Did the ‘Freedom Convoy’ Change the Meaning of Canada’s Flag?
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 to some as the “Freedom Convoy.”
Some Canadians fear that the flag has become a symbol of protest rather than a symbol of the nation.Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times
In the months since, the sight of Canadian flags mounted on cars and pickup trucks or flying outside homes has some doing double takes: Is that flag a symbol of protest or of unity?
Canada adopted its maple leaf flag in 1965, the final chapter in a long and extremely contentious debate over whether to abandon the Canadian Red Ensign, the former flag with a Union Jack in the top left corner and a coat of arms on the bottom right.
Far-right groups — including the Proud Boys, which was co-founded by a Canadian, Gavin McInnes — have latched onto the Red Ensign in veneration of white settler history. In 2017, five members of the Canadian Armed Forces were among a group of Proud Boys who carried the Red Ensign flag while confronting Indigenous protesters in Halifax on Canada Day.
But neither the old Red Ensign flag nor the current maple leaf one has ever turned much of the country into flag fanatics. By and large, Canadians just aren’t that into it.
“There are still some people who ostentatiously fly the pre-1965 flag, a sign of disapproval but, it is kind of arcane,” said Robert Bothwell, a professor emeritus of Canadian history at the University of Toronto. “You have to be reasonably sophisticated to know what” it is, he said, adding “so I don’t see that becoming a popular movement.”
Flags were historically used to color or give expression to Canada’s political movements and sentiments, Mr. Bothwell said. Particularly in Quebec, flags came to denote whether the person waving them was a separatist, nationalist or federalist.
“Canadians are proud about the flag, but the question, not only with the ‘Freedom Convoy,’ is what does it represent?” said Richard Nimijean, a historian and instructor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“It’s important to remember that we always renegotiate these symbols and what they mean,” he added.
The organizers of the convoy have said the flags that demonstrators carried represented the rallying cry of their protest, “Freedom!” But some Canadians said that after the protests, they would feel wary about using the flag to convey national pride even on Canada Day.
“I shouldn’t have to feel awkward, and that’s what bothers me most,” said Brian Lewis, who is running for a City Council seat in Hamilton, Ontario, a city west of Toronto. “I’m proud of my country and what it stands for,” he added. But, Mr. Lewis said, in February, he started “to get looks” for flying a Canadian flag on his car.
“I’m sitting in a parking lot of a grocery store right now and I’m a little bit disappointed,” by the dearth of flag displays, he said during an interview on Thursday. “But I understand why, totally, and it’s sad.”
Claudia Laroye, a Vancouver-based travel writer, said driving past one of the convoys in British Columbia during the winter gave her the impression that the flag had been “co-opted.” She said the convoy left “those of us who didn’t agree with that messaging wondering how we could fly it and not appear to be supportive.”
“We will display it this year to contradict that messaging, in our own small way,” Ms. Laroye said in an email.
Many of the symbols interspersed between Canadian flags at the protests last winter represented American politics: flags and posters for Donald Trump, Gadsden flags bearing the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me,” posters of the U.S. Bill of Rights and Confederate flags.
The organizers disavowed those symbols, but the images raised some eyebrows. “I didn’t know you could secede from a country you weren’t a part of,” Stephen Colbert joked in a February segment of his late-night show, referring to the Confederate flag sightings.
While these imported symbols have little historical relevance to Canada, they have come to broadly represent values associated with the far right, appearing prominently during the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.
The preponderance of flags on Jan. 6 was “sinister,” said Mr. Bothwell. He added, “It really was meant to imply that they are the real Americans and the people inside 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 making their way from other parts of Canada toward Ottawa to oppose vaccination mandates at the U.S. border.
But the protests soon attracted other Canadians expressing general antigovernment sentiment in light of pandemic restrictions, immobilizing downtown Ottawa and several border crossings for weeks and prompting questions about law enforcement officers’ friendly response.
Early on, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the protesters as a “small fringe minority” and rebuked some for desecrating public monuments and wielding Nazi symbols.
The Ottawa police ramped up security this week for Friday’s celebrations, boosting parking patrol and towing more than 70 vehicles between Wednesday and Friday. Fences were erected around buildings, including the Supreme Court, and police made at least five arrests in the lead-up to festivities.
While people involved in February’s action promised to renew their protest on Canada Day, they were vastly outnumbered by police officers and families making their way to the first official celebrations since 2019. Late Friday afternoon, however, one group about a block long paraded around the perimeter of the capital’s downtown waving flags and shouting “freedom” before gathering at the National War Memorial to sing “O Canada.”
The tense buildup to this year’s celebrations took on a different tenor from last July, when many people flew their Canadian flags at half-staff and called for the cancellation of holiday plans after hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered at the sites of former residential schools for Indigenous children.
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Vjosa Isai is a Canada news assistant at The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.
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