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As the protests and blockades have shown, a country’s flag has more than one meaning. Ian Brown explores the changing symbolism of the maple leaf

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The Canadian flag flies upside-down on Parliament Hill on Jan. 28, ahead of the first weekend of a truck convoy's protests against COVID-19 restrictions.DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images

The abuses of the Canadian flag by the so-called freedom convoy over the past two unravelling weeks that most offended Sidney Aster were the profane ones – the beach-towel-sized Canadian flags and banderoles and gonfalons whose red maple leaves had been replaced with the words FUCK TRUDEAU in thick black letters.

Prof. Aster is a hard man to offend. He spent his career researching and teaching Second World War history (most recently at the University of Toronto). He tends to take the clear-eyed, unshockable view of events and human foolishness.

“Imagine,’ he said over the telephone before lunch the other day, and he sounded fairly upset, “in this country, we’ve stooped to that level of discourse. In my entire life I’ve never seen anything like that. Did they ever say “Eff Pearson?” Or “Eff Mulroney?” Never. We never defended that level of symbolism and discourse. And that’s what I find distressing.”

That, he added, and the convoy organizers’ promiscuous flinging of the word freedom.

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Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

“I realize you’re not dealing with PhD students,” he said. “but there’s no such thing in democracy as absolute freedom. They don’t drive without a licence or without being inspected for safety. They’ve surrendered their freedom in a million ways. We all have, in a democracy. That’s how we function. Otherwise, we are dealing with anarchy.”

Anarchy as a preferable alternative to prudent limits on our freedom may be the impression the small but mighty band of convoy protesters want to convey.

The flag has been front and centre (and everywhere else) for the entire tumultuous, unnerving fortnight: waved amid the honking blockades, brandished alongside the ever-shifting demands of the protesters, worn by racists and neo-Nazis (both movements have ties to organizers of the convoy, at least one of whom has stated his intention to dismantle the federal government). The flag has been flown, flung, hung, strung, draped and taped.

The convoy has persuaded loud-mouthed American right-wingers to climb aboard the bandwagon (Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr.; even Elon Musk tweeted his support for the truckers) and has inspired copycat convoys around the world (the latest one is in France).

If the uses and abuses that the flag has suffered in the course of the convoy’s antics are anything to go by, Canada is having a crushing identity crisis.

But that’s the thing about a flag: it’s a powerful symbol, but it’s only a symbol. It can mean whatever its bearer wants it to mean. That might be good news.

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The Maple Leaf's present and past: At top, protesters on Parliament Hill wave defaced flags and anti-Trudeau slogans this past week, and at bottom, a 100-person honour guard raises the then-new flag for the first time at Ontario's legislature on Feb. 16, 1965.LARS HAGBERG/AFP via Getty Images; John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

The Maple Leaf flag – the one the convoy protesters have wrapped themselves in while they try to force Justin Trudeau into accepting their (non-negotiable) demands – came into being in 1965.

Canada’s sacrifices in two world wars had earned the country a claim to greater independence from Britain – a development Mackenzie King tried to capitalize on when he promised the nation a new flag during the election campaign of 1945. But conservatives were outraged at the thought of abandoning the Union Jack. Mr. King unveiled the Red Ensign as a compromise – a red ground with the British Union Jack in the upper hoist canton and Canada’s coat of arms as centre emblem.

Maurice Duplessis, the premier-king of Quebec, responded three years later by declaring the Fleur-de-lis to be Quebec’s flag, thereby a) winning the next provincial election and b) fanning the flames of Quebec separatism Lester Pearson faced when he took over a Liberal minority in Parliament in 1963.

But Mr. Pearson was himself no slouch in the optics department: his bow tie was the very image of precision and modesty. He immediately tabled a motion for a new flag design. The blistering debate that followed – the Pearson Pennant, as John Diefenbaker called it, versus the existing ensign – was eventually referred to a House committee. Hundreds of citizens submitted designs, recasting the debate and outmanoeuvring Mr. Diefenbaker. The winner (the red and white maple leaf pale Canada has today) was the work of historian George Stanley. Ontario and Manitoba instantly adopted the ensign as their provincial flags in protest.

