The flag on the mountain

Someone put a flag up on the mountain. Standing at the edge of the lake it flaps and waves high up where they helicopter-logged a few years back.

Someone put a flag up on the mountain. Standing at the edge of the lake it flaps and waves high up where they helicopter-logged a few years back.

It’s a sheer slope, rugged and heavily treed. Getting there must have taken some gumption and the flag, the scarlet and white of it hard against the green, is a statement to that grit.

It takes you back as everything out on the land has a tendency to do. Back to when you first saw the waving glory of it.

Victoria Day 1965. I’d been adopted and moved from northern Ontario to Bradford, then a small town an hour’s drive from Toronto. By the time that holiday rolled around I’d been in my new home about a month.

Then, I felt as though I’d been plunked down on Mars. There was nothing of the world I had known for the first nine years of my life.

Bradford was on the edges of the Holland Marsh. There, the land is flat, treeless, devoted to the reaping of vegetables and the water flows through irrigation canals all brown and muddy.

There was no bush, no pink granite outcroppings, no cliffs overlooking a lake, no open vistas. Instead, life among the Martians was odd, restrictive and colourless.

In the school where they sent me, I was the only Indian kid. In fact, I was the only brown face anywhere. The Martians, it seemed, were pale, with names like McLaughlin, Reid, Carpenter and Wesley.

Sitting in the tight formal rows of Bradford Elementary School I was weird, otherworldly, exotic, perhaps, and more than a little uncomfortable. Trying to fit in was hard when you constantly battle gravity. There’s a loopy feel like in a dream when every placing of the foot is weightless.

In the class photo from that year I stuck out in that sea of white faces like a fencepost in a field of snow.

It was lonely but there was no one to tell. It was devastating. There was a huge, gaping hole in me that I had once used the land to fill, wandering for hours dreaming childish dreams of being lifted up and out, set down in a marvelous world where no one ever left and time was elastic, stretching out forever.

I didn’t know how to move there. It was like the edges of my body had become blurred and I could not find a space to hold me, where I fit. Everything, even the language, the colloquial urban schoolboy rap, was new and hard on the ears. But there was no one to tell.

Then, one day, the teacher announced the upcoming Queen’s Birthday as we called it then. She went on to explain that for the first time, Bradford would raise the new Canadian flag on the Friday before the holiday weekend.

There would be a band, the mayor would speak and there was to be a special ceremony to mark the raising of the new Canadian symbol.

Prime Minister Lester Pearson had pushed the flag through Parliament in February of that year.

The teacher said that the school wanted someone very special to raise the flag. The principal and the mayor had chosen me.

She said my people represented the original face of Canada and they wanted to honour that by having me raise the new flag. My classmates looked at me with a new respect.

But when the day came, I was nervous. There was going to be a news photographer there and my picture would be in the paper. There would be a big crowd. I was dressed in new clothes, my shoes shined and I was instructed very severely in how to behave. I sat in my chair barely able to listen to the speeches. Then they called my name.

The band struck up the first notes in O Canada. My hands grasped the lanyard. As the song began to swell I hauled on that rope and the flag inched up the pole then caught in the breeze, fluttered and began to wave.

As I watched it gain the sky I felt honoured. I felt filled with a crazy sense of possibility like that flag could make anything happen.

Right then, I believed that Canada was a wish, a magic breath waiting to be exhaled. I believed that the song was a blessing and the flag was its standard.

I believed, as I had been told, that my people were special, that I was special and that the blessings of that song and flag fell equally on my shoulders, too. The true North, strong and free.

Well, life happens and the road of it led me through the length and breadth of Canada. I have learned that the song is a dirge at times, a wail, a cry in the night.

I have learned that its chorus excludes some voices and that the clamour of it, hidden in the thunder of the trumpets and the snap of the drums, is the holler of common voices, screaming to be heard.

The flag is a symbol of the separation between the red and the white. It’s hugely ironic because of that.

But I love this country. I love that flag. The majority of native people do. Every land claim, every barricade, every protest is less a harangue for rights and property than it is a beseeching for the promise offered in that flag, represented by it. Equality. A shared vision, a shared responsibility. A wish, a held breath waiting to be exhaled.

Someone struggled up that mountain to plant that flag. Someone carried in them a wish for others to see this country as they do, for the flag to remind them that this land is a blessing and to live here an honor. It flaps in the breeze of this mountain morning, over everything, over every one.

It reminds us that there is hope, that there is a reward for the struggle toward justice, toward equality.

Life sometimes is a mountain, and scaling it is arduous, demanding. But the payoff is the view, the country below us, its people, glorious and free.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.