Canada

From snakes to Spartans: The meaning behind some of the flags convoy protesters are carrying

A number of flags could be seen flying at protests against vaccine mandates across the country the last few weeks, some of which might have been unfamiliar to many Canadians. But for experts who study political movements and extremism, the symbols were easily recognizable.

Gadsden, Patriote and Molon Labe flags have been seen at vaccine-mandate protests

A man waves a Gadsden flag in Ottawa while taking part in the convoy protest. It's one of several American flag imports spotted at protests across the country. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in the nation's capital and other cities across Canada over the last three weeks to protest vaccine mandates, pandemic restrictions and lockdowns. 

While many protesters have been carrying the Canadian flag, some have been waving flags that are less recognizable.

But for experts who study extremism in Canada, the symbols on some of these flags are familiar. 

Here's what some of them mean.

Gadsden flag

"If you step on a snake, you're going to get bitten. That's the idea," said Matthew Chen of the coiled-snake symbol on the yellow flag with the words "Don't Tread on Me" written on it that he was carrying to Saturday's convoy protest in Toronto. 

Chen is vaccinated but said he was there to stand up for individual rights because he doesn't think public health measures are fair to people who choose to be unvaccinated.

Matthew Chen said he decided to carry a Gadsden flag to the Feb. 12 Toronto protest because of its message to government: 'Don't tread on me.' (Turgut Yeter/ CBC)

"It only takes one generation to let freedom slip, and then you have Communist China, you have Putin's Russia," Chen said. "They can't do anything unmonitored. And I don't want that here."

The Gadsden flag dates back to the 18th century, with its roots in the American Revolution. Named for Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolina politician and brigadier general in the Continental Army who is believed to have designed it, it was originally adopted by the navy as a warning to British forces who sought to control the colonies.

It later became a favourite among Libertarians in the United States.

The flag was also used by the Tea Party movement and was spotted outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C.

A Gadsden flag in the crowd during the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former U.S. president Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

"The snake that's at the centre of the Gadsden flag refers to this notion of defensive violence — that whoever is carrying that flag is there to defend their territory, to defend themselves," said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.

"In this case, to defend themselves or the movement or Canadians from a tyrannical government."

To many who brandish the Gadsden flag, it doesn't necessarily signal far right extremism so much as anti-government sentiment and libertarianism.

Gadsden flag, but with a Canadian twist

A Canadian version of the Gadsden flag, seen here at the Feb. 12 protest at Queen's Park in Toronto, substitutes the goose for the original snake. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

A Canadian variation of the Gadsden has been on display at a number of the convoy protests, with the snake swapped out for an aggressive Canada goose.

"I think that's a very clever use of the flag because the Canada Goose is also territorial, also protective, also defensive," Perry said.

"What we've heard through the protests here is that emphasis on the need to defend themselves against a tyrannical state — that our freedoms are being taken away from us."

A Canadian Gadsden flag flies at the Queen's Park protest on Feb. 5. (Katie Nicholson/ CBC)

Steve, a protester who carried a Canadian Gadsden flag to the Queen's Park protest Saturday said the Canadian version seemed appropriate since Canadian geese "honk," and honking has played a large role in the convoy protests.

"It essentially is self-explanatory," said Steve, who gave his surname as "defund the CBC."

"Don't tread on me, right? You don't mess with me. And you know, no one will mess with you. The non-aggression principle.

"Clearly we want government off our back … I'm a proud, strong Canadian, but, you know, minimal government."

Molon Labe flag

This black and white flag with an image of a Spartan helmet was spotted outside Queen's Park during the Feb. 5 Toronto protest. The words "Molon Labe" are Greek for "Come and take them."

The phrase and the image are popular among supporters of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) in the U.S.

"It's very similar to what Charlton Heston said when he was president of the NRA (National Rifle Association) in the U.S. 'Take these guns from my cold, dead hands,'" said Perry.

This Molon Labe flag paired with a Canadian flag was unfurled outside Queen’s Park Feb. 5. (Katie Nicholson/ CBC)

"To have that gun-rights narrative enter into this movement was a little disconcerting, but it also speaks to the fact that we are seeing more of that American-style emphasis on gun rights in the Canadian context, within some of the far right groups, specifically."

The appearance of flags that have their origins in the U.S. at the protests isn't surprising to those who study extremism.

"The United States is and remains the greatest [exporter] of far right ideology," said David Hofmann, who researches far right extremism at the University of New Brunswick.

