Why burning old Canadian flags is a proper way to 'retire' them

It's a popular time to buy a new Canadian flag. But many Canadians are unsure of what to do with older flags that are no longer fit to fly.

Canada's Department of Heritage says old flags should be destroyed in a 'dignified way'

It's a symbol that protocol dictates must be treated with respect. So can you throw one in the garbage when it's too faded or frayed to fly? (Pixabay)

Sales of Canadian flags have been soaring as July 1 approaches and celebrations for the country's 150th birthday ramp up.

But when those flags eventually become faded and frayed, Canadians will be faced with a dilemma few give much thought to until the time comes: How do you dispose of a Canadian flag?

Bernie Joyce, president of the Royal Canadian Legion Vimy Branch 27 in Halifax, says he replaces the Canadian flag at his legion four times a year. 

"You do not take a flag and throw it in the garbage," he warns. 

Royal Canadian Legion Branch 27 president Bernie Joyce disposes of his flags with fire. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

Instead, Joyce recommends burning the flag in a private, respectful ceremony. "You can put them in a little fire pit. Fold them nicely, give it a ceremony," he says. "Almost like you're sending the spirit of the flag up to the sky."

Joyce views disposing of a flag with such reverence that he prefers the term "retire."

Across Canada, some legions accept old flags that people bring in when they are no longer fit to fly. But Joyce says it's not something that happens often. 

It's a different story in the United States where flag disposal is much more formalized. American legions often collect thousands of flags every year to be disposed of on Flag Day, June 14. The ceremonies are often well-attended and there are dozens of them featured on YouTube.

Many branches of the American Legion hold public flag retirement ceremonies where hundreds of flags are burned at once. (American Legion/YouTube)

When done in protest, burning a country's flag is highly controversial. But in both Canada and the U.S., burning the flag is not illegal.

Canada's Department of Heritage website recommends old flags be destroyed in a "dignified way." But it does not elaborate any further. In an email response to CBC, a spokesperson says burning is an acceptable method of disposal.

But the department also points out that many modern flags are made of synthetic material, which can make burning problematic. In those instances it recommends cutting or tearing a flag into pieces before it's thrown away. 

Cutting a flag into pieces is considered a proper way to retire a flag before disposing of it, according to Canada's Department of Heritage. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

Joyce says the key to cutting a flag is to make sure the maple leaf is no longer recognizable. That way, there's nothing left of the symbolic nature of the flag that can be desecrated when it finally ends up in a landfill. 

"Once you render that flag useless, you've taken all the good out of it, you wish its spirit well and it just becomes another piece of cloth."

About the Author

Blair Sanderson

Reporter

Blair Sanderson is a nationally syndicated current affairs reporter for CBC Radio. He's based in Halifax, where he's worked for 10 years.

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