British Columbia

Canadian flag at convoy protests surfaces emotions of pride, anger

Experts say the way the flag is being used by protesters is affecting Canadians’ perception of not only the flag itself but also Canada as a nation. 

Flag being flown in pride at Olympic games but as a sign of protest in Canada

A convoy of supporters of the national 'Freedom Convoy' drive through Kelowna, B.C. on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. (Winston Szeto/CBC)

The Canadian flag is stirring up mixed emotions these days.

While it's being flown as a source of national pride at the Olympic games or World Cup qualifiers, it's also a common sight at anti-mandate protests throughout the country. 

That dichotomy is causing concern for people like Bill Stinson of West Kelowna, B.C.

"I used to be able to demonstrate pride in my country by flying our flag," he wrote in an email to CBC.

"Our flag has now become a symbol of the so-called 'freedom' protesters who have invaded Ottawa. You see lots of sympathizers locally who are flying the flag from cars and trucks."

But those who believe in the protest say the use of the flag makes complete sense.

"The use of our flag is totally appropriate," Dave Johnston of Gray Creek said in an email.

"This is a fight for our country and liberty to live our lives free from government oppression. It's time people wake up and see where we are heading and change the scenario to respect our individual rights."

Experts say the flag represents a freedom to express viewpoints, as long as it's done in a peaceful way and doesn't bring harm to others. That includes people of all beliefs — they can share their views, as long as they aren't spreading hate.

"Some people are going to be supporting the way the flag is being used in the protest and some people are going to be hurt by it, because flags have so much symbolism attached to them," Queen's University public policy professor Kathy Brock told Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South.

Canada's Mikaël Kingsbury, celebrates his silver medal-winning run in the men's moguls finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China on Saturday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Carmen Celestini, a postdoctoral fellow with Simon Fraser University's Disinformation Project, said the way the flag is being used by protesters is affecting Canadians' perception of not only the flag itself, but also Canada as a nation. 

"We see ourselves as being Canada the good, the peacekeepers, and we're sort of having this thrust in front of us that perhaps that isn't completely true," she said. 

"Throughout the pandemic, one of the notions that we've really been pushing is this trope of unity, we've all come together. We're now being absolutely confronted with the complete opposite of those notions and anger and hatred and articulations of disappointment and anger at our nation."

Complicated history

Canadians' relationships with patriotic symbols has been complicated for years.

University of Guelph historian Matthew Hayday, told CBC's Cross Country Checkup that opposition to Canada Day and other patriotic symbols has been around for decades.

Last year, following the news of potential burial sites being found at former residential schools in Canada, flags were flown at half mast for months. The country's national holiday took on a new meaning as communities, by and large, chose to cancel celebrations and encouraged residents to reflect on Canada's history and relationship with Indigenous people, instead.

A woman from a truck holds an anti-vaccine mandate placard while participating in a rally in Vancouver on Saturday Feb. 5, 2022. (Andrew Lee/CBC News)

In some cases during these latest protests, the flag has been flown upside down, which is historically a sign of distress within a nation. Federal rules say the flag should never be flown upside down, burned or marked, among other things. 

Brock, who is researching how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted governance in Canada, said the flag is being used prominently in this movement as a way for protesters to remind the Canadian government that they are Canadian citizens and deserve to be heard. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he won't be negotiating with protesters. Government disinterest from engaging with protesters is one of the reasons the protests are heating up, Brock said.

"If the flag is denigrated or if it becomes a violent or disruptive protest … then the government has to act," Brock said. "It has to start talking to people and giving people a reason to say, OK, we've been heard, we can now go home."

With files from Daybreak South and The Early Edition