes its will upon others[…]and one act for one group is an act against all.” (Video 5:57:00 to 5:57:30)

On the opposition, Isa Lee expressed to take both sides of the argument equally seriously, but could not see how depriving certain groups of their right to raise their country of origin national flags would outweigh the potential offending of others in the act.

Meanwhile, Regional Councillor Joe Li cited, between tears, that despite a long personal grudge against Dr. Ken Ng of FCCM, this is the opportunity to accept the differences and reconcile with “let’s move on,” entirely overlooking the deeper reasons and considerations that the community have repeatedly stated, including heartfelt pleas to him at a train station, explicitly stating “a few angry folks…those are some Chinese people, who are saying, “Hey, stop the flag raising.” Li goes on to note Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters “are lucky to be still alive” and that citing happenings halfway across the world are irrelevant to the local issues at hand. (6:26:00) He also claimed that “in our backyard, we don’t have [democracy],” comparing the democratic and constitutional plight of Hong Kong and China with the Ontario Ford government’s cancelling of regional elections, and therefore are in no position to criticize about human rights. “If you had presented the reasons why you don’t want to raise the flag, I would have listened. Instead, you keep lecturing me about human rights, you keep lecturing me about what happens in other countries, which I am not interested to listen.” (6:29:30 to 6:30:15) His speech was then received with standing ovation, and as Mayor Scarpitti remarked, “even Dr. Ng is standing up!”

The Aftermath: A bad aftertaste for multicultural relations

The Council vote finalized with 8-5, with the original Committee meeting stances unchanged except for Regional Councillor Jim Jones who switched from for to against because “of what was happening south of the border,” plus the two absent votes both voting for no.

According to Ming Pao Canada, Li received numerous scathing letters about his statement just hours after his speech: “You know what, you are a cold-blooded and unsympathetic guy, hope you and your family get coronavirus and die as soon as possible.”

The one-sided display of Markham’s ethnic Chinese Councillors all voting in China’s interest also displays the skewed representation of ‘visible minority members in parliament’ to be unrepresentative of the plural and often opposing interests or concern for human rights and international interests. The case of Markham’s flag raising fiasco exposes only but a glimpse of how networked interests of business and foreign nationalisms collude to trump genuine human rights issues, legacies, and even issues of our current national security — all in the name of ‘celebrating diversity.’

Bank interact 課金給《多聞》:tohk928@gmail.com
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