It was a giant Canadian flag for a giant Canadian crowd.
Twenty years ago, Ken Coulter had no idea the flag he and some friends brought to Montreal would become the symbol of a massive No side rally held three days before the Quebec referendum.
"It was in this hockey bag — that's how we always transported it. How much more Canadian can you get than that?" says Coulter, who hails from Windsor, Ont.
Coulter, who was 30 at the time, left for Montreal that October day with a few friends, and they picked up more along the way — knowing it would take about 10 people to carry and wave the flag during the so-called Unity Rally in 1995.
They checked into their hotel, which overlooked Place du Canada in downtown Montreal. The friends took the flag out of the hockey bag, and carried it through the lobby and out the front doors. It was rolled up like a long sausage, but it was evident that it was the Canadian flag, Coulter says.
"As we wound our way through the lobby, people started applauding. People in the lobby realized what it was, and they actually started applauding. People in the restaurant came out and started applauding. We thought, 'Oh, this may garner more attention than we had first thought.'"
The flag instantly drew a crowd.
"It was like a magnet — as people arrived, they just came to the flag," he said.
"They were just drawn to it. It started, you know, with 20, 30, 50 people, and then 100 people, and then this massive crowd just started forming around the flag...The crowd started singing 'O Canada' in repetition — over and over again."
Coulter describes the scene like a mosh pit at a rock concert, with the flag passing hands and surfing above the crowd.
"It just started to disappear, and then it would come back, and then it would move away again. It was just slowly drifting over the crowd."
Thousands of hands passed the maple leaf flag around, leaving Coulter and his friends nervous that they would never see it again. They went back to their hotel room and turned on the TV, hoping they could see the flag in the live news coverage.
"CBC was broadcasting live, and we're watching TV and looking out the window to see if we could spot the flag. It was gone for hours…We started saying, 'We're going back to Windsor without this flag.'"
But after about two hours, the flag made it back to its owners...with some added extras on it.
"We saw it slowly making its way back to the Place du Canada. The people were great, they slowly carried it back," Coulter recalls.
"What we had found was people had signed it, whether in pen or in magic marker, their name and the date, or comments — 'Vive, Canada' — stuff like this."
Around since 1967
Coulter and his friends got their hands on the giant flag because it belonged to the Windsor Jaycees, a Canadian chapter of the junior chamber of commerce of which they were members.
It was created in 1967, when the Canada Jaycees called on all regional chapters to make the biggest Canadian flag they could.
Weighing in at 45 kilograms and measuring 165 square metres, Windsor's flag won.
It was badly tattered by the 1980s, so the Windsor Jaycees commissioned a replica.
"It was the same dimension, stronger, with handles stitched in so it could be more easily held," Coulter said, adding that it was pulled out from time to time in Windsor for events such as Canada Day parades.
Coulter wonders, 20 years later, if the flag played any role in the No side's narrow referendum victory.
"We were told later by some people that the presence of the flag may in fact have had some influence on the referendum itself. Whether or not that's true, anyone can chime in and offer their opinion."
Coulter looks back at that moment of history with pride.
"What started as just kind of simple and maybe naive idea of just going there and expressing our sense of pride in being Canadian, took on a life of its own and became something that we never would have possibly imagined — it was unbelievable."
Two decades later, the Unity Flag, as it came to be known, is still rolled up and stuffed inside a hockey bag.
"Right now, I can tell you it's under my desk in Kingsville at the moment because we had it out here for an event two weeks ago," says Coulter's sister, Maggie Durocher.
Durocher volunteers with the Windsor Parade Corporation, which inherited the flag from the Windsor Jaycees. She said it continues to play a central role in local events, including Windsor's Santa Claus Parade and the city's Canada Day parade.
Twenty years later, it still has some of the handwritten messages on it.
"That flag has been poured rain on, it's been dry cleaned. Some of the messages you can still read. They are fading with time, but the memory of that flag is still called the Referendum Flag or the Unity Flag. That's still what it's called," Durocher says.
"People still applaud that flag. Veterans still salute that flag. It's the one living piece... that flag is our lasting legacy and it never goes too far out of my sight, I can tell you that...It's still special and I still guard that flag. It's part of a pretty noble past."