The symbolism attached to national flags often revolves around patriotism, but experts say the Maple Leaf’s prominent appearance at COVID-19 mandate protests comes at a moment of reflection for Canada.

Canadians might not be known as fervent flag wavers like their U.S. neighbours, but the Maple Leaf’s display at protests on Parliament Hill and at border crossings has given some people pause, said Carmen Celestini, a post-doctoral fellow with the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University's school of communication in Burnaby, B.C.

"It's definitely jarring for everybody and making people really think about who we are as a nation on so many different levels," she said in an interview.

Images of the flag fluttering from trucks, flying upside down or worn as a cape have captured attention since the blockade began in Ottawa on Jan. 28.

Celestini said most Canadians are having a moment of reflection when it comes to the flag, which began with the discovery of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. The announcement led some cities to cancel Canada Day events in a national reckoning of the country's colonial past.

The flag symbolizes freedom for the truckers, she noted.

"The word freedom can mean so many different things to so many different people," she said. "That is a really good word for social mobilization."

In the 57 years since it was first raised, the Maple Leaf has been hoisted by Olympic athletes in victory, wrapped around coffins of soldiers coming home from Afghanistan in an image of mourning, lit on fire at protests, and worn on hats and sewn on backpacks of travellers.

In Ottawa, it has been fastened to the front of vehicles, sometimes with slogans scrawled across it, becoming an emblem of political affiliation for some.

Phil Triadafilopoulos, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said most of the flags being flown at the protests in Ottawa are the Maple Leaf although there are a few others.

#MapleLeaf flies at protests, the flag is a collective symbol with individual meaning. #TruckerConvoy2022

"So, you know, what does that say about this sort of political orientation of the people assembled there?" he asked.

"I guess the vast majority of them think of themselves as Canadian patriots of some kind."

It's safe to say, he said, that those on the left of the political spectrum don't typically make the same outward expressions of national identification as those on the right.

John Vile, a professor of political science and a dean at Middle Tennessee State University, said the flag is not “quite an empty vessel” as a symbol in the United States and other nations.

"Many people pour their ideas of what they consider to be the most basic and noble aspirations into the symbol, including liberty," he said.

While a flag is meant as a symbol of national unity, Vile said it appears to be used more by the right than the left at this time in U.S. history. This may partly be a result of athletes and others who have "taken a knee" during playing of the U.S. national anthem as they question whether the flag has lived up to American ideals of freedom and equality for all, especially people of colour, he said.

But U.S. politicians of all stripes have long sought to wrap themselves and their policies in the American flag, he added.

"I think it would be tragic if it came to be viewed as a purely partisan symbol," he said.

Celestini said some of that symbolism has seeped into Canada from the United States.

It's reflected in the language and slogans used in Ottawa including "Make Canada Great Again" and calls for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be tried for treason.

"It's very much the language that was articulated in the south during the last couple of elections," she said.

Vile said the flags of all countries are inextricably bound to the idea of nationalism, and love of country isn't confined to one party.

"I don't think liberals love the country any less than conservatives do," he said.

Celestini agreed, adding that the flag cannot be taken over by any one group.

"It is a nation's flag. The flag is definitely individual and definitely national."

Triadafilopoulos said Canada is not as intense as the United States when it comes to flag-waving but there is a sense of pride in its display.

He said he finds it disrespectful when the flag is flown upside down and worries that a shared symbol is being appropriated by some to advance a narrow agenda.

"But I also know that the Canadian flag is important for many Canadians and will likely continue to serve as a common symbol that unites more than it divides," Triadafilopoulos said.

"It's one of those few things that Canadians of all stripes feel quite comfortable with and close to."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2022.

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fluff piece. “ a few other flags????”. like white nationalist symbols of swastkias, snake, confederate. —— just a few—- more like a few dozen. How many white nationalists are required before comment is necessary?so I guess a white audience goes Meh!
no need to decifer them as statements of intent to terrorize non whites, who are there to assert their “ god given right “ to dominate and hog everything ? no need to comment on that?

stop wasting my eyes reading about nothing that matters. geez he didnt even mention the Olympics!

I'm surprised that more people are not aware that a national flag flown upside down is a maritime distress signal. It is ironic that all the Canadian flags at the recent protests made it look like it was run by Americans.

