A Flag of Inconvenience
by Paul Albers
January 14, 2005
Over 300 Boy Scouts from Ontario and New York State gathered at Rattlesnake Point in Milton, Ontario this past summer for a four-day 'Camporee'. I had the opportunity to observe one of the American troops conduct a flag retirement ceremony on the final evening and I was struck by the reverence displayed. Every Scout, Canadian and American, was quieter than if they were at church as the individual pieces of a well-worn stars and stripes were added to the dying flames of the bonfire. There are probably few Canadians who have seen such a sight. Our flag protocol simply states that the flag should be privately burned in a dignified way, no ceremony required.
Given the American flag's history, it isn't hard to understand their reverence for the 'Old Glory'. It has remained unchanged for over 200 years, other than the addition of stars to match the addition of states to the Union. It is the flag under which they won their liberty from England, and under which they liberated Europe and other lands. It was created as an expression of patriotism before there were Republicans or Democrats or even a constitution. They pledge their allegiance to it regularly and it is a genuine national (not political) symbol that unites all citizens. Just autographing a small paper replica of it can cause a minor stir in the media as President Bush found out early in his last presidential campaign.
Our attitude about Canada's flag is as different as its origin. Canada's current flag has only been around since February 15th, 1965. Some Canadians would be able to recall that it was Lester B. Pearson's government who introduced the new flag, and even fewer could recollect where the design actually came from.
The process was far from being non-political. The Red Ensign bore the Union Jack and the shield of the royal arms of Canada. Although it was not officially the national flag, it was used as such since the late 1800's. Pearson quickly ruled it out, and many viewed that decision as an attempt to appease Quebec by removing any hint of Canada's British heritage from the flag. Over 2000 members of the Royal Canadian Legion loudly booed Pearson after he announced his preference for a design similar to our current flag,.
Conservative Leader John Diefenbaker strongly supported making the Red Ensign Canada's national flag, as did many other Canadians. Petitions bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures called for the official adoption of the Red Ensign and Toronto City Council held a heated debate over a resolution demanding the same thing. The resolution lost, but only by three votes.
Pearson forged ahead however and when the new flag was officially raised on Parliament Hill, the front page report in the Globe & Mail described the scene saying, 'a crowd of more than 10,000 displayed no emotion as the new flag was raised...There were a few tears for the Red Ensign that had been pulled down, ...But there was no wild excitement as the new standard took it's place.'
Those fond of the Red Ensign saw the new flag as a Liberal flag and although those feelings are not nearly so prevalent now, there is a lack of devotion to the flag that has carried on to this day. For many it is little more than a corporate logo, and ironically Liberals have fostered that view.
The $20 million dollars spent giving out 'free' flags, and the staggering amounts wasted in the federal sponsorship program sends the message that it takes freebies and bribes to get people to fly the flag. Even CBC's Air Farce picked up on the subtle disrespect and ran a skit about a woman who accidentally receives several cases of free flags, which she then uses for drapes, tablecloths, sofa covers and more.
It's hard to think of someone who has shown more casual disregard for the flag than the Prime Minister. Premier Danny Williams' order to temporarily remove the national flag from provincial buildings in Newfoundland and Labrador was a symbolic protest. It was also small potatoes compared to Martin's re-flagging ships at Canada Steamship Lines to put more money in his pocket, and then running for the leadership of the country who's flag he found so inconvenient.
When the Parti Quebecois removed the Canadian flag from the Quebec legislature and attempted to outlaw the maple leaf from all provincial buildings there was very little talk and even less action from Ottawa. When Bloc MP Andre Bellavance refused to provide Canadian flags to veterans in Richmond, Que, there was no press release from Martin condemning his actions. Quebec never suffered any loss, and was never threatened with any loss as a result of their actions; while Williams had to back down to get another chance to convince Martin to keep his word. If the Liberals want to win a future by-election in Labrador, it doesn't show.
During the campaign Martin visually equated electing the Conservatives with destroying the flag and attempted to portray Liberal party values as being synonymous with Canadian values. That laid the foundation for Williams' order and it is poetic justice to see the flag used to protest Martin's government. At the same time it is sad that Canada has come to this.
The Globe & Mail wrote in a May 13, 1964 editorial that "Canada should have a national flag, and some day will have a national flag. But that day can wait, the nation's flag can wait, because we have more important things to do--the first of them being to make sure we really do have a nation. A flag will not produce Canadian unity... it is Canadian unity that, in the end, will produce a flag."
Wisdom Pearson ignored. We have a flag, thanks in part to him, but even with its return in Newfoundland we do not have unity. How long then will we have a nation?
Paul Albers is a freelance columnist living in Ottawa