An example of growing racist complacency
Few symbols in history are as fraught with meaning as Hitler’s swastika. For twelve years the Nazi flag flew, spreading across Europe like a blood stain, and when it arrived in your country, your village, in the arms of jackbooted soldiers, it heralded nothing but terror and murder. It is bound so inextricably to the racism and violence of the Nazi party, its meaning so singular, that it is now banned in Germany. In the 74 years since it last flew as a national flag, that meaning has not changed, and although the swastika itself was appropriated by Hitler from Hindu culture, in the context of the Nazi banner, or graffiti scrawled on a synagogue wall, there is no once-pure cultural meaning of the symbol to be reclaimed. There is only one reason to fly the Nazi flag: to threaten and intimidate those who were once targets of the regime.
This is what makes the mincing, cowardly approach that Saskatchewan news media has taken to covering the story of the Kelliher man who refused to be cowed by his neighbour’s open embrace of white nationalist iconography so grotesque. After seeing his neighbour raise the Confederate and Nazi flags over his home, and after the RCMP did little more than pay a friendly visit to “voice community concerns” (Leader-Post, May 14, no byline) and receive verbal confirmation that the racist would remove his racist icons at some point when the weather was more pleasant, an Indigenous resident took matters into his own hands, removing the flags and torching them.
There is much that can and should be said about the RCMPs coddling of the racist, about Canada’s laws regarding the display of hateful insignia, as well as the mayor of Kelliher’s inability to understand that racist threats in the form of violent iconography cannot be chalked up to an individual being “harebrained,” but what struck me most about this story was the media’s complete abdication of their responsibility to accurately convey the serious threat that the open embrace and display of Nazi – and Confederate – symbols poses to a community.
“The swastika is a symbol with many styles and meanings,” the Leader-Post reported, reading like a history assignment from the world’s most un-woke sixth grader. “[It] is commonly seen to represent racial supremacism.” In their initial reporting of the situation – before the flags were torched, but after photos of them had exploded on social media – they used the words “symbols of hate” in quotations, as though it was not an objective fact that the Nazi flag is symbolic of humanity’s most depraved manifestations of hatred, and mournfully reported that the racist had “his own personal struggles.”
CBC hardly managed better, headlining their story about the incident “RCMP investigate alleged theft and burning of Nazi flag,” like the critical takeaway was that someone’s yard décor had been interfered with. CBC Saskatchewan ultimately published a story about Holocaust survivor and current Kelliher resident Gerrit de Gooijer and his horror and disgust at seeing the flag that brought such terror and violence hoisted over his neighbour’s house. But the May 19th story quickly pivoted to an explanation of how “well-regarded” the family who owns the home is in the community, adding that the man who hoisted the flag is “troubled,” as though it is somehow natural for someone who is troubled to turn to racism and hate, when in reality, millions of “troubled” people manage not to fly the swastika over their house.
CTV, Global, and the national media all followed the same arc, with most reports earnestly adding that it is “not illegal” to fly the Nazi flag. In doing so, they falsely equate the law with justice, and suggest that for something to be legal, that must also make it right. They forget that all the atrocities committed under the Nazi banner were committed within the bounds of law.
None of the stories mentioned the rapid increase in hate groups like Soldiers of Odin, as well as more insidious groups like United We Roll, who embrace violent, xenophobic rhetoric, and are in turn embraced by the Conservative Party of Canada. None commented on Statistics Canada’s finding that racial hate crimes, ranging from woman having their hijabs pulled off, to the arguably racially motivated murder of Anishinaabe woman Barbara Kentner in 2017, to the 2016 mosque shooting in Quebec, are on a steep rise. None of them interviewed experts on the psychological impact that seeing hateful iconography has on those whom it targets, nor did they report the Canadian Anti-Hate Group’s finding that the radicalization process moves quickly from consuming hateful material and embracing racist symbolism to organizing in real life. None of the stories reported on Saskatchewan’s long history with extremist racism, the way the Klan flourished here less than 100 years ago.
Hate is alive and well in Canada, and is not abstract, but deadly. Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence is burgeoning in this country. New trespassing laws and carbines in the hands of conservation officers threaten the lives of Indigenous people in this province, particularly in rural regions like Kelliher, near the Muskowekwan First Nation. And yet the major news outlets refuse to call someone or something that is unequivocally racist, racist. They must hedge their statements with “alleged,” they must coddle and excuse racists by stressing that they’re “troubled.” And yet they would not take that kind of care with the identity of the man who torched the racist banner, publishing his name, his photo, his race, and his home community..
In this, and in all environments, the media has an ethical duty to take all acts of hatred – including the open embrace of icons of hatred – seriously. They have a professional obligation to provide readers with critical context to help them see clearly how local events fit into the wider picture of the state of the country and the world. They must call racism, white supremacy, and hatred by name. In this, the mainstream media in Saskatchewan has utterly failed.