The House

Capture the flag: how the convoy protests use Canada's most powerful symbol

Over half a century after Canada adopted the Maple Leaf flag for the first time, its image has changed for some Canadians due to its use as a symbol by participants in convoy protests in Ottawa.

One expert says the flag's use in the Ottawa protests suggests the symbol 'has matured'

A police car passes trucks parked in front of the Parliament buildings on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On any normal day, Ottawa is dotted with Canadian flags — adorning federal buildings and topping the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

But the national symbol has been virtually everywhere in the city over the past few weeks. Protesters have literally wrapped themselves in the Maple Leaf during the anti-vaccine mandate demonstrations that have occupied the downtown core — demonstrations that police moved to end on Friday with dozens of arrests.

Protesters' use of symbols has been controversial since the convoy rolled into town roughly three weeks ago. Sightings of Confederate flags and swastikas were major events early in the protest. On Friday, the Manitoba Métis Federation condemned protesters' use of its flag.

After weeks of living with the protesters, many downtown residents say they can no longer see a Maple Leaf flag without a feeling of tension.

"I have my guard up immediately," one resident said, describing their feelings when they see someone carrying the flag in the street.

"Every time I see a Canadian flag now, you know, it's almost like you're embarrassed to be Canadian at the moment."

Removal of flags key demand for counter-protesters

During the third weekend of the protests, some residents demanded that protesters remove Canadian flags from their vehicles before passing through a counter-protest blockade set up outside the city's downtown core.

Joel Harden, a provincial NDP MPP who was helping to manage that counter-protest, said that participants told him they felt the flag had been politicized and tarnished by its use in the protests.

A police officer speaks with a trucker parked in Ottawa’s downtown core Feb. 16, 2022. Police were handing out paper notices that morning reminding people blocking streets is illegal, along with making sure they knew about recent new powers.
A police officer speaks with a trucker parked in Ottawa’s downtown core on Feb. 16, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"People feel like the Canada they want, the tolerant Canada, the inclusive Canada, has really been compromised in the last two weeks," he said. The fact that the flags were linked to reported episodes of protesters harassing locals just made it worse, he added.

"I'm not saying that speaks for every single protester, but the presence of those flags on those trucks, and some of those protesters doing those things, really unsettle people," he said.

"So, symbols matter to people. And I think it's fair to say that for a lot of counter-protesters, they felt an important symbol for them was violated."

Flag was political from the start

Experts say the protesters' use of the Canadian flag amounts to an argument in the public square about what the flag means — and what Canada means.

"It's not so much what the flag symbolizes as the fact that the flag represents the nation. And than what does the nation symbolize?" said Peter Ansoff, an American vexillologist — someone who studies flags.

"It's really what the nation stands for that they're arguing about."

Peter Ansoff displays a Canadian flag outside his house in the Washington, D.C. area on Flag Day, Feb. 15, 2022. (Submitted by Peter Ansoff)

Richard Nimijean, an instructor with the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University, agreed.

"It's not so much that [protesters are] co-opting the flag. It's that the flag is, at one level, an object of unity," he said. "But in fact, flags are also subject to disunity. We fight about it all the time."

Forrest Pass is a vexillologist and curator with Library and Archives Canada. He said that while debates about the flag are often about national identity, there's also a practical element to protesters' use of the Maple Leaf image.

"I think there's also a use of it as a shield," he said. "I think that if we had seen heavy enforcement efforts early on in the demonstrations, with so many protesters flying the Canadian flag, I think that the optics of that would have been would have been bad."

The Red Ensign comes down at the flag inauguration ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Feb. 15, 1965. (The Canadian Press)

Pass said the Canadian flag has never been a neutral or apolitical symbol. In fact, it was a political football from the moment of its birth.

Canada observed Flag Day on Feb. 15, celebrating the moment in January, 1965 when Queen Elizabeth signed the royal proclamation formally adopting the new flag.

The flag was controversial at first. Only after what Pass called an "acrimonious" debate between Conservatives (who opposed the new flag) and the Liberals and NDP (who supported it) did Canada replace the old Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf design.

But its use in the protest does represent something new, Pass argued.

"This sort of association of the flag with a right-of-centre movement is, I think, a novelty and I think is an indication that the Canadian flag has matured," he said. "Almost counterintuitively, it's becoming depoliticized by this use."

A man holds a Canadian flag in front of Parliament as truckers and supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa on February 18, 2022. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The way Canadians approach the flag, Ansoff said, is starting to align with the way Americans treat the Stars and Stripes; in the U.S., it's common for activists across the political spectrum to wave the flag in any protest.

"There's certainly a use of the flag on both sides," Pass said. "And I think that's an indication of the flag as an emblem, an indication that it is something that has come to represent Canada — even if we don't know exactly what Canada represents."

The power of symbols 

The Maple Leaf banner had another significant moment last year, when flags on federal buildings were lowered for months to honour Indigenous children who died at residential schools.

During that time, Lou-ann Neel redesigned the B.C. flag — using styles inspired by her Kwakwakaʼwakw culture — to launch a conversation about symbolism and inclusion in Canada.

"For myself, my flag was just conveying a peaceful message that just says, 'We're still here. We're part of this province,'" said Neel, who attended residential school.

The Canadian flag at half-mast atop the Peace Tower in Ottawa. (Olivier Hyland/CBC News)

Neel, who works with the Royal B.C. Museum on Indigenous collections and repatriations, said the flag represents everything about this country — the good and the bad — and that arguments about its use should move beyond symbolism to a deeper engagement with the past.

"I think that we are missing the opportunity to have a much larger discussion, instead of just saying, 'You shouldn't do this or you ought not to do that with the flag,' because of some mysterious common vision we all share about it," she said.

Harden framed that optimistic vision a bit differently.

"What's that game we played as kids, capture the flag?" he said. "Let's recapture the flag with a different aura and put some actual kindness into it, and try not to dehumanize people on the way there."

With files from Jennifer Chevalier