Toronto’s mayor boycotted a Chinese flag-raising ceremony. Vancouver stopped a while ago. Here’s why some say the whole country should follow suit

Toronto’s mayor boycotted a Chinese flag-raising ceremony. Vancouver stopped a while ago. Here’s why some say the whole country should follow suit

VANCOUVER—On Tuesday, a Hong Kong police officer shot a protester. Last December, China arrested Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, both of whom remain behind bars. Meanwhile, the Chinese government continues to crack down on many groups including Christians, Muslims, artists, journalists and lawyers.

These are just some of the reasons Chinese-Canadians say the rest of the country should follow the example set by Vancouver city hall and refuse to hoist the red flag of the People’s Republic of China over government buildings.

“Canadians should think twice about the kind of message flying the Chinese flag sends — people in China could see this and think that the Chinese government controls Canada,” said Gao Bingchen, a Vancouver-based writer and community activist originally from Beijing.

On Monday, John Tory became one of the first Canadian mayors outside of Vancouver to weigh into the conversation about China when he boycotted the ceremonial raising of the Chinese flag at city hall to mark 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China under Chinese Communist Party leadership.

Tory’s office cited ongoing “issues between Canada and China,” as the reason he did not attend Monday’s ceremony, adding, “The mayor believes in democracy and the rule of law.”

But two Toronto city councillors attended the flag-raising, facing dozens of protestors who turned up to noisily oppose it. The scene hearkened back to similar outrage in 2016 after politicians wore red scarves while observing the raising of the Chinese flag at Vancouver city hall.

Vancouver has not raised the Chinese flag again — a move that has sparked a conversation in other municipalities.

Mayors of the largest Metro Vancouver cities will not take part in China National Day celebrations, nor will they raise Chinese flags at city halls this week, according to statements sent to Star Vancouver.

A City of Vancouver spokesperson said Tuesday that the decision was made in 2017 to forgo a ceremonial flag-raising for other countries because there was “no space” for it in a new plaza.

Gao, who was part of the group that organized the protests in 2016, said it was the right move even if the city denies it was a political decision.

“For sure, immigrants from China have many different views of their motherland and some are indeed patriotic. But the public doesn’t see the more critical perspectives because many of us fear personal safety or economic consequences if we openly speak up,” said Gao, who says he wouldn’t feel safe returning to Beijing to work as a journalist.

Canada-China relations have soured since the December arrest of Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on an extradition request by the United States.

China then arrested Canadians Spavor and Kovrig, and continues to detain them to this day on vague charges related to national security. The Chinese government also toughened the sentence of a Canadian held on drug charges — changing a 15-year prison sentence to the death sentence — and blocked Canadian canola exports to China.

Metro Vancouver area mayor Rob Vagramov, whose family escaped from unrest in Ukraine during the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s, said that “as someone who immigrated from a totalitarian Communist state,” he would not support flying the Chinese flag over Port Moody’s city hall.

“The recent tensions between our two nations is a good start, but China’s long and detailed history of gross human rights violations that has spanned decades brings up too many reasons to list,” Vagramov told Star Vancouver in an email.

The Star sent questions to the offices of 17 municipalities in Metro Vancouver with a population larger than 17,000 people.

The City of Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Surrey, Delta, Port Moody, Maple Ridge, Richmond, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, the District of North Vancouver, the City of Langley and the Township of Langley all responded saying their mayors have no plans to raise China’s flag at their respective city halls or to take part in other National Day celebrations.

“To answer your questions: there will be no flag raising ceremony, there never has been and no I’m not attending any events related to the CCP taking power,” wrote Brad West, Port Coquitlam’s mayor.

“I think that raising the flag of the country that has two Canadian citizens held hostage is not only inappropriate, it’s just simply wrong,” West wrote in an email.

“There are many ways to celebrate the contributions of Chinese Canadians without glorifying the heinous actions of the government of China.”

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“We fly the flags of Canada, British Columbia and the City at City Hall,” said a spokesperson for Richmond, a multicultural city where more than 54 per cent of the population identifies as Chinese.

The other municipalities did not respond to questions before publication time.

Mabel Tung, chair of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement, notes there are an estimated 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong living in a precarious situation in the fourth month of protests in the semi-independent Chinese city.

In Hong Kong on Tuesday, during a mass protest against China’s National Day, a police officer used a revolver to shoot a man in the chest during a day of bitter clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters. He survived and was taken to a hospital.

Instead of flying the flag of mainland China, Canadians should support the struggles of protesters to “safeguard Hong Kong’s promised autonomy from China under the one country, two systems” arrangement, Tung told Star Vancouver.

On Monday, online photos of Harjit Sajjan, the federal defence minister, and other Canadian politicians at a China National Day event also raised eyebrows of critics of the Chinese regime.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Sajjan’s re-election campaign said the minister delivered brief remarks before departing the dinner event organized by the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver on Sept. 22.

During his speech, “Mr. Sajjan took the opportunity to state that the Chinese government needed to address the consular cases of the two arbitrarily detained Canadians,” said Todd Michael Lane.

A Toronto city spokesperson told the Star on Tuesday the Chinese flag has been raised annually for a “number of years” in observance of the City of Toronto Flag Policy, which allows courtesy flag-raising on anniversaries and national days of nations recognized by the Canadian government.

The policy is now being reviewed, though according to the spokesperson, this review began “long before the Chinese flag request became news.”

Charles Burton, an expert on China relations with the Macdonald Laurier Institute think tank, argues that flying the People’s Republic of China flag “plays into the discourse that the PRC represents all Chinese,” when millions of people of Chinese origin are also citizens of places like Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

With files from David Rider, Wanyee Li and Jolson Lim, iPolitics

Joanna Chiu

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