You can smell the worst of the American fringe from anywhere you live in Canada.

I'm glad that someone is attempting to comment on the use of the Canadian flag in these protests. I feel like these protesters have desecrated the Canadian flag. When I see the Canadian flag displayed on trucks or draped around people in the protest I cringe. It's a misuse of a national symbol. And it reeks of Trumpism. The more I find out about these protests, the more evidence of American far right support becomes apparent. As Security Expert Christian Leuprecht says, there is much about this protest that is a threat to our national security and sovereignty.

This demonstration by the Canadian People - having lasted 21 days, is a career dream for any Security Expert, including Mr.Leuprecht who, I am convinced, lives to "strategize and break-up" peaceful gatherings. He would have no purpose without these demonstrations.

Well that was bland. And it didn't once mention the actual primary purpose of all the literal wrapping themselves in the flag: It was to CLAIM patriotism and nationalism as something that belonged ONLY to them. The message was, if you're not us, you're not a patriot, and indeed not really Canadian.

That reasoning explains why they can make themselves think ignoring everyone else's votes and establishing a new government of only people they agree with could possibly be about "freedom"--nobody else's freedom or votes or opinions count, by definition, because by disagreeing with them (or, say, having non-white skin) you stop being a true Canadian and so your positions and interests can be ignored.

Kind of ironic that a whole bunch of them are also separatists. So like, they want to break Canada up but they're the only Canadian patriots. With patriots like that, who needs traitors?

It’s becoming de rigueur to work indigenous issues into almost any ostensibly journalistic topic these days—like pasting and postering any available wall, lamppost and construction hoarding with slogans. Here, the ostensible topic is which way Canadian flags were displayed at recent truckers’ protests but, in yet another example of fashionable piety, the unmarked graves of children recently discovered at residential schools and, of course, one of the many derivative iterations of the word ‘colonial’, look like they’ve been have been ham-handedly inserted—which, in the dimmest illumination of the ostensible topic (that declaring patriots wrap themselves in the flag)—seems to be the article’s only purpose.

If Carmen Celestini of SFU’s Disinformation Project was referring to the unmarked graves in Kamloops when she’s quoted that seeing protesters displaying an inverted national flag is, “...making people think about who were are as a nation,” it isn’t indicated anywhere in the piece except in suspicious-looking proximity to what she was quoted as saying. Did Canadians really have a “moment of reflection when it comes to the flag” at the truckers’ protest, and is it true that it “began with the discovery of...unmarked Kamloops”?

Aside from being a pretty long “moment”—from May 2020 when the graves were found to February 2021 when protesting truckers displayed the Maple Leaf flag upside down—the only connection given, well short of an enlightening quote, is that some cities were led by the grave discoveries “to cancel Canada Day events [July 1] in a national reckoning of the country’s colonial past.” The co-relevancy is so tenuous, one is led to suspect it is tendentious, as well. A few civic cancelations does not a day of “national reckoning” make, and if Canada’s colonial past was its subject, it conspicuously ante-dates when residential offences took place—that is, they occurred in the post-colonial, not colonial past. Does this kind of detail not matter, either?

There isn’t a single hint that Celestini was referring to residential schools, unmarked graves, the colonial past, or indigenous issues at all. Rather, she talks exclusively about the flag and national patriotism, that “the word freedom can mean so many different things,” and that it’s good for “social mobilization”—by which there’s no indication in the slightest that she meant mobilizing to demand justice for indigenous people —let alone for the children buried in unmarked graves or their loved ones. She also refers to American patriotism and its far-right faction’s influence on the Canadian truckers’ protest. Her last quote concludes the “flag is definitely national and definitely individual”—but it’s hardly more indefinite that this whole article.

In the end, I’m still wondering what connection the author is trying to make between the “Freedom Convoy”, unmarked graves, and Canadians’ reflections on their nation —or their flag, for that matter. In context, it rather looks like cut-and-paste. There isn’t even a recommendation that the author thinks inverted flags should cause Canadians to reflect on unmarked graves at church-run residential schools. At least that would have been something.

Something—anything—would be better than more hackneyed misuse of serious indigenous issues. And, of course, better than the continual ad nauseam of ‘colonial.’

Come on! Do better!!!