But over the ensuing four decades, the Maple Leaf flag came to represent something a lot of people were proud of: not just French-English unity, but multiculturalism and the glory days of social democracy – an ideal of decent, tolerant, civic nationalism, rather than its divisive ethnic cousin. “In the 1960s, 1970s, every young kid going to Europe at that time, what did they put in their knapsack?” Professor Aster pointed out. “The Canadian flag. To say, we’re not American, we’re not British, we’re Canadian. And we’re harmless.”

True, separatists and Indigenous protesters alike have burned and hung the flag upside down and even redesigned it, to protest their treatment at the hands of the Canadian government. A growing number of public buildings today fly Indigenous flags as well as the Canadian standard. “It’s a signal that the maple leaf doesn’t represent all of Canada’s nations,” University of King’s College historian Shirley Tillotson told me the other day. “The history of the flag is really about the changing meanings of nationalism.”

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A Canadian flag reads 'reconciliation is dead' at a 2020 protest by supporters of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs at B.C.'s legislature in Victoria.Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

The protesters, on the other hand, whoever they may be, drape themselves in the flag not because they believe in a kinder, gentler Canada – there is no evidence for that – but because it offers protective colouration. Dalhousie University’s Will Langford studies right-wing extremist groups of the Cold War period. The full-on adoption of the Canadian flag by the so-called trucker convoy is no surprise to him. “Between the 1960s and the 1980s, fringe movements were always looking for a way to edge into the public debate. They used words like ‘our Canada’ and ‘our way of life’ and ‘our freedom.’ There’s this constant battle to appear respectable and within the bounds of what is acceptable. The flag is kind of useful for claiming legitimacy.” And you don’t have to be a rebel or an outsider to wear the flag as a disguise. Prof. Langford can still picture Stephen Harper in his maple-leafed Roots jacket and Jean Chrétien in his Team Canada togs. “Isn’t that middle-of-the-road patriotism? So the flag is a middle-of-the-road symbol that lets you suggest you are at the centre of public debate.”

In that context, the appearance of swastikas and Confederate flags and the Gadsden Don’t Tread On Me banner last week in Ottawa isn’t a surprise either. “This kind of moment of coming together, of trying to build common interests, is something the right has tried many times,” Prof. Langford says. “This is an opportunity to build allies and connections.”

The first thing many fringe groups do to ease their way into the mainstream is design their own identifying symbol. Everyone needs a logo! This being Canada, the symbol has often incorporated the maple leaf. The oldest known Canadian flag bears one, used by the francophone rebels in the Battle of Saint-Eustache in 1837; so do the early icons of any number of right- and left-wing outfits – everybody from the Canadian Physicians for Life (anti-abortion) to the National Socialist Christian Party, a fascist organization that operated in Quebec during the 1930s. Its logo was a swastika surrounded by a pretty posey of maple leaves, topped with a beaver. One of the group’s supporters liked the logo so much he had it carved into the banisters of his home.

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One Ottawa protester's flag bore a phrase Trump supporters adopted in place of a more profane insult against Joe Biden. Others brought modified forms of the Confederate flag, bottom, which has had racist connotations since its use in the U.S. Civil War by the seceding pro-slavery states.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press; DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images

For all the Canadian flags on display, the protests have had a sharp American feel, not just in their unapologetic Trumpy aggressiveness, or because of the forest of Trumpy flags, but because the protesters seem to care only about “freedom” – from vaccine mandates, but also from vaccines and lockdowns and other restrictions, all of which have enabled Canada have one of the least deadly pandemics among countries of the developed world. Freedom is a word that appears in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) rather than in section 91 of the British North American Act of 1867 (in which the stated goal is “peace, order and good government”). Canadians hardly ever want to kill the king. They prefer assimilation and compromise to revolution, guns and fervid paranoia.

