• By: Dan McCarthy

Let us reclaim the flag from those in the Convoy that have soiled it

Photo by Jean-Marc Carisse

Nearly sixty years ago the red and white Maple Leaf was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill. Tuesday’s National Flag of Canada Day, commemorating that date in 1965 would ordinarily see a clutch of politicians and perhaps some school children gather in front of Centre Block to raise the flag.

But this Flag Day will take place in front of very different tableau on the Hill as the Maple Leaf flies alongside those representing various alt-right conspiracy theories and causes: Infowars, the Gadsden’s coiled snake, the blue Eureka flag, and the ubiquitous and juvenile F-Trudeau rag.  Citizens of Ottawa have been inconvenienced, harassed, thrown out of work, assaulted, and threatened over the past two weeks as the Convoy occupied the downtown core. Our collective outrage is totally justified.

The saddest manifestation of their twisted ideology and inane utterances has been the appropriation – some would say weaponization – of our national symbol. The Maple Leaf has been flown upside-down, contaminated with hand-drawn swastikas, and epithets against the Prime Minister, dragged on the ground behind trucks, and used as a ploy to hide licence plates. The most dispiriting vulgarity inflicted on the flag was a scene I witnessed last week by the rigs parked by the barricades at the corner of Kent and Queen Streets. With OPP and Ottawa Police stationed on the perimeter, an individual pulled a small wagon filled with jerry cans through the crowd. The gas containers were draped with a 4X6 foot Maple Leaf. With furtive glances towards the police cars, he darted between the row of rigs, wagon bouncing as it went over the curb, and tucked in behind a phalanx of supporters who faced outward shoulder to shoulder like a row of riot cops. As the wagon jarred over the curb the flag slipped off and was dragged in the slush behind it. No attempt was made to pick it up and as the jerry cans were handed out to replenish the nearby rigs, our national symbol lay in the dirty snow.  To me, there has been no clearer illustration of the hollowness of the patriotism of the occupiers. For them, the Maple Leaf is not a symbol of pride, flying it not as a North Star for a free and prosperous country but as a prop and shield.

Introducing the resolution in the House of Commons to establish the Maple Leaf as our national flag on June 15, 1964, Prime Minister Lester Pearson said in part, “(the) flag issue is bound to raise strong and deep and genuine emotions. All national symbols have a deep meaning and create strong sentiments. That is why they are so important in national growth; in nourishing loyalty and patriotism among those who make up our nation.”   Pearson understood the emotional power of the flag both for those supporting a new symbol and those that resented – from deeply held views – retiring the Red Ensign. These disagreements heightened the passionate responses to the new flag, on both sides of the debate.

But the verity of patriotism is in the eye of the beholder; the flag means what the person holding it aloft wants it to be. British writer Samuel Johnson famously wrote in the 18th century that displays of patriotism are “the last refuge of a scoundrel”. In this respect, the rage, resentment, hatred and yes, racism, displayed by many among the Convoy that passes for their ‘patriotism’ is not only false love of Canada, and repulsive but perilous for Canada.

This hijacking of the flag has some on social media wondering whether we need a new flag, that the Maple Leaf has been tarnished beyond redemption. Passionate debate has ensued, entirely understandable given what we have witnessed in Ottawa the past two weeks, and the scenes playing themselves out in Coutts, Alberta and at the Ambassador Bridge. Our tattered flag has had a rough year, as it bore the brunt last summer and fall of the nation’s anger and sadness over the realization of the scope of children’s deaths in the Indian Residential School system, and the existence of unmarked graves across the country.

The Maple Leaf did not just emerge from a host of challengers in the 1960s. Its place as a pre-eminent Canadian symbol pre-dates Confederation and has graced the uniforms of Canadian men and women in the armed forces since the First World War. Later generations wear it proudly on every iteration of Team Canada jersey from hockey to soccer, to Olympic athletes. Like untold numbers of backpackers before and since, the first item of business before I departed for Europe in 1981 was to sew on a small flag. I fly my flag year-round but have been thinking I should place a sign on my lawn declaring that I am not with the Convoy.

Closing his speech that June day in 1964, Mr. Pearson said the task of the House was a new Canadian flag that “while bringing together but rising above the landmarks and milestones of the past, will say proudly to the world and to the future: I stand for Canada.” And so, it falls to our generation to rise above the muck we’re stuck in, reclaim the flag from those in the Convoy that have soiled it, and reinject the promise for the future which its creation portended. Politicians need to refrain from treating it as simply a backdrop or to bolster their claims of disloyalty against their opponents. The Maple Leaf is a striking flag, one of the globe’s most distinctive. We need to take it back from the Convoy. Canadians should fly it proudly and not just on Canada Day. Canada can be a strong, united, and independent nation. Treating our national symbols such as the Maple Leaf with respect is an essential prerequisite.