Just after sunrise Thursday, 89-year-old Francis Barrett accomplished something that had never been done before in the nation's capital: raising an anti-abortion flag in front of City Hall.
The grey flag was emblazoned with the words "National March for Life Ottawa" in white and red, and as Barrett pulled on the rope to hoist the flag to the top of the pole, a crowd of more than 20 cheered and applauded.
"I was in second heaven," said Barrett, a retired RCMP intelligence officer who describes himself as a "pro-life warrior." He couldn't stop smiling at the sight of the waving flag, he said.
But others couldn't stomach what they saw.
'Difficult to be in this building today'
The social media backlash began after a video of the anti-abortion flag raising was posted on Twitter around 11 a.m. ET. Two hours later, seven city councillors had signed a letter demanding the flag be taken down.
"It was very difficult to be in this building today, to have that flag flying outside," said Coun. Catherine McKenney.
"Women have a constitutional right to safe abortions and safe health care that includes abortion, and we cannot in any way as public office holders, as your City Hall, in the public space, give you any other message than that we are here to uphold all bylaws, all laws and your constitutional laws."
About 30 minutes after the councillor's letter came out, Mayor Jim Watson tweeted he was asking the city clerk's office to review the proclamation and flag-raising policy.
I have asked the City's Clerk's Office for a completed review of the Proclamations and Flag raising policy.— @JimWatsonOttawa
"According to our city solicitor, it meets the criteria of flying the flag. We have to review the policy because I don't think it's acceptable to have that flag flying because it's stating a position that most of our city is opposed to — I'm certainly opposed to," he said.
According to the city's top lawyer, Rick O'Connor, refusing to fly the National March for Life flag could have violated Ontario's Human Rights Code.
Watson said he found out the night before the event that the flag raising had been approved, but couldn't do anything about it because staff, not elected officials, determine which flags will be raised.
The flag waved from City Hall on the same day as thousands marched on Parliament Hill to rally for the rights of the fetus. The city has recognized the National March for Life with an official proclamation since 2002, but the day had never been commemorated with a flag until Thursday morning.
Backlash cuts short flag flying time
Barrett was told the flag would fly from sun up to sundown, at 8:30 p.m., but after the online backlash, it was taken down six hours early, by order of the city solicitor. O'Connor cited a technical error and said the anti-abortion flag should not have been flown because it was an individual who made the request and not an organization
Barrett said he's angry he wasn't given a heads-up.
"In this case the way [the city] did that, instead of phoning me up and saying there's been an error here, we have to take the flag down, like a bunch of sneaks they just bullied me and bullied the March for Life," he said.
'It's not like I was flying an obscene flag or something ... I was bullied out of a just cause.' - Francis Barrett, retired RCMP officer
He sent the mayor an email on April 24 and received a reply that his request would be taken into consideration, he said.
Watson's press secretary Liv Belcea, said the email was a standard response and that no further action was taken by the mayor's office. Without further response from the mayor, Barrett, who lives in Vanier, placed several calls to his ward councillor, Mathieu Fleury.
Fleury "didn't want to touch it," Barrett said, but did put him in contact with the city's office of protocol procedures. Barrett then made his case to bureaucrats by drawing parallels to the LGBT community and their annual raising of the pride flag.
'We have our rights'
"[LGBT] are a minority of people. They have their rights, I'm not saying they don't, but so do pro-life people. We're not a minority but we have our rights," he said.
Protocol staff agreed with him but put other barriers in his way, he said.
The national anti-abortion movement creates a new flag every year with a different motto. This year's flag is supposed to state, "We Stand Up For Life," and did not match the wording on the official proclamation for National March for Life Day. Barrett was ready to throw in the towel, but two days before the march, the former policeman was able to find an old flag that matched the requirements.
Then Barrett was told by staff that he had to raise the flag promptly at sunrise, he said. Despite the early hour, Barrett was still able to convince two dozen supporters to join him. On Thursday morning they sang O Canada and stood in rapt attention as a man dressed in the plumage of a town crier proclaimed National March for Life Day in Ottawa as the flag was raised.
But when a reporter called Barrett in mid afternoon to tell him the flag was removed, Barrett's surprise gave way to anger.
"It's not like I was flying an obscene flag or something. It wasn't pornographic. I was bullied out of a just cause," he said.
Barrett planned to return to City Hall Friday to get his flag back and demand an apology.