When Canadians get ready to celebrate Canada Day on July 1, there's one symbol that will be front and centre: the Maple Leaf flag.

But when people want to show off their patriotic side by raising the flag up a pole in the back yard or attaching it to the condo balcony, sometimes they aren't sure just how to do it.

Confusion can reign especially if there is a desire to fly the Maple Leaf with other flags, something that could be on the minds of World Cup soccer fans.

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Longstanding protocols suggest that when the Canadian flag is displayed, it should be treated with dignity and respect. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"We often get questions on the order they should be displayed in when … a number of flags are displayed together," says Joel Girouard, director of state ceremonial and protocol for the Department of Canadian Heritage.

There aren't any laws that govern usage of the Canadian flag, but over time, protocols have developed.

And within those protocols, there is an overriding theme: treat the flag with dignity.

"It's a very important national symbol and the overriding concern, the biggest concern, is that it be treated with respect and displayed in a way that's befitting the importance of a national symbol," Girouard says.

The department has a website laying out the rules for flying the flag. Some key points include:

  • The Canadian flag takes precedence over all other national flags.
  • It should be flown alone on its own pole.
  • It should not be used as a cover for a table or a seat.
  • It should not have anything pinned to or sewn onto it.
  • It shouldn't be signed or marked in any way.

The flag also shouldn't be obstructed or touch the ground.

"If you let something fall to the ground … you're not allowing it to fly freely, to be fully displayed, so it's simply about respect," Girouard says.

No flag larger than Maple Leaf

If the Canadian flag is displayed with one from another country, then the flags should be the same size.

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Smaller versions of the Maple Leaf flag were front and centre as Shahnaz Begum enjoyed the annual Canada Day celebrations in Montreal in 2011. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

"You shouldn't have another flag that's larger than the Canadian flag," Girouard says.

"They should be flown at the same height, so that you don't give more prominence to another flag."

While the protocols around displaying the flag seem fairly ingrained, they aren't based on any particular historical document or longstanding law.

"I would say that most of it comes from usage," Girouard says.

"They are rules that are respected throughout the world by most countries. They treat their symbols in a very similar manner to what we do and it's simply an evolution of usage."

One Canadian law does mention the flag: the National Flag of Canada Act, which came into effect in 2012. 

The legislation, which had penalties stripped from it during committee debate, encourages Canadians to "proudly display the national flag of Canada in accordance with flag protocol."

Rising demand

When the legislation was proposed in 2011, James Moore, then the heritage minister, told a news conference there had been cases where people were prevented from flying their Canadian flags.

The bill aimed to "ensure that Canadians have clear certainty that if they wish to show pride in their country to display the Canadian flag that they are free to do so without any intimidation by condo boards or other neighbours that might find it obtrusive," Moore said at the time.

Sewing flag

Angelina Rubino sews a Canada Day banner at The Original Flag Store factory in Barrie, Ont., on June 27. (Submitted by The Original Flag Store)

While there have been instances trying to limit the display of the Canadian flag, others have observed an increase in demand for the Maple Leaf.

"It's just become stronger and stronger every year," says Cecilia Burke, president and CEO of The Original Flag Store, which has a factory that produces hand-sewn flags in Barrie, Ont., and stores in nearby Thornton and Toronto.

"People are finding that flagpoles are just becoming part of the whole esthetics of your home, whether it's in the front or the back," she says.

"People are putting flags in their garden and they're putting them over their garage, on the roof, that type of thing."

The lead-up to July 1 is the company's busiest time of year. Last year, it sold about 18,000 flags at the most popular size of nearly one metre by nearly two metres, the standard size for a six-metre flag pole.

There are other times that may prompt a significant desire to wave a flag, whether it's the Olympics, the World Cup or World Pride festivities under way in Toronto, an event Burke says her company has been very involved with this year.

Sales of the Canadian flag still come out on top, Burke says.

'Dignified' disposal

Like so much else, however, a flag will eventually reach the end of its useful life, and again, according to the protocols, it should be treated with respect.

Giant flag

Staff at The Original Flag Store factory in Barrie, Ont., fold a Canadian flag measuring nine metres by 18 metres that will soon be displayed in Hamilton. (Submitted by The Original Flag Store)

"When a flag becomes tattered and is no longer in a suitable condition for use, it should be destroyed in a dignified way," the heritage department says on its website.

Girouard says that means disposing of it in a way that ensures it won't show up somewhere as a tattered flag.

"It can be burned privately. If you are going to dispose of it with other waste, it should be destroyed in a way that it won't be recognizable as the flag if it's found again."

Burke's company has a special procedure for disposing of old flags involving a boy scout group.

The scouts "salute the flag and they sing O Canada and they put them on the fire," says Burke. "For us it's very important that the flag is respected."

With files from Meagan Fitzpatrick