Flag, proclamation policies no big deal — until they spark outrage

While the force of the backlash against flying the March for Life flag may have caught his office off guard, Mayor Jim Watson should surely have realized — having been down almost exactly this path before — that controversy was all but inevitable.

Public didn't buy mayor's argument for why anti-abortion flag flew at city hall

A March for Life flag was raised outside Ottawa City Hall to coincide with a major rally on May 11, 2017. (CBC)

Mayor Jim Watson has tried to draw a line between his personal beliefs and the city's policy on groups that want to take public stands on abortion. 

"I don't happen to agree with those who [want to] take away a woman's right to choose," Watson once said. "But, at the same time, it's not a mayor's personal beliefs and hunches that should rule the day."

He might well have made that comment after this week's controversy over at the raising of the March for Life flag at city hall, which infuriated many residents and councillors who demanded the flag be removed. 

But those remarks from the mayor came fully six years ago, when an awfully similar controversy erupted over the city's proclamation of "Respect for Life Day."

So while the force of the backlash against flying the March for Life flag may have caught the mayor's office off guard, Watson should surely have realized — having been down almost exactly this path before — that controversy was all but inevitable.

Proclamation watered down 

City hall officials are very conscious of the controversy surrounding the anti-abortion proclamations. Consider the difference in the proclamations issued in 2011 and 2017.

In 2011, the proclamation stated that "the rights of the people of Canada, including the unborn, are gradually being eroded" and that the March for Life would "witness the sanctity of human life from conception until natural death."

This year, the day was called the much more neutral "National March for Life Day," with the proclamation referring to the Parliament Hill demonstration as having taken place "for the past 19 years to bring awareness for the need for life-affirming solutions."

It's unclear at whose behest the language was changed, but clearly some city officials worked to make the wording less politically charged.

The city has made a proclamation for the national March for Life on Parliament Hill every year since 2002. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Lengths to try to refuse raising flag

This year, for the first time, an anti-abortion activist applied to have a flag raised for the cause, in addition to the annual proclamation.

That resident was 89-year-old Francis Barrett, the man speaking in a video taken of the flag being raised at city hall — which caused massive outrage after it was posted to Twitter.

Barrett said he also contacted his local councillor who put him onto the protocol office.

According to Barrett, he was told by the protocol office that he could not fly this year's version of the anti-abortion movement's flag because it said "We Stand Up for Life" and did not match the wording on the city's official proclamation for National March for Life Day.

At the 11th hour, Barrett found an older version of the flag. Nonetheless, the city's flag-raising policy says nothing about a requirement for a motto to match a proclamation.

Francis Barrett says he had to 'wheel and deal' to convince city staff to allow him to raise anti-abortion flag. (

Public doesn't care about technicalities

The mayor's office knew about the efforts and confirmed that an email was received on April 24 "referencing March for Life." 

Technically, the mayor didn't approve the flag. Neither did he order it down. Still, from opposite sides of this bitter dispute, he's being both blamed and lauded for the moves.

In fact, if any application for a proclamation meets the city's criteria — and there's currently some legalistic debate going on about that — the application is granted. The same goes for a non-profit or charitable group applying for a flag-raising, although there are relatively few of these every year.

The city's policy is clear that a proclamation does not "constitute a personal or civic endorsement." Oddly, the flag policy doesn't include a similar disclaimer.

A failure to approve a proclamation or flag-raising application from a valid group can end in a complaint to a human rights commission. That's been the mayor's reason for having to sign the March for Life proclamation, or not stopping the flag from flying, despite his own pro-choice stance.

(The flag did come down mid-Thursday afternoon, but on a mere technicality: only an organization can apply for a flag-raising, not an individual.)

But the public either didn't buy this argument or, more likely, didn't care. How can the mayor argue that the city isn't taking the side of anti-abortion activists when their flag is flying in front of city hall?

If you're the elected leader of a city, and you feel that city policy compels you to sign a proclamation you don't agree with, year after year, that's a glaring problem. The accountable thing to do — rather than hiding behind bureaucratic process — would be to change the rule.

2 solutions

There appear to be two ways to deal with this conundrum. Either have council approve proclamations and flag-raisings, so that our local politicians are clearly accountable for the decisions, or get rid of most proclamations and flags.

Experience suggests the first option probably wouldn't work. Back in 2010, for instance, former mayor Larry O'Brien refused to proclaim Falun Dafa Day, after returning from a business mission to China, which persecutes practitioners of the spiritual movement.

Turns out O'Brien had promised Chinese officials there he wouldn't sign the proclamation.

Watson already has political power to raise other countries' flags in solidarity — a practice he personally began and which has caused some friction.

Last year, the Turkish ambassador expressed displeasure after the flags of Belgium and France were raised at Ottawa's City Hall following terrorist attacks in those countries, but the Turkish flag was not flown after similar attacks in that country.

The French flag flew in front of Ottawa City Hall, after more than 120 people were killed in a series of attacks in Paris in 2015 at the bequest of the mayor. But he did not repeat the gesture for Turkey after similar attacks there. (Simon Lasalle/CBC)

At the time, Watson said the city needed better rules around this issue. It's unclear whether the policy has been adjusted at all.

Making declarations through an explicit political lens seems to raise more problems than it solves. And considering the more than 50 proclamations made so far this year, doing so would be highly time-consuming for politicians who have better things to do.

That leaves getting rid of most proclamations and flag-raisings. Sure, most proclamations are innocuous — who's going to seriously disapprove of World Plumbing Day or Salt Free Awareness Day? — but it's hard to see how getting rid of them would hurt these causes. 

As for flags, Ottawa should have a clear-cut rule about when to temporarily fly those of other countries. Eliminating the handful of non-nation flags flown at city hall each year would barely be noticed. (An exception for city sports team flags — especially during the NHL playoffs — would have to be made.) 

We are likely in for a spirited debate on what proclamations and flag-raisings are all about. But the question we might want to ask is this: why did it take an enraged public outcry to bring this issue into focus?

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.