Debate over Canadian flag resumes as convoy protests return to Ottawa

As convoy protests return to the nation's capital ahead of Canada Day, some Canadians say they want to reclaim the symbolism of the Maple Leaf from the protesters.

Some Canadians want to reclaim the Maple Leaf as a symbol of unity

Protests renew debate about Canadian flag

2 months ago
Duration 2:17
There are renewed calls for people to stop using the Canadian flag as a protest tool, and to instead use it to celebrate values like diversity and inclusion, while for many Indigenous people, the flag remains a symbol of colonialism.

Victor Crapnell remembers the uneasy feeling he had watching the Freedom Convoy protests unfold in his hometown of Ottawa in February. The feeling came as he saw the red and white maple leaf on Canada's flag standing out against the snowy backdrop.

The Victoria resident says seeing the image of the flag displayed so prominently, on some occasions alongside Confederate and Nazi flags, stirred up emotions he says he never usually associated with the country's most recognizable symbol.

"It sort of hit home to me that our beautiful flag had been hijacked as their symbol of protest," Crapnell said. "And I thought, 'That's not right.'"

Person with flag.
People wrapped in Canadian flags hold gas canisters, as truckers and supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates, in Ottawa on Feb. 11. Freedom Convoy protests are expected to return over Canada Day weekend. (Lars Habgerg/Reuters)

With that in mind, the graphic designer created a sticker this spring with an image of a Canadian flag crushing a tractor trailer and the words "Canada Take Back Your Flag" encircling the image. At his wife's behest, so as not to cast aspersions on all truckers, he added a misspelled Freedom Convoy logo on the truck.

Crapnell's project to reclaim what he believes is the rightful meaning of the flag garnered interest across the country. He says he's shipped more than 1,600 stickers nationwide.

"Our flag has always had a reputation around the world of friendliness and tolerance and acceptance, and it really hurt me to see that damaged," said Crapnell.

Man with flag.
Victor Crapnell wants the Canadian flag to continue to represent friendliness and tolerance around the world. 'It sort of hit home to me that our beautiful flag had been hijacked as their symbol of protest,' he said. 'And I thought, 'That's not right.'' (Michael McArthur/CBC)

As Canada Day approaches, some groups related to February's protests have promised to return to Ottawa, leading some to speak out about protesters with the convoy using the flag as their preferred symbol of protest.

Crapnell and others argue it is a symbol of unity, not one that should represent divisions over COVID-19 vaccines and pandemic policies. 

"Now all of a sudden, it's been taken over by people who have a very extreme political agenda. They desecrate, in my view, the flag by using it somehow as a false flag," said Lloyd Axworthy, a former Liberal foreign affairs minister.

"As a result, it diminishes its importance and its sense of meaning for a lot of Canadians."

But members of the protest convoy who see their actions as a patriotic defence of the freedoms Canada stands for say they have just as much right to brandish the flag as any Canadian.

The debate comes as Ottawa police attempt to prevent another occupation, as MPs get panic buttons to deal with a rising number of threats, and a Quebec judge says he and his colleagues are facing threats after hearing cases related to the convoy protests.

Differing views on flag's symbolism

Jason Kowalyshyn of Take Action Canada, a group opposed to vaccine mandates and COVID-related restrictions, is travelling from Hamilton, Ont., to be in Ottawa this weekend. He says the flag will be as prominent as it was during previous protests.

"We should all be united under the flag," he said. "From my perspective, the flag has more meaning now because it represents patriotism and freedom."

Kowalyshyn said when he's driving and sees a car with a Canadian flag, he welcomes it.

"I usually wave at the them, and they smile, and they know why I'm waving because they also understand that [the flag] represents our collective rights and freedoms that we're advocating for," he said.

For Mohamad Fakih, on the other hand, seeing the flag fluttering on people's cars brings a moment of doubt and hesitation. 

Crapnell designed these 'take back your flag' stickers because he wanted to do something to counter the use of the Canadian flag by convoy protesters. He's mailed out more than 1,600 so far. (Submitted by Victor Crapnell)

"You always wonder now when you see the flag, 'Who is the person inside that truck? Who is that person inside that car?'" said Fakih, a Lebanese immigrant to Canada and CEO of Paramount Fine Foods.

"Is it a real Canadian patriot or someone who actually have different set of mind or ideas or someone who is ready to occupy our capital?"

Inside Fakih's office, a large Maple Leaf hangs from a pole beside his desk. He says it represents an important symbol of inclusion, especially for people who came to Canada from other countries seeking better lives. He says he feels the flag, and its association with the protesters, sends the wrong message.

"We need to send a message that the flag will always remain the symbol of freedom, the symbol of diversity and inclusion of an open, great country that welcome people like me and not only welcome them, celebrate them," Fakih said.

He's encouraging Canadians to buy and display flags to reclaim what he sees as the true spirit of the symbol. He put a flag on his own car and posted an image of it as a call to action on social media.

'The flag has always been political'

The Canadian flag has been a source of controversy long before the Freedom Convoy started using it. It's also a painful symbol for many Indigenous people.

"The flag cannot be divorced from the colonization, the violence, the genocide, that Indigenous peoples have experienced," says Niigaan Sinclair, who is Anishinaabe and a professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. 

"Not only does the flag represent maple syrupy sweetness for many Canadians, but for Indigenous peoples, the flag represents a genocide that is still ongoing."

He says Canadians started to understand that last year when flags were lowered to honour children who died while attending residential schools. 

Man smiling.
Flag expert Forrest Pass with Library and Archives Canada say different groups have often used the flag and the maple leaf as a symbol to add legitimacy to their movements. Controversy over different interpretations of the flag's meaning is not new, he said. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

Forrest Pass, an expert in the study of flags, known as a vexillologist, and curator with Library and Archives Canada, said debate was fierce before the Maple Leaf was adopted in 1965. 

It pitted Conservatives, who wanted to maintain a red ensign, against the Liberals and New Democrats, who wanted to adopt the Maple Leaf.

From the 1995 referendum to the flag flap of 1998 — when Bloc Québécois MPs criticized the number of Canadian flags at the Olympics — the Maple Leaf's meaning has always been evolving, he says. 

"The flag has always been political, and this is something Canadians need to remember as we talk about the more controversial uses of the flag today," Pass said.

While the Ottawa protests involved a number of different groups, many with different agendas, Pass says mainstream political symbols such as the flag can often be used to legitimize extreme beliefs.

WATCH | Here's how Ottawa is preparing for potential Canada Day protests:

Ottawa prepares for protests to coincide with Canada Day

2 months ago
Duration 1:59
Ottawa’s mayor and police say they are prepared for any planned protests around Canada Day celebrations, but business owners and residents say they are bracing themselves after February’s disruption.

He says there may have also been a practical purpose behind adopting the flag: as a protective shield.

"I think that they were bargaining on the idea that being arrested while flying a Canadian flag would look bad before rolling TV cameras," Pass said.

He says the kind of flag-waving seen at protests in Canada today is heavily influenced by the U.S., which has a long history of using the flag as a patriotic symbol.

"It looks very much like an American patriotic display … and that's a fairly recent development in Canada," Pass said.

Mohamad Fakih says he recognizes that there are a lot of different groups within the protests but says he hopes they won't overtake Canada Day celebrations.

"Diversity and inclusion is part of our Canadian dream and democracy," he said. "If you're not happy with the prime minister, if you're not happy with politics, then vote. Go through the democratic process."

In Victoria, Victor Crapnell hopes that the Canadian flag will be on full display across the country this weekend.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the positive flags outweigh the negative ones," he said.


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now