Justina Ikwu: The Confederate flag at Ottawa’s Bluesfest – A historical perspective

Justina Ikwu

Justina Ikwu

by Justina Ikwu

American tourist Robert Rusaw caused a furor when he wore shorts emblazoned with the Confederate flag at a Bluesfest concert in Ottawa recently. Coming on the heels of the recent race-fuelled murder of nine black church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina, many concert-goers felt this was an insult to the memory of the victims, whose only crime was that they happened to be black. The uproar raises more poignancy in the fact that the history of slave trade in the US is closely intertwined with that of Canada via the “Underground Railroad”, whereby American slaves had found freedom by escaping to Canada. With this background, one would like to trace the origins of the Confederate flag and why Canadians, especially those of African heritage, found Rusaw’s action offensive and repugnant.

A confederacy was formed in the United States of America during the Montgomery Convention in February 1861, before President Lincoln’s inauguration in March. This consisted of states whose regional economy was mostly dependent upon agriculture, particularly cotton, and a plantation system that relied upon the enslavement of African Americans. The confederate states wanted their region to be independent of the larger country. Regionalism became Southern Nationalism or termed the “Cause”. The Southern Caused supported and descended from cultural and financial dependence on the southern states slavery-base economy. During Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860, some secessionist threatened disunion if he was elected because of his opposing perspective on the expansion of slavery into the territories. The confederacy was against the Republican intent to contain slavery within its present bounds, and eventually eliminate it from the country.  This was one of the factors that fueled the civil war that occurred between 1861-1865. After the civil war in 1865, the confederate flag disappeared from states, but surfaced on the state flags of states all across the south during the civil rights movement. The meaning of the flag varies between two perspectives: Civil war (highlighting courage) and the Civil Rights Movement (highlighting the fight against segregation).

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the concept of integration of the whole country was pushed, especially in the south, but the concept of integration was difficult to accept. President Harry.S. Truman had proposed an anti-discrimination bill that among other provisions, would make lynching a federal crime It was at this time that the Confederate flag made its reappearance with the rise of the pro-segregation states’ rights Dixiecarts party.  Although the Dixiecarts fell into obscurity, their campaigns made the flag a fixture in places where it had only been a novelty.

Pictures have surfaced of the Charleston shooter posing with the Confederate flag.  Reports claim that just prior to the shooting, the gun-man had told one of the survivors: “No, you’ve raped our women and you are taking over the country. I have to do what I have to do,”  Roof’s roommate, Joey Meek, told ABC News  that the killer was a huge supporter of segregation and had been plotting this attack for six months.  He also added that Roof wanted to spark a situation that would be bigger than Trayvon Martins’ case and lead to a racial war.

This event has spurred open the box of reality of racial hate we have passively ignored.  Highlighting the action of the Charleston shooter that was focused on racial hate, the flag was displayed on a platform of segregation. It is very unfortunate that it took nine dead bodies, and international attention for the government to debate the underlying meaning of the flag and the need to remove it from the state capital grounds. In the present day, politics and racial war are the vibe experienced in the 1940’s and with every step made towards modernization, this is a step back for mankind.

As cosmopolitans, we should all feel affected and concerned towards the mishap in Charleston, especially Canadians. Canada was seen as a safe heaven for black slaves who had fled from the  the United States to what was then known as British North America. The only way we can fight off discrimination and racial hate is for each of us to take up the role of a humanist, fighting for civility, humanity, and peaceful co-habitation in the world we share.

About the writer

Twenty-one year old Justina Ikwu is a student at the University of Ottawa, majoring  in Health Sciences with a minor in Psychology. She is also the Event Coordinator for the Nigerian Students’ Association at the university. She says she is interested in the life situation of the average human, and also focus on self-empowerment of minds and enhance personal fulfillment. Nigerian-born Justina moderates her own blog themed “Scatteredthoughts”.


[1] Bay, Julienne. “Confederate Flag Sparks Controversy at Bluesfest.” Ottawa Sun. 13 July 2015. Web. 18 July 2015.

[2] Henry, Natasha L. “Underground Railroad.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2 July 2006. Web. 19 July 2015.

[3] Jones, Shannon. “World Socialist Web Site.” 150 Years Ago: The Election of Abraham Lincoln Touches off Secession Crisis -. 24 Dec. 2010. Web. 19 July 2015.[4] Little, Becky. “Why the Confederate Flag Made a 20th Century Comeback.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 26 June 2015. Web. 19 July 2015.

[5] “William Porcher Miles: Designer of the Confederate Battle Flag and Fire Eater.” William Porcher Miles: Designer of the Confederate Battle Flag and Fire Eater. 24 June 2015. Web. 20 July 2015.

[6] “Confederate Stars and Bars.” Flags of the Confederacy. Web. 19 July 2015.

[7] Buchanan, Scott E. “Dixiecrats.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 27 July 2004. Web. 20 July 2015.

[8] Payne, Ed. “Charleston Church Shooting: Who Is Dylann Roof? – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 23 June 2015. Web. 17 July 2015.

[9] Foreman, Tom. “Why the Confederate Flag Still Flies in South Carolina – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 24 June 2015. Web. 19 July 2015.

[10] Deside, Andrew. “California Passes Bill Limiting Display of Confederate Flag.” Mediaite California Passes Bill Limiting Display of Confederate Flag Comments. 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 20 July 2015.

[11] Lucus, Darrell. “Nikki Haley: ‘Time Has Come’ For Removal Of Confederate Flag From SC State House Grounds.” LiberalAmericaorg. 22 June 2015. Web. 28 July 2015.


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