CANADA: OUR FLAG, AN EVER-CHANGING IDENTITY
Canadians are well-known for being, let’s say, a bit less than nationalistic. Our pride rarely manifests itself in loud ways, but we do hold within us a certain quiet respect and recognition that we are immensely lucky to be Canadian. Our nationalism, remarkably, manifests itself most often as care – care for righting the wrongs of our history, care for our planet and care for others.
It was with this sense of quiet care that my mother arrived in Kabul almost 12 years ago to start the Sparks Academies, what has now developed into six schools that offer education to the local communities, from birth all the way to adulthood.
Afghanistan, and its people, have been through so much in the past decades. It has been the battleground for international political agendas that instigated internal struggles, between a desire for self-determination and a power-hungry band of unstable gangsters. The community that my family encountered in Kabul was largely a community of recently returned, bone- weary people. They were arriving back in their country in search of a reason to continue to hope.
My mother was born to parents who experienced a similar loss of home, during the partition of India and Pakistan. She understood the struggle of widows from watching her own mother raise seven children alone in Uganda, following her father’s sudden passing. Most importantly, as a mother she knew that the greatest gift of hope for communities is to see their children live a better life than they did. She went to work immediately to start these schools.
The primary ethic that my mother held at all times was that a mediocre education would not be “good enough” for the children she was teaching. It should be equal to that which her own children received here in Canada. It is impressive enough to arrive in an embattled nation to start a school, but to do so with the seemingly impossible goal of achieving high quality required a level of commitment, and, truly, a level of care that was both fierce and unwavering. In her care for Afghanistan, she knew that our world, the world of Canadians and Afghans alike, would be better for it.
In those early days, we put up a Canadian flag, side-by-side with the Afghan flag, in the school’s main classroom. We wanted our students to know that Canadians cared for them, cared about their futures. We recognized that our care for them was deeply reciprocated when a Canadian was killed in Kabul and the children requested a moment for prayer. Perhaps it is in that image of the two flags side-by-side that something truly powerful emerged.
For a country of people relatively impervious to bouts of nationalism, the flag rarely enters our consciousness. In the 50 years that our flag has existed, Afghanistan has had 14 different flags. This statistic offered me pause in thinking about what our flag symbolizes in the life of Canadians. In its quiet yet powerful way, our flag of 50 years has symbolized stability.
Not stability of identity. Our identity is ever-changing, and is something that we can and should continue to talk about as we seek to embody the ethics that we hold. Our identity allowed a welcoming space for a person like my mother,
whose own life experience allowed her to understand the Afghan experience in a deeper, more personal, way. It provided the stability for her to show her care to children beyond our borders. And therein lies the challenge of our conversation around identity – it is enormously complex because we aren’t just Canada.
We are our relationships with every other nation in the world. We are the well-being of those nations and those peoples. We are, in a sense, the Canadian flag and the Afghan flag standing up, standing strong, side by side.