Owners of the Hamilton BBQ restaurant Hillbilly Heaven defend choice to splash window with Confederate flag

Sarah Boesveld
The National Post
Monday, March 04, 2013

A large Confederate flag splashed across the front of a new Hamilton, Ont., southern barbecue restaurant has sparked outrage and debate over what the controversial symbol of the Deep American South means to Canadians.

To Cameron Bailey, who will open the second location of his Hillbilly Heaven eatery next Monday, the flag represents working class values, and the fight to protect a way of life — embodied by the good ol’ boys that drove around the flag-laden General Lee in TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard.

To many in Hamilton, a refuge for those fleeing to Canada on the Underground Railroad, the flag valorizes slavery in a business area dubbed the ‘‘International Village.’’ Many wrote letters to the city, and protests are planned for when Hillbilly Heaven opens its doors.

“Is it against the law? No. Then no one should be complaining,” Mr. Bailey said. “If you want it to come down, take me to court and make it against the law. But until that’s the case, I’m not doing anything wrong.”

The flag flap comes just weeks after a high school in Sutton, Ont., banned the flag after it had become fashionable among students, who affixed it to their pick up truck windows, lighters, bandanas and belt buckles. School administrators said the flag had racial connotations, although some students were unaware of them.

The flag has inspired a vigorous debate in American for decades. In 2000, the South Carolina State Senate passed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the top of the State House, while Mississisipi’s flag still includes the stars and bars.

To many, the Confederate flag invokes white power or white supremacy, after being co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan and activists resisting the civil rights movement and school integration in the 1960s. But to some southerners and people who self-identify as rednecks, it’s a symbol of pride in rural, working class living that has no racial underpinnings at all.

It has also been used a generic rebel flag, the specific rebellion being unimportant.

“The Confederate flag has been taken out of context incessantly,” James Cobb, a professor who studies Southern history and culture at the University of Georgia, wrote in an email to the Post. “One encounters it all over the place in Europe, where I would say, for the most part it is simply an attention-grabbing symbol. It is more than that for some, of course. It was frequently displayed in pubs in North Ireland and appears on bumper stickers …in the South of Italy, where many feel their region has been persecuted by the “Italian North.”

James Carson, a professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who grew up near Asheville, N.C., said it’s perplexing to see the flag used in Canada.

“A Canadian appropriating this totally politically charged symbol from an American context and then using it up here, it’s hard to understand because that flag’s meaning is directly tied to the American history of race relations,” he said. “What it could mean to a Canadian is beyond me. And that guy might think ‘Yeah this is a symbol of the south and I’m trying to brand my restaurant in a particular way,’ but the region he’s trying to invoke would not see that flag as its symbol. It’s a symbol of a very particular subset within that region.”

If a barbecue restaurant in Tennessee were decorated with Confederate flags, an African American would probably steer clear, Mr. Carson added. Even the Confederate flag as good ol’ boy symbol still has a core that’s “pro-white,” he said.

“It’s always there with the flag. There’s just nowhere to escape that.”

Redneck culture can be sustained without displaying the Confederate flag and so too can the memory of those who fought for the Confederacy be valorized, said Craig Simpson, a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario who studies 19th century American history and the secession crisis.

“As far as the war itself is concerned, I would be perfectly happy with the following formulation: It is and was about slavery. But it was not only about slavery,” he said. “It was about the loss of their particular way of life, a certain culture and so forth. You cannot explain all of it without taking account of those variables.”

Still, however, the “neo-Confederate authorities” say slavery played no role in the secession crisis — which is false — and African Americans actually fought on that side, he said.

“That statement does not hold up under anybody’s scholarship.”

But the meaning of things change over time and as long as Mr. Bailey is not denying service to anyone, he has every right to post the Confederate flag over the door of his business, said Chris Schafer, the executive director of the Alberta-based Canadian Constitution Foundation.

“By putting a Confederate flag up, beyond the fact that it doesn’t have the meaning necessarily in Canada, if it’s bad for business let the business owner suffer the consequences of going out of business,” he said.

This is exactly Mr. Bailey’s line of thinking.

“That’s how it works in this country. If you don’t like something, don’t buy it,” said Mr. Bailey, who has drawn ire from community activists before for posting a sign by the cash that said halal, rice, kabob, shawarma and other items are “things we don’t have and never will.”

“All it does, to be honest with you, is it just inflames the people who’ve had enough and it drives them to my door.”
©The Canadian Press, 2013

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