Dispatches

Red Flags

David M. Wallace

When my publisher learned that I was planning a bicycle tour from Montréal to Victoria, they decided that I should use the opportunity to promote my debut novel, The Little Brudders of Miséricorde. The book is a dark comedy that features a francophone mouse and a recently retired anglophone schoolteacher who is set adrift in an unfamiliar city. An improbable premise, but in some ways, it might be described as an affectionately profane spin on Le Petit Prince. And like the eponymous character of that slim volume who visits Earth and wonders if it is uninhabited, I also found myself travelling for some time without meeting anyone along the highway. Or, at least, anyone who was not safely ensconced inside a vehicle. My first encounter was not with a human at all, but with a black bear.

It was not a big bear and at first, I thought it might be a cub. It came loping out of the treeline on my right, running alongside the Trans-Canada Highway perhaps thirty metres from my bike. It looked like our paths might converge a little way ahead.

My first thought was: “Aww, cute.”

My second was: “If this is a cub, where’s the mother?”

A transport passed. It was big and loud enough to send the bear back into the bush. The encounter was a moment of concern. Not fear, really, but unsettling enough that the next day I strapped on my bear spray.

Two days later, I met someone else who was not in a vehicle: a man, maybe early thirties, standing alongside the Trans-Canada in the entrance to a highway construction site. He waved me down.

“Do you need water?” he shouted. I pulled up next to his truck. My laden bike slid a little sideways on the loose gravel. We exchanged greetings. Where you coming from? Montréal. Where you heading? Victoria.

He hauled out a Canadian Tire insulated ice box. I noted the bold red triangle and green maple leaf. He had water, Gatorade, soft drinks, granola bars.

“Take whatever you need.”

I had plenty of water but it was noon on an intensely hot day and a couple hundred quick calories in a cold bottle was appealing. I chose a ginger ale.

“You’re going to pass James Topp.” He pointed west down the highway. “He’s only a couple of kilometres away.

“I don’t think I know who James Topp is.” I cracked open the ginger ale and took a sip.

“He’s walking from Vancouver to Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates and to get restitution for those who were unfairly fired.” He was very excited.

It took me a moment to process what he was saying. Typically, someone cycling or walking across the country might be trying to raise awareness or fund research on PTSD, diabetes, reforestation or clean water. It appeared I had chanced upon an endeavour more attuned to the “Freedom Convoy” whose big rigs had rolled into Ottawa last January and noisily occupied the streets for a month, ostensibly to protest vaccine passports. Their grievances also appeared to include several far-right hobbyhorses favoured by white supremacists. Widely shared on Twitter was a photo of an American confederate flag flying among the many Canadian maple leaves.

While cycling across Canada, you don’t routinely get offered cold water and soft drinks by strangers. I realized he was waiting for James Topp to pass so that he could supply refreshments. Though I didn’t feel any sympathy for the cause he was supporting, I didn’t want to appear ungrateful.

“It’s been a really tough couple of years for everyone,” I said. I capped the ginger ale and slipped it into my front pannier.

“God bless you!” he shouted as I pulled away.

A few minutes later I caught sight of James Topp. He looked to be in his midforties. Orange and yellow safety vest. In the blistering heat, he was in trousers and boots and taking determined strides along the gravel shoulder. Trailing him, a little clutch of local supporters brandishing the Canadian flag at waist level like tag-team matadors. A young man with long yellow hair was photographing their approach.

“Living free!” the photographer said, and gave me a thumbs up. James Topp nodded gravely as I passed. It occurred to me that he had already walked nearly the distance that I planned to cycle. But, of course, he had a team. Sponsors, I suppose. Probably a Winnebago. A proper bed every night. Still, he had walked from Vancouver. Walked.

A little later I googled him. A few brief articles focussed on his complaints about the lack of mainstream media coverage. He had started at the Terry Fox Memorial in Vancouver. He planned to end his walk at the Ottawa Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Odd how self-proclaimed “freedom fighters” are willing to co-opt symbols of service but seem oblivious to the fact that their heroes made sacrifices for the common good and not in defence of individual privileges. Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope envisioned a cure for cancer. Topp’s endeavour was the sort that risked prolonging a deadly pandemic.

From the news articles, it appeared Warrant Officer Topp (army reserves) was facing a court martial. Conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline. It could include dismissal with disgrace and up to two years in prison.

While wearing his uniform, Topp posted two online videos criticizing COVID-19 vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees. Which all seems strange, since military personnel are already required to be vaccinated for all the usual diseases. They sometimes receive additional vaccinations if they are deployed overseas. Something to do with maintaining operational readiness.

A few hours later, some fifty kilometres farther west, there he was again. The guy who’d given me the ginger ale. He said he had passed me in his truck and decided to pull over to say hello once more. He smiled broadly and called me a real inspiration. Out came the ice box.

“Help yourself,” he said. “Anything you want.”

I took some ice cubes and plopped them into my water bottle. Somehow taking more would have made me feel complicit in a cause I can’t support.

“I don’t even know your name,” he said.

I told him and asked his. “Vince.” We shook hands.

On some level, I liked Vince. To me he’d been kind and thoughtful and encouraging. He was doing what he thought was right. Believing in something. Maybe needing something to believe in. Maybe even thinking that I and many others believe the same things he does. Maybe he can’t see that he’s taken a marginal stance. I don’t think he’s a bad guy.

And apart from a little black bear, he was the only living creature that I’d met lately, along the side of the Trans-Canada, who wasn’t whizzing past in a vehicle. He, and James Topp with his little flag-toting entourage. All of them a little near-sighted and blundering along the highway. Only the bear, though, likely to be completely harmless. Vince wished me safe travels.

I spent nearly three months cycling the Trans-Canada. Several times I saw “F*ck Trudeau” flags—oddly sinister—bold white letters on a black field. Stark as a skull and crossbones. A red maple leaf where I’ve inserted an asterisk. In the aftermath of the Ottawa truckers’ protest, a kind of inchoate rage seems to have emerged from a disaffected minority of Canadians. I passed a house with a long banner declaring: “Thank-you, truckers, for making me a proud Canadian again.” More maple leaves. I saw “Freedom Fighter” emblazoned above the windshield of a semi. Maple leaves, again. I even met a guy outside a Petro-Canada who asked me if I was aware that the Freemasons are in league with the federal government and that, together, they are developing a new low-frequency sonic weapon to murder their enemies. A big, stylized maple leaf in the Petro-Can sign looming above him. Coincidence, I know, but…

Nations that have experienced the shame of a perverse patriotism (Germany, Japan) consider it socially unacceptable for private citizens to display the nation’s flag. In Canada, a faction of discontents appears to have co-opted the flag as a symbol of their anger. After three months pedalling across Canada, the maple leaf has become not a familiar emblem of national pride, but a kind of coded message between “freedom fighters.”

Nice guys, like Vince. Friendly, but full of a disquieting fervour. Generally white men, hurt and confused and looking to feel heroic in defence of the comfortable advantages they once exclusively enjoyed. Looking to equate patriotism with their own preferred traditions. Effacing the paradoxes of freedom and reducing it to mere individualism. And ultimately, inspiring dread, rather than pride, at the sight of a maple leaf.

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David M. Wallace

Until his retirement, David M. Wallace was a secondary school teacher in Burnaby, BC. He now lives in Montréal, QC, scribbling poetry, prose and songs. He is an avid all-weather bicyclist.

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