The upcoming Whitehorse Heritage Festival was supposed to celebrate friendship and diverse cultures.
Instead, it has caused an international controversy.
The problem lies in a simple flag to be flown during the festival’s parade.
To represent the members of the Whitehorse Vietnamese community, event organizers planned to raise the Vietnamese flag.
However, this flag — red with a yellow star — represents the Communist Party that has ruled the nation since 1975.
Most Vietnamese Canadians came to Canada as political refugees fleeing the oppressive regime.
“Millions of people, Vietnamese people, died under the Red Flag,” said Hung Nguyen, a member of Whitehorse’s Vietnamese community.
“I don’t know why the heritage people chose the Red Flag.”
Instead, the community would like to be represented by the old Vietnamese flag — a yellow banner with three horizontal red stripes — which has been dubbed the Heritage and Freedom Flag.
About 40 Vietnamese Canadians live in Whitehorse.
Of the 30 adult members of the community, Nguyen has received 23 signatures of those who support being represented by the yellow Freedom Flag.
The remaining seven, members of two separate families, didn’t want to get involved, he said.
Nguyen sent the signatures to Tourism and Culture Minister Elaine Taylor.
The Vietnamese community has also voiced its concerns to the organizers of the heritage festival.
So far, they have not received a reply.
To support Whitehorse’s small Vietnamese community, representatives of various local and national Vietnamese rights groups will be coming to the territory this weekend.
Nguyen is unsure exactly how many Vietnamese people will be coming north to attend the heritage festival but there will be visitors from Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa.
“I think there’s going to be lots of people,” said Nguyen.
“They want to protect our beloved (Freedom) Flag. They don’t accept the Red Flag.”
There will be at least two people coming from Vancouver.
One of them is Hai Le, the editor of Vietnam Magazine in Vancouver.
In 1980, Le said goodbye to his homeland and pushed off to sea in a small wooden boat.
He used the rickety craft, which was built for the rivers of Vietnam, to make his way nearly 1,000 kilometres across the South China Sea.
It took him seven days to reach Malaysia.
“The weather was very, very calm,” Le said from his Vancouver home on Tuesday.
“If it wasn’t, I would not be here to talk to you today.”
Why take such a risk?
After the US pulled out of the country in 1975, the Communist North took over the country.
South Vietnamese allies of the U.S. faced years of imprisonment, hard labour and death.
Le, who had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, was put in jail for five years without trial.
When he was released in 1980, he was required to report to Communist Party officials on a weekly basis.
He fled the country instead.
More than 1.6 million South Vietnamese refugees fled their country between the spring of 1975 and the late 1980s — most, like Le, in tiny boats bound for Malaysia.
At least one quarter of the boat people died at sea due to storms, piracy, illness and food shortages, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Many of those refugees came to Canada.
The Whitehorse Heritage Festival will take place throughout the weekend and is being organized by a collective consisting of people from Filipino, Latino, French, East Indian and Vietnamese cultures.
The purpose of the festival, according to the group’s mission statement, is to bring the different ethnic groups together and give each culture the opportunity to showcase its artistic and culinary talents.
Busy with producing the festival, organizer Deb Jutra was unavailable for comment by press time.
In an e-mailed response to Nguyen Gia Hung, of Whitehorse, Jutra said the festival was committed to remaining politically neutral.
It would not fly the communist flag in the grand march, she said.
The News has received more than 20 e-mails from the Vietnamese community on the issue, including one from the Vietnamese embassy, written in Vietnamese. An English version could not be obtained before press time.
What’s in a flag?
The yellow flag was first used by the Trung sisters who employed the banner during their revolt against China in 40 AD.
It was adopted as the national flag in the early 19th century and the three horizontal red stripes were later added to represent the northern, central and southern regions of the country.
When the country split along ideological lines, the flag came to represent the southern Republic of Vietnam.
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the Communist government in the North under Ho Chi Minh, adopted a red flag with a yellow star.
With the North’s victory over the South in 1975, the red flag flew over the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
In the US, 11 states and 113 cities have adopted resolutions recognizing the yellow Freedom Flag.
This morning, a letter was sent from Sydney, Australia, to both Taylor, and Jutra.
Anh-Linh Pham, a Vietnamese refugee living in Australia, championed the Freedom Flag, noting it was used to represent the refugees during the recent World Youth Day in Sydney.
“Only the golden flag is chosen by the Vietnamese people — once away from Vietnam — who have a choice to adopt the symbol of freedom, democracy and human rights,” she wrote.
“The 84 millions of Vietnamese inside Vietnam have no choice, therefore they have to use the imposed Red Flag, although against their will.”