Ottawa's compassionate flag-raising policy needs work, Mayor Jim Watson admits

The city needs better rules for raising the flags of other countries as a sign of condolence after the Belgium flag was raised at City Hall following terrorist attacks in Brussels, but the Turkish flag was not after similar attacks in Turkey.

'We all have to condemn all terrorist attacks with equal, strong messages,' Turkey's ambassador says

The French flag was raised last November at Ottawa City Hall after more than 120 people were killed in a series of attacks in Paris. (Simon Lasalle/CBC)

The city needs better rules for flying flags of other countries as a sign of condolence after the flags of Belgium and France were raised at City Hall following terrorist attacks in those countries, but the Turkish flag was not after similar attacks in that country, Mayor Jim Watson says.

According to the city's protocol officer, Watson "initiated" the practice of raising a country's flag in solidarity "rather than bringing our flags down to commemorate recent violent attacks" — which is what is actually called for in the city's own "flag protocol procedure" — after the November bombings in Paris that killed 130 people.

On Tuesday, Watson asked that the Pakistani flag be raised to mourn last weekend's bombings in Lahore that killed more than 70.

But the practice is not being applied consistently.

Terrorism in Turkey not acknowledged

In 2016 alone, more than 100 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Turkey.

The wreckage of a bus is seen after an explosion in Ankara's central Kizilay district on Sunday. (Erol Uceem/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 13, at least 37 civilians in the Turkish capital of Ankara died in a suicide car-bomb attack, and six days later another four people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Istanbul. There was no official statement condemning those attacks from the mayor's office. But a few days later, when 35 people were killed in the Brussels bombings, Watson raised the Belgian flag at City Hall.

"We all have to condemn all terrorist attacks with equal, strong messages, show solidarity with all victims, and with all countries and governments who are facing this terrorist threat because it's become a global issue," said Selçuk Ünal, Turkey's ambassador to Canada. 

Ünal said he wasn't pointing fingers at "Ottawa or Canada per se," but worries there's "a tendency, I would say, not to ignore, but to minimize terrorism and its effects in other countries. And it's not only for one country — in my case Turkey — it's the same with some African countries, some Middle Eastern countries, some Southeast Asian countries."

Practise based on requests from community

Watson admitted his flag-flying practise needs to be revisited. 

"Generally, if a member of the community gets in touch with me, we'll raise the flag," Watson said Tuesday. "It's not the most sophisticated way of raising the flag. Where do you draw the line? When should it go down? And so on."

The Pakistani flag was flown in front of Ottawa City Hall on Tuesday following the deaths of more than 70 people during attacks in Lahore. (CBC Ottawa)

The other issue is that some embassies or communities may not be aware they have to ask to have the flag raised. That may explain why the Lebanese flag was not flown at City Hall when Beirut was bombed last November — just a day before the terrorist attacks in Paris. As the mayor had not started his practise of flying other countries' flags, it's likely no one from Ottawa's large Lebanese community knew it was something they could request.

Watson said he does not want it to look as if the city favours one country over another, adding that the "lesson for me is that we probably need some kind of a policy so that everyone is treated fairly and respectfully."

As per the existing flag policy, the city will continue to fly the flag of other countries to mark their national days (as long as the country doesn't "espouse hatred, violence, or racism"), as well as sports teams, charitable causes and visiting dignitaries.

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.