Visitors entering Canada from New York State at the Hill Island border crossing Monday might have been forgiven for wondering if they had taken a wrong turn and wandered across the Atlantic.

The Canada Border Services Agency post had removed the Canadian maple leaf flag from the two main flagpoles flanking the border post and replaced them with a large Union Jack. A worker with the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority said the CBSA supervisor had ordered the change of flags that morning.

CBSA appears to have over-interpreted a rule that allows for the Union Jack to be flown alongside the Canadian flag on Victoria Day.

Flag protocol rules listed on the Canadian Heritage website state clearly that: “The Canadian flag will always take precedence and will not be replaced by the Union Jack.”

As lineups stretched a kilometre back from the border on one of the busiest days of the year, the British flag was flying on the only flagpole visible to the great majority of travellers, positioned in a small park adjacent to the row of CBSA booths.

Border crossing Hill Island

The border crossing normally has two Canadian flags - one on either side. On Monday, the flag to the right was taken down. (CBC)

A much smaller Canadian flag stood behind it, concealed from most travellers by foliage.

A Canadian flag normally also flies on a less prominent flagpole on the opposite side of the booths. On Monday it had been removed entirely (see photos at top and at right).

The Maple Leaf Forever?

The rules governing the flying of the Union Jack on Canadian government buildings have been in existence since December 18, 1964. They were approved by parliament at the same time the Maple Leaf flag replaced the Red Ensign, and were intended to convey Canada’s independence as a sovereign nation by ensuring that the flag of Great Britain never overshadows or replaces the flag of Canada.

But in recent years at least, the Maple Leaf has been retreating.

Shortly after the Harper government took office, there was a kerfuffle over the reappearance of the old Red Ensign flag at the monument to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, unveiled in 2007.

The move was welcomed by monarchist groups that never accepted the Red Ensign’s replacement with the Canadian maple leaf, denounced on the Facebook page of the Canadian Red Ensign Campaign as “frivolous pop-art.”

The government soon followed up with more moves to restore some of Canada’s monarchist and colonial symbols. Those included the rebranding of Canada’s Navy and Air Force with the name “Royal”, and an order that Canadian embassies hang portraits of the Queen.

Last July the Harper government announced it would be removing the maple leaf rank designations from Canadian military uniforms, and replacing them with British-style pips and crowns. It is also changing the rank structure of the Canadian army to mimic British Army rank designations such “fusilier” and “grenadier,” instead of “private”.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay denied the Conservatives were disrespecting Canada’s national symbol. “There are other places in which the Maple Leaf is honoured,” he said.

Peace Tower rebranding

The Union Jack has on occasion displaced the Canadian flag entirely from the country’s most prominent flagpole — atop the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill — where it has been flying alone on the anniversary of the Statutes of Westminster marked each December 11, in apparent contradiction of the original flag protocol approved in 1964.

Those rules state that the Union flag may only fly alongside a Canadian flag on three days of the year. “The Union Jack will, where physical arrangements allow, be flown along with the Canadian flag at federal buildings, airports, military bases, and other appropriate establishments within Canada, from sunrise to sunset.”

The rules clarify: “Physical arrangements means the existence of at least two flag poles. The Canadian flag will always take precedence and will not be replaced by the Union Jack.”

Tom Freda of Citizens for a Canadian Republic called moves to give more prominence to British symbols “retrograde”. 

He says the most surprising change under the Harper government was a 2012 agreement to place Canadian diplomats in offices inside the local British Embassy in countries such as Myanmar where Canada does not have an official mission.

“If a visitor coming into Canada sees a British Union Jack as they’re crossing the border, they’re going to get the impression that Canada is still a colony. And we hope that future governments will look at these regressions and rectify them.”

Canadian Heritage declined to be interviewed but spokesman Pierre Manoni told CBC “The protocol around flying the Royal Union Flag on Victoria Day is clear: the National Flag of Canada should never be replaced by the Royal Union Flag.”

CBSA spokesman Chris Kealey told CBC "The CBSA will ensure that in the future the Union Jack is the same size as the Canadian flag."

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