“What freaked me out,” Prof. Tillotson said, “was not just the excessive Canadian flag waving, but also the number of American flags, never mind Confederate flags, in Ottawa over the course of the week. That bothers me. I think we’re still a different flag culture in that respect. We don’t use it as a declaration: this is my identity.” The problem now, of course, is that “if white supremacists are flying Canadian flags, then every time I see someone with a Canadian flag now, I’m going to think, yeah, that’s a crazy racist right winger. Whereas before I would not have thought that.” It’s as if the meaning of the Canadian flag has been stolen out from under us.

Rabid flag-waving was something only Americans did until well into the 20th century. “In the United States, the habit goes back to the Revolutionary flag,” my third distinguished historian, University of Toronto’s Robert Bothwell, told me one morning. “And also to the aftermath of the Civil War,” when Americans needed to convince themselves they still had a country. “But in Canada, the ritual display of a flag or the invocation of the flag” – as practised by the protesters – ”that’s not our culture. I think these guys have largely picked it up from the States, where it’s been taken to truly grotesque heights.”

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A U.S. flag and Canadian Red Ensign fly at the Alaska-Yukon boundary in the early 20th century.Library of Congress

Before 1920, in fact, Canadians were actively hostile to American flags and to Americans displaying them on Canadian soil.

Forrest Pass, a vexillologist and curator at Libraries and Archives Canada in Ottawa, has unearthed 60 “flag incidents” between 1880 and 1920. Flags of American consulates were vandalized; flags of American cottage owners in Canada were torn down and shot at. Some Canadian towns limited their display by law. This disdain for the U.S. flag was seen across the country, in Toronto and Winnipeg as well as Digby and Vancouver.

Mr. Pass describes the vandalism as a form of acting out, often involving alcohol, a reaction to the terror of living so close to the American behemoth. By 1921, after all, the United States was the source of most of Canada’s imports and the customer for most of our exports.

“Canada served for two centuries as the U.S.’s counter-revolutionary foil, a model of what might have been had British arms prevailed at Ticonderoga and Yorktown,” Mr. Pass has written. As recently as the First World War, Toronto banned movies that showed too many American flags. Eventually, Canadians decided the best way to avoid being overwhelmed by American flags was to start waving our own. “We stole the habit from them,” Mr. Pass said.

To Mr. Pass the vexillologist, the convoy’s flag-draping looks like a tactic. “Cynically, I think they might be using the Canadian flag because the optics would look really bad if the police or authorities were to start to move the protesters and trucks out of the way.”

After 57 years, in other words, the once contentious Canadian maple leaf flag has developed more than a single nationalistic layer of meaning. “My sense, seeing it used in this protest,” Mr. Pass said, “suggests that it has come of age. It’s an emblem accepted by citizens across the political spectrum – even if those notions of what it means to be Canadian are, in some cases, diametrically opposed.”

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At top, a person in the Ottawa protest zone takes a selfie with a woman with a spray-painted Maple Leaf mohawk; at bottom, various provincial flags hang on a line in front of protesters at Parliament Hill.Lars Hagberg and Blair Gable/Reuters

But here’s the real mystery: Why have the protesters gone to the wall for the scientifically dubious – and even nonsensical – cause of ending all precautions against COVID-19?

Prof. Bothwell thinks the protest might be one of the phases of irrationality that sometimes seize political movements. “They’re expressing it as pure paranoia. Their signs are all about conspiracies and lies, about pulling the wool over the eyes of the average Joe. They say no vax, but that also means smallpox and measles and whatever else. When you really get into it, these guys pretty soon end up on all fours with wise women boiling herbs in a corner of the hut. It’s anti-progress, no question of that. And it’s kind of universal these days.”