Hofmann said homegrown extremists and those on the far right often borrow images and symbols from the United States even if they are based on laws — such as the Second Amendment — that have no bearing in Canada.

"This is more about evoking core ideas, about freedom, about rights for the far right movement as a global entity," he said.

Patriote flag

Some of the flags are homegrown, including variations on the Patriote flag, which dates back to the 1830s.

Historically, the flag has been associated with the Patriote movement in Lower Canada (which included the southern portion of present-day Quebec) and the rebellions of 1837 and 1838, explained Frédérick Nadeau, who works at an anti-radicalization research centre at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit, a public francophone college in Longueuil, Que.

A patriote flag hangs off the shoulder of an Ottawa protester. The flag has become a symbol of far right Quebec nationalists, according to experts. (CBC)

Those rebellions sought to make Lower Canada independent from the British Empire. The green, white and red colours of the flag are likely a nod to the province's Irish, French and British inhabitants, respectively, at the time, Nadeau said.

The flag was resurrected around the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum, with new details: a star to light Quebec's way forward and a rebel figure holding a musket, Nadeau said.

"We saw it make a reappearance recently in ultra-nationalist and far right demonstrations," said Nadeau.

Patriote flag, but with a gnome

Pictures from the protests in Ottawa also show a variation of the Patriote flag, with an image of gnome holding a Quebec flag added.

A Patriote flag with a gnome on it, seen in Ottawa, is a symbol of the Quebec-based anti-COVID restriction group Les Farfadaas (CBC)

"This is the symbol of a particular group that was created in the beginning of the pandemic, and the group is called Les Farfadaas. Farfadet is the translation of 'gnome,' more or less, in French," Nadeau said.

The group was formed in Quebec to protest against public health measures. 

"And so that group originated from the far right group La Meute."

La Meute is a Quebec-based group widely regarded by experts as being far right, anti-Islam and anti-immigration.

Les Farfadaas' cheerful gnome figure may seem odd, but Louis Audet Gosselin, the scientific and strategic director of the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, said it started when one of the group's leaders joked that politicians and newspapers treated them as if they were "Farfadaas." 

"Movements like that, they throw out a lot of imagery and some of them stick," Gosselin said. "Those symbols always evolve and that will probably continue to do so in the future."

The gnome-like figure isn't the only symbol used by Les Farfadaas.

"They also use … some symbols of the biker universe. So they have leather suits … with badges on," Gosselin said.

Canadian flag, but upside down

Another familiar sight at the protests has been an upside down Canadian flag. Flying a nation's flag upside down is generally meant to convey a distress signal or a sign of extreme danger to life.

Federal rules say the flag should never be flown upside down, burned as an effigy or marked, among other things. 

An upside down Canadian flag flies on the bumper of a vehicle parked on Wellington Street in Ottawa, on Feb. 6, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Protesters have used the upside-down Canadian flag at pandemic-related protests since the first months of the lockdown. In May 2020, anti-lockdown protesters gathered at Queen's Park in Toronto to demand Premier Doug Ford lift restrictions. 

"What just burns me up, more than anything, more than them standing out there, is I look out the window, and I see our Canadian flag being flown upside down," Ford said at the time.

Flags are window into protest, expert says

While these are just a small sample of some of the flags and symbols on display at the protests, researchers who have studied them say they offer a window into some of the groups fuelling the protests.

"There are multiple intersecting and converging elements to this movement, which is providing a strength for the movement as a whole," said Perry.

WATCH | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invokes the Emergencies Act:

Trudeau announces he will invoke the Emergencies Act to deal with protest deadlock in Ottawa

3 months ago
Duration 1:36
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained how the Emergencies Act will be used to deal with the ongoing protests in the nation's capital and at some Canada-U.S. border crossings.

Hofmann said many of the converging groups have the same goal: attention.

"They're not monolithic, but they're all there to get attention. They want people watching," he said. 

"This isn't a single entity as much as it is a bunch of groups with their own agendas and their own focus and their own goals, seizing the opportunity to to be seen and to spread their messaging."

And Nadeau says the pandemic has played a key role in this convergence.

"So many political fringes that were until then evolving in separate political spheres, and that were even in conflict with one another sometimes, really came together to protest against the public health measures," he said.

"Those different symbols that we saw this weekend and the variety of it, and, it really tells us about the complexity of that movement."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katie Nicholson

Senior Reporter

Katie Nicholson is a senior reporter with CBC News based in Toronto.

with files from Waqas Chughtai

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