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December 8, 2001

Show some pride and raise the flag

Christie Blatchford
National Post

Ottawa is a government town, which is why I avoid it like the plague.

Politicians, bureaucrats, half-milers, candy-arses, fart-catchers, spinners, lobbyists, palm-greasers, palm-greasees, 9-5ers: I wouldn't last a week in this crowd without imploding or exploding, and to my credit, realized this early on in my working life and cunningly turned down the several chances I had to cover Parliament Hill.

The rare wisdom of this decision was driven home to me last week.

On Thursday morning, I learned that the flags on all Canadian ships in port were flying at half-mast (the national flag is important to members of the armed forces, and unlike most of their fellow citizens, they actually notice and give a damn what happens to it).

A few phone calls and all became clear.

Dec. 6 is the anniversary of the Montreal massacre, when 14 young female engineering students were slaughtered by a lone gunman at the Université de Montréal in the worst mass murder in the country; Parliament had already years ago designated the date a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women; violence against women, in general, has been sanctified by the Liberal party as a state horror: Ergo, this year, the appropriate government ministry, those happy folks at Canadian Heritage, decreed that all the federal flags in the country should be lowered in memory of the Montreal victims and, you know, all female victims everywhere.

Now, there was no consultation with ordinary Canadians, with Members of Parliament or, amusingly as it turns out, even with Heritage Minister Sheila Copps. Heavens to Murgatroid, she all but said yesterday, she had no idea how it happened.

She's the boss: She should have known. She's still responsible.

In any case, neither did Ms. Copps disapprove, or vow to reverse, the first-ever nationwide Dec. 6 half-masting.

As the National Post reported yesterday, this orgy of sunrise-to-sunset flag-lowering is far more than the federal government does every year on Remembrance Day to honour the 100,000-plus young Canadian men who were killed while serving the country in two world wars and Korea. On Nov. 11, Ottawa half-masts only one flag for the fallen soldiers -- the one on the Peace Tower; On Dec. 6 this year, Ottawa half-masted the Peace Tower flag, and hundreds and hundreds of others, including, improbably, those on the five Canadian ships now deployed in the Arabian Sea.

Ms. Copps' solution, as presented yesterday, was to pledge to see to it that all federal flags are also lowered next Nov. 11.

The better answer, from where I sit, would be to stop doing it for Dec. 6.

I didn't cover the Montreal massacre; I remember it probably as most people do -- the stark picture of one dead woman slumped over in a cafeteria chair under a Bonne Année banner; the school-type photos of the 14, their faces young and shining and full of promise; how their killer, Marc Lepine, had deliberately singled out the female students and cried "I want the women!"

But what I also remember was how this genuinely shocking crime was so quickly twisted into something it never was.

Lepine was a sad, bitter, furious failure who hated feminists -- clearly a rare bird.

Yet he was portrayed as the extreme version of a much more common creature, the ordinary guy who acts violently, one way or another, to the women in his life. Lepine killed women; other men rape, attack or stalk women; others treat them crudely, verbally abuse them or sexually harass them. This was the start of the old continuum-of-violence school, which pronounced all men a little bit guilty and responsible for what Lepine did, and all women a little bit victimized for what had happened to their sisters at the École Polytechnique .

This was lousy logic then and now, and it's not how it is for men and women in this country, and especially not in Ottawa, where there is such ingrained orthodoxy of thought on this issue (well, to be fair, on many others too) that one of Ms. Copps' press aides, a man, appeared genuinely stunned when I first asked him about the flag business the other night.

Me: "Why are all the flags half-masted for the Montreal victims?"

Him, startled: "Why? Is there something wrong with that?"

A little later, he asked if he could tell me something off-the-record. Nope, I said, but he was persistent and I finally relented -- just in case there was some mitigating circumstance I should know about. There wasn't. The aide lowered his voice.

"It's not just the Montreal women," he said, "it's because the scourge of violence against women is such a universal problem."

In Canada? Where last week, in the nation's capital, every man with a pinch of political savvy was cheerfully sporting one of the white ribbons which showed his sorrow and solidarity with women-fighting-violence- against-women or men-enjoined-with-women-fighting-violence- against-women and was just hoping against hope he might be invited to one of the vigils and be allowed to carry a candle if he pulled up the rear and stayed out of TV camera range.

Oh please: Canadian women are in no way oppressed or violated. We are in the main advantaged and protected. This does not mean that some of our number will not be victims of crime, any more than it means that there will not also be male victims of crime. But we ought not to lower the national flag for crime victims, whatever their sex, and however much we collectively feel their loss.

The Canadian Heritage motto reads as follows: "Valuing and Strengthening the Canadian Experience: Connections, Diversity and Choice."

Do you know, there are people in Ottawa who believe this actually means something? Mind you, they're the same pinheads who would half-mast the flag for Dykes on Bikes, if only they'd ask.

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