Precedent of flag removal requires rethink

There is a flag pole conspicuously missing a flag down at the Ron A. Irwin Civic Centre. Mayor Christian Provenzano chose to have the Russian flag taken down on Feb. 26. He announced the decision in a series of tweets.

Has the meaning of those international flags become untethered?

The flags were hoisted for the city’s founding nations. Does what’s happening in Ukraine change the fact that hardworking Russian immigrants help to build our city? No.

According to Jeffrey Ougler’s Feb. 26 Sault Star article, Russian flag removal from in front of Civic Centre ‘appropriate decision’: Mayor, Provenzano made the decision alone as the next council meeting wasn’t until March 22.

I do believe that Provenzano removed the flag with the best of intentions; as I know many people are looking for a way to show their support to Ukraine. But let’s find an alternative that supports Ukraine clearly without feeling like we’re trying to change history.

In the article, Ougler wrote: “Provenzano agreed removing the Russian flag is a ‘significant statement’ and one that may be ‘bothersome’ to some.” It is definitely a significant statement; and a dangerous precedent.

A city representative informed me that “there is no specific policy regarding the international flags in front of the Civic Centre.” Now, we need a policy, otherwise a less benevolent mayor could theoretically remove the flags of all the countries that they don’t like.

Ougler wrote: “The mayor insisted the city’s actions shouldn’t be taken as a ‘slight’ to individual Russians or persons of Russian heritage.” Also, regarding Putin, Provenzano told Ougler: “His actions shouldn’t colour all of the rest of the Russian population. But the reality is he is the leader of Russia.”

By removing the Russian flag, Provenzano is colouring Putin and the Russian people, in one of their nation’s colours — red — for shame or anger. How can it not be taken as a slight to Russians and those of Russian heritage in our community? If Putin himself was the Sault’s only community-building Russian, I could probably better digest the flag removal. Though, if that were the case, to be fair, we’d need to have a larger discussion about cancel culture for other questionable local founding fathers.

Provenzano’s decision makes it feel like we, as a city, are all in agreement that Russian immigrants cannot be appreciated for helping to build Sault Ste. Marie until this conflict is resolved. He tweeted: “It will remain down so long as Russia continues its unlawful and unprovoked attack against Ukraine.”

What could his tweet say when the flag goes back up that won’t sound patronizing? “We now return to our regularly scheduled programming. We appreciate our Russian community-builders again?” I’d like to avoid that awkwardness by putting the flag representing Russian immigrants’ back up, and by supporting Ukraine another way. There are alternatives.

Firstly, the simplest decision would have been to do what Sudbury did with their Bridge of Nations, which is nothing. We could be like them and keep politics out of our community builders’ heritage flags. Conflicts will come and go, but who founded our city remains the same. On that basis alone, the Russian flag should stay up.

Flying the Ukrainian flag at half-mast to show our sorrow and respect for the lives lost, seems most appropriate. That is the point of half-masting. A third option, standalone or in conjunction with either of the above, is that the city flag could be half-masted; to directly show that our mayor and city are mourning with Ukraine.

Our city flag policy says nothing about the mayor’s discretion to remove a flag, but does give the mayor and CAO some discretion around half-masting. Half-masting the flag of Ukraine would demonstrate our support in a visible and clear manner, and it’s less alienating to our community members of Russian heritage.

Regardless, we truly need to consider how removing the flag creates a significant precedent for this city moving forward. For future global conflicts, will the mayor be expected to pick a side and then remove the other flag? Seems like a slippery slope.

No matter how much the mayor supports Ukraine, we can’t rewrite history and say that Russian immigrants didn’t help build the Sault. For the March 22 council meeting, wouldn’t it be easier to put the Russian flag back up and fly Ukraine’s flag at half-mast? Let’s rethink this precedent setting flag removal and keep the flags honouring our city’s immigrants apolitical.

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