Could it be a collective form of PTSD, a group reaction to the trauma of the pandemic? Such things have happened before. “In 1789,” Prof. Bothwell continued, “a month after the fall of the Bastille, a rumour sweeps France: the barbarians are coming. And there’s rural rebellion. They sack the chateaus, in some cases murder the nobles, disorder spreads across the country. All of a sudden there’s this panic, and everyone believes it. And if you don’t believe it, you will be excluded at best, driven out second best, or murdered. I think probably that’s what’s happening here. The convoy guys believe things that are right up there with the Salem witches.”

The flag, then, is simply a prop, to make the chaos seem more reasonable. Who dares fault a patriot?

We all use the flag as a symbol, for our own purposes – to fit in, to belong, to feel distinct or some form of collective sameness. Sometimes we use the symbol to hide or to fool people. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe certain elements of the flag-adorned convoy are promoting right-wing extremists, possibly backed by American money, to establish them more firmly in a country in which the Conservative party has won successive federal majorities only twice since 1896. (And one of them was a compromise.)

What the convoy’s embrace of the Canadian flag probably isn’t, on the other hand, is evidence that Canada is moving sharply to the right. For that to be true, there would have to be at least a million and a half protesters, rather than 1,500.

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Flag bearers lead Canada's contingent at Feb. 4's opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics.David W Cerny/Reuters

A country’s flag is always more than one thing, has more than one meaning, tells more than one story. We haul it out when we feel national pride (it’s getting a workout in Beijing this week as we win more medals), when we are moved (the flag was unfurled everywhere as dying Gord Downie made his final cross-country tour with the Tragically Hip), when we are defensive or keen or cautious or serious (elections, hockey games, travelling, Remembrance Day). The flag is problematic (see: settler-Indigenous relations), but mostly it is complicated. The older the flag is, the more complicated its story becomes, muddier but also deeper and richer.

The American flag has been used to fan the flames of war, and burnt to shock a nation into making peace. Both stories are contained within the memories it represents. (No one thing is true, Ernest Hemingway once said: it is all true. He was a big fan of flags.) You can’t tell the story of that flag without stumbling over a contradiction, because that’s what a nation is: a unity of contradictions.

Jasper Johns, the wildly intelligent American painter, who was born in 1945, understood this, which is why he did 40 separate paintings of the American flag, reworking them all, layering on the paint and then scraping it away and then repainting it, again and again, layer after layer, alternating paint and wax and encaustic and string and metal and paint and all kinds of other stuff until the flag no longer resembled very much what it was supposed to be (the flawless American flag, an ideal) and instead became what it actually, authentically was – a truer picture of America as a complicated, layered, flawed, broken, striving, beautiful but uneven place. Or this: I always want to know why someone has hung a Canadian flag as a curtain in the window of their apartment, so many floors up in the air. I bet the stories of those flags are never simple. Maybe it’s gratitude. Maybe they can’t afford curtains. Whatever the story is, someone wants us to know the flag is there, that their story involves the country we all – emphasis on all – live in.

Maybe this is why the co-opting of the Canadian flag by the convoy protesters upset so many people: because the protesters want to tell only one story one way, their way, and they pretend the flag allows them to do that.

“It makes me really quite uncomfortable to see the flag used in this way,” Prof. Bothwell told me when we spoke that morning on the phone. He has spent his life studying this country. “I mean, it cheapens the flag. It certainly makes it a partisan accoutrement. I think that’s what they want. I think that’s what they’re saying: We are true Canadians and you’re not. And if you attack us, you’re attacking the essence of Canada.” He paused then, on the phone. “I’ve never really had to think about it because this kind of thing has not often come to the fore.”

A flag per se, its physical pattern as a fess or a pale or a pall or a bend, necessarily oversimplifies the many stories of a country. But the flag is only as simple and abstract as we want it to be, or as complex and rich and deep and human as we make it. If someone tries to take your flag from you, tries to steal it to reduce it to only one story, what you must do is take your flag firmly in hand, the flag you know to be richer and deeper and more complex than the flag bandits want it to be, and then step out and meet the flag thieves on the public square, peacefully but forthrightly, bravely but gently, kindly but without shame, and show them how many you are.

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Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

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