Whether you were in Surrey, British Columbia, or Coutts, Alberta, or Windsor, Ontario — or, especially, if you were in Ottawa — you saw a sea of red-and-white Canadian flags rippling in the winter wind during this year’s protests against the federal government and pandemic mandates, known by some as the ‘Freedom Convoy’.
In the months since, seeing Canadian flags mounted on cars and pickups or flying outside homes has made some do double: Is that flag a symbol of protest or of unity?
Canada adopted its maple leaf flag in 1965, the latest chapter in a long and highly controversial debate over whether to give up the Canadian Red Ensign, the former flag with a Union Jack in the top left corner and a coat of arms in the bottom right.
Far-right groups — including the Proud Boys, co-founded by a Canadian, Gavin McInnes — have clung to the Red Ensign in deference to the history of white settlers. In 2017, five members of the Canadian Forces were among a group of proud boys who carried the red flag while confronting Indigenous protesters in Halifax on Canada Day.
But neither the old Red Ensign flag nor the current maple leaf flag ever turned much of the country into flag fanatics. In general, Canadians just aren’t that into it.
“There are still people ostentatiously flying the pre-1965 flag, a sign of disapproval, but it’s a bit secretive,” said Robert Bothwell, professor emeritus of Canadian history at the University of Toronto. “You have to be pretty advanced to know what” it is, he said, adding “so I don’t see that becoming a popular move.”
Flags have traditionally been used to color or express Canada’s political movements and sentiments, Mr Bothwell said. In Quebec, in particular, flags indicated whether the person waving them was a separatist, nationalist, or federalist.
“Canadians are proud of the flag, but the question, not just with the ‘Freedom Convoy’, is what it represents?” said Richard Nimijean, a historian and lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“It’s important to remember that we are always renegotiating these symbols and what they mean,” he added.
The convoy organizers have said the flags the protesters were carrying represented their protest’s rallying cry: “Freedom!” But some Canadians said they would be wary of using the flag to show national pride after the protests, even on Canada Day.
“I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable, and that’s what bothers me the most,” said Brian Lewis, who is running for a seat on the city council in Hamilton, Ontario, a city west of Toronto. “I am proud of my country and what it stands for,” he added. But, Mr Lewis said, in February he started “getting looks” for flying a Canadian flag on his car.
“I’m sitting in a supermarket parking lot right now and I’m a little disappointed,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “But I understand why, totally, and it’s sad.”
Claudia Laroye, a travel writer from Vancouver, said driving past one of the convoys in British Columbia during the winter impression that the flag was “co-opted”. She said the convoy left “those of us who disagreed with those messages and wondered how we could fly it and not seem to support it.”
“We’ll show it this year to contradict those messages, in our own little way,” Ms Laroye said in an email.
Many of the symbols that alternated between Canadian flags during last winter’s protests represented American politics: flags and posters for Donald Trump, Gadsden flags with the phrase “Don’t tread on me”, posters of the US Bill of Rights and Confederate -flags.
The organizers denied those symbols, but the images raised eyebrows. “I didn’t know you could separate from a country you’re not a part of,” Stephen Colbert joked on a February segment of his late night show, referring to the sightings of the Confederate flag.
While these imported symbols have little historical relevance to Canada, they have broadly come to represent values associated with the far right, and came to the fore during the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol riot.
The predominance of flags on Jan. 6 was “sinister,” said Mr. Bothwell. He added: “It was really meant to imply that they are the real Americans and the people in the Capitol are not, and I think that has exactly the same meaning as the flags” of those who protested on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
[Read: Was Canada Trucker Protest a Blip, or the Start of Something Bigger?]
The “Freedom Convoy” began in January with loosely organized groups of truck drivers coming to Ottawa from other parts of Canada to oppose vaccination mandates at the US border.
But the protests soon attracted other Canadians who expressed general anti-government sentiment in the face of pandemic restrictions, immobilizing downtown Ottawa and several border crossings for weeks and raising questions about law enforcement’s friendly response.
At first, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the protesters as a “small fringe minority” and rebuked some for desecrating public monuments and using Nazi symbols.
Ottawa Police this week increased security for Friday’s celebrations, increasing parking patrol and towing more than 70 vehicles between Wednesday and Friday. Fences were erected around buildings, including the Supreme Court, and police have made at least five arrests in the run-up to the festivities.
While the people involved in the February action pledged to renew their Canada Day protest, many more police officers and families made their way to the first official celebrations since 2019. perimeter of the center of the capital waving flags and shouting “liberty” before gathering at the National War Memorial to sing “O Canada.”
The tense build-up to this year’s celebrations took a different turn from last July, when many people flew their Canadian flags at half-mast and called for vacation plans to be canceled after hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered in the sites of former residential schools for Indigenous children.
Nazem Kadri, a hockey player from London, Ontario, scored one of the defining goals of the Stanley Cup playoffs, winning his first championship after 13 seasons in the NHL
AO Scott, The Times’ chief film critic, reviewed a new documentary called “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song,” about Montreal’s most famous crooner.
Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian research chair in health law at the University of Alberta that studies disinformation, said research has shown that powerful personal anecdotes can undermine people’s ability to think scientifically. It’s a tactic used on social media platforms like TikTok, but these creators are pushing back on health myths.
In Op-Docs, The Times’ award-winning series of short documentaries, photographer Kitra Cahana provides an intimate look at “what it means to live in a state of deep isolation”. The series is narrated by her father, Rabbi Ronnie Cahana, who lives in a long-term care facility in Montreal.
In light of last week’s ruling on abortion rights in the US Supreme Court, The Morning newsletter looked at how, in other advanced democracies, including Canada, courts are more reserved.
There’s not much of Toronto in “The Man From Toronto.”
Vjosa Isai is a Canadian news assistant at DailyExpertNews. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.
How are we doing?
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Send them to nytcanada..
Do you like this email?
Forward it to your friends and let them know they can sign up here.