The Canadian flag in the context of 'Freedom Convoy' and residential schools

Canada Day usually arrives in an explosion of red and white, with citizens and newcomers waving this nation's flag to celebrate.

But months after the ‘Freedom Convoy’ forced downtown Ottawa to a standstill, with Canadian flags billowing from trucks and prominently displayed in protest crowds, some Canadians are reconsidering what the flag means to them. And ever since the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools that brought to the forefront the devastating impact of colonialism in this country, the question of whether the Canadian flag is worth rallying around has been more complicated than ever.

Ahead of this Canada Day, Toronto resident Puneet Luthra said he has always raised the flag at his home to celebrate the holiday, but this year feels different for him.

"The sad part is sometimes I wonder what people are going to think if I put the flag up," Luthra told The Canadian Press. "People could think that I'm someone with fringe ideas -- like anti-vaxxers and things like that."

Another Ontario resident, Megan Ball Rigden, told CP that she has reservations about the Canadian flag because of the country’s colonial history and she doesn’t think she would be waving one, “regardless of the convoy.”

Forrest Pass, a historian and curator for Library and Archives Canada, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that he’s seeing fewer Canadian flags around Ottawa this week than usual.

“[On] Canada Day, particularly in the nation's capital, we see flags all over the place. It’s just part of the urban furniture here,” he said. “But there have certainly been fewer and, anecdotally, I've been hearing that [the convoy is] a reason why people are not flying them.”

Still, a recent survey of more than 1,000 Canadians found that 76 per cent of them would be proud to fly the Canadian flag, with 14 per cent disagreeing with that statement.

The same poll, done by Counsel Public Affairs Inc., also asked participants how Canada Day should be celebrated in light of reckoning with racial discrimination and colonial injustice in Canadian society.

Nearly half (47 per cent) of respondents said the day should be spent in both celebration and reflection, while 41 per cent said it’s a day for celebrating -- with reflections left for another day. Twelve per cent of respondents said Canada Day should be strictly for reflection on the country’s shortcomings.

For some who have chosen not to fly the Canadian flag this holiday, the worry is that it could signal an allegiance with a specific movement they don’t support, such as the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests.

During the weeks in which the convoy occupied Ottawa, supporters festooned their trucks and vehicles with full-sized Canadian flags.

“It’s not uncommon in the U.S. to see people across the political spectrum using the flag to represent notions of what it means to be American,” Pass explained. “We haven't had that to the same extent until fairly recently.”

Pass said, some supporters of the Freedom Convoy were tapping into a more American brand of patriotism with their use of the Canadian flag during the protest.

“[The] intention was to associate their [the protesters’] goals and objectives, their values with Canadian patriotism and therefore proclaim that those ideas, their sort of fundamentalist notion of freedom, is singularly Canadian, uniquely Canadian,” Pass said. “As opposed to the positions of their opponents and the vast majority of us, who were not necessarily sympathetic to their positions.”

THE HISTORY OF THE FLAG

While the American flag has existed for nearly 250 years, and has a dramatic origin story, “purportedly sewn by Betsy Ross at the behest of a general during the revolutionary war,” Pass said, Canada’s flag is relatively young, and came into the world in a calmer fashion.

The Canadian flag that we know today was pitched by the Liberal Party in 1964 to replace the Red Ensign, a temporary national flag sometimes used as an alternative to England’s Union Jack at the time.

When the maple leaf flag was designed, it was far from a national rallying cry, with many associating it purely with the Liberal Party, Pass said.

“It's only really in the past, I would say, 20, maybe 30 years that we started to see those on the center right so eagerly embracing the maple leaf flag,” he said.

Other flags have been used in political ways in the past along Canadian fault lines, he explained, and the maple leaf as a piece of iconography has been used by white nationalist groups in Canada previously, such as by a pro-Nazi party based in Quebec in the 1930s.

The Red Ensign, for instance, is often embraced by white nationalist organizations, who felt in the 1960s that it shouldn’t be replaced “because it represented Canada’s place in the empire,” Pass said, adding that these organizations felt that “part of the empire's greatness came from racial purity.”

But in terms of the classic red and white flag, it’s so relatively young that it hasn’t had as many chances to be used as a contentious symbol, Pass said.

“We're not as used to seeing it used in such a partisan fashion,” he said.

The idea behind a national flag is for it to represent “all of us,” Heather Nicol, director of the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University, told CTVNews.ca in a video call.

“At the Olympics, people wrap themselves in the flag, because they're representing Canada, or it flies at Parliament Hill or over institutions, but when somebody co-opts it and says, ‘it represents just this point of view and not another point of view,’ that does have a sobering effect, I think,” she said.

Part of the uneasy feelings some Canadians are having around the flag this Canada Day may come from the jarring sight of the Canadian flag waved alongside Nazi symbols during the protests in Ottawa, she said.

Many affiliated with the Freedom Convoy have stated that those displaying hate symbols were a small, fringe portion that they do not condone.

THE STAIN OF RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

Conversations about the Canadian flag and other symbols of patriotism have been ongoing for years, but seem to be ramping up.

“It's not just the Freedom Convoy,” Nicol said.

In 2021, Canada Day looked different in many cities, with people trading in their usual red and white to wear orange shirts to honour Indigenous lives in the wake of the confirmation of unmarked graves at three former residential schools — a number that has grown, with at least 1,800 confirmed or suspected unmarked graves having been identified since. Hundreds more schools are still being searched.

For an overwhelming amount of Indigenous people, the Canadian flag has never been a symbol to identify with.

“The flag was adopted in 1965 and the last residential school closed in 1996,” Pass said. “So for over 30 years, this is a flag that flew over residential schools. This was a flag that to many Indigenous people was a symbol of colonialism.”

The flag has been used to make gestures of reconciliation before, such as lowering the flags to half-mast for months in 2021 following the first announcements of unmarked graves. But considering Canada’s poor track record in making concrete steps towards reconciliation, many Indigenous people have said that the Canadian flag does not convey a sense of belonging.

Last year, there were calls to “Cancel Canada Day,” and this year, several Indigenous communities have said that they will not be recognizing the day, such as the Six Nations of the Grand River. The community said in a statement this week this week that “we hope that rather than a day of celebration, July 1 can be a day of sombre reflection and renewed commitments to furthering the process of reconciliation.”

The statement called upon Canadians to once again wear orange to honour the children lost in the residential school system as well as the survivors.

THE FLAG IN CONTEXT

Canadians worried that their flag could be misconstrued should remember that context plays a big role.

When the sound of never-ending horns was echoing through Ottawa in February, Pass remembered his neighbour hanging a Canadian flag outside the home along with signs such as “vaccine mandates save lives” in order to clarify that household’s position.

Because of the flag’s straightforward and simple design, it lends itself to a lot of edits that allow people to layer identities and values onto it as well, Pass said, noting that there are LGBTQ2S+ versions of the Canadian flag as well as an Indigenous redesign. These versions can allow people to further express themselves.

The overall question of whether the flag itself is worth rallying behind, considering its colonial past and Canada’s flaws, is less certain, experts say.

Symbols change over time as societies do, and the question is one that will continue to be asked.

“I think it can only be truly tainted or taken over by one political faction if everybody else lets it,” Pass said.

He added that continuing to have these conversations is important, a sentiment Nicol echoed.

“I think [the flag] can be a uniting symbol again, but I think right now it's a symbol of, ‘we've got a lot of work to do’,” she said. “I'm not celebrating a legacy, I’m not celebrating a history. I’m just sort of celebrating the opportunity and the hope that to do that we can do something better.”