On previous Canada Day weekends, Robin Seguin and her staff would usually start celebrating early.
Days before July 1, her Victoria Barber Shop across the road from the House of Commons in Ottawa would be decorated in red and white, and Seguin and staff would be wearing, with pride, T-shirts adorned with the Canadian flag.
On Wednesday, two days before this Canada Day, with her last customer just out the door, Seguin said things have changed.
Her T-shirt on that day was plain black. “Thanks. Next.” was all it said.
Outside her door on Wellington Street, the cause of her disillusionment had already begun to return. The earliest fringes of the “Freedom Convoy” were trickling in.
For three-and-a-half weeks last February, the convoy — pushing an anti-vaccine, anti-pandemic restrictions, anti-Liberal-government agenda — held downtown Ottawa hostage, blocking the streets with its trucks, honking horns through the night, amid instances of some protesters drinking and dancing on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, others openly displaying flags with racist symbols.
Everywhere, there were Canadian flags.
Seguin says she would get yelled at and harassed for wearing a mask she navigated a series of blockades to make her way to work each day. Clients not wanting to run the gauntlet downtown meant that that many days her shop sat open and empty.
“When I see the Canada flag now, it hurts my heart,” says Seguin, her voice cracking with emotion.
“After, I watched somebody burn a Canada flag on Parliament Hill and nobody did anything about it. I’m losing a lot of faith in my country and my flag.”
Her experience mirrors those of many — watching the convoy occupying the country’s capital, demanding the overthrow of its elected government, and with its trucks festooned with the national flag, changing for many Canadians what they thought that flag was supposed to represent.
This week, as that protest returns to the capital on a day celebrating the country itself, some say it feels as though there is a tug of war over the very soul of Canada, with the Maple Leaf — seams straining and stitches popping — in the middle.
“The protest changed everything for me,” says Seguin. “It made me realize that there’s just a lot of people in this country that are uneducated, unaware. They’re using American terminology, they watch American news, they become Americanized.
“I’m a very inclusive and open person and, and I’d like to believe that Canada’s supposed to be that way, but it just seems like things are just not like that anymore.”
Members of the convoy protest will say that they drape their trucks with flags because they are patriots, and that they are fighting for “freedom.” Others might argue that spreading public health misinformation, occupying the capital and calling for an overthrow of an elected government is a truly extraordinary definition of the word.
In truth, the flag, introduced by Lester B. Pearson, has rarely seen more trying times, as many Canadians are in the midst of re-reckoning of what they know about their country.
For much of the past year, it flew at half-mast on federal buildings in the wake of the discovery of the graves of Indigenous children at former residential school sites.
And at the same time, there has been much fresh scrutiny of the ongoing realities for minorities in this country, as discussions of systemic racism have grown.
And so some Canadians now find themselves struggling with their emotions when they see the flag. What is it that the person flying that flag believes about this country? Is it the same thing I do?
Seguin says she’s travelled a lot and everywhere she’s gone, the Canada flag on her backpack made her welcome.
“They see the Canadian flag and they think Canada is the promised land. They think that this is the best country in the world. And it breaks my heart to know that to come home, that I don’t have the same pride in my flag that I used to have.”
Instead of gearing up to celebrate Canada Day this year, Seguin is instead dealing with a sudden influx of parliamentary security officers coming in ahead of the convoy arrival to have their beards shaved off.
They can’t wear a gas mask with the beards, she says.
“I see a truck with a Canadian flag on it now and I just cringe. I want to rip the flag off the truck.”
Forrest Press shares that feeling. It used to be that when he saw a flag on a truck he’d think the driver was supporting a Canadian athlete or team. A few years prior, it might have been someone supporting soldiers. Or a few years before that, someone espousing unity in the face of Quebec separatism.
Now, like Seguin, when he sees a Canadian flag on a pickup truck, he feels that twinge of corroded pride.
“Now you see that flag and you wonder, ‘Is this an expression of a patriotism that is the same as mine or the same that I was taught in school, or the same as that of a vast majority of Canadians? Or is this a political use of the flag to legitimize a particular notion of what it means to be Canadian?’”
But, he says, it has always been thus.
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Press, a historian, is also a vexillologist — one who studies flags.
He says over the centuries, flags have evolved from visual identifiers to statements of nation and culture to political cudgels.
Politicians in the U.S., for example, have a 200-plus year history of wrapping themselves in the flag, though lately it’s become more an essential accoutrement of the political right. It’s unsettling to Canadians, he says, because the Maple Leaf is relatively youthful, and hasn’t been used in this way in such overt fashion before.
“By waving the flag at a political demonstration or using the flag in political advertising, you’re saying that patriotism and the political program of the person using it in this way are one and the same. That if you believe this, you are patriotic. If you don’t believe that, perhaps you’re less than patriotic.”
“You’re making a statement about what it means to be Canadian. Perhaps to the exclusion of other ideas about what it means to be Canadian.”
We’re taught at an early age that a flag is supposed to be an emotional symbol. It’s supposed to be something that we associate with a sense of pride and belonging, theoretically a bond almost as important as our family or our local community.
In doing so, the state — and this happens in most countries — creates a sense of citizenship, of obligation, a sense of duty to something larger than the individual.
But for a significant portion of the population, the flag represents something else entirely.
The present Canadian flag was first introduced in 1965. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. Which means that for 31 years, that flag was the one flying over schools housing Indigenous children who had been taken from their parents, abused and forced to “assimilate.”
So it’s no stretch to say that when Indigenous people look at the Canadian flag, they see something different than non-Indigenous Canadians.
Some of the more vocal opinions coming from within the Indigenous population are that the flag is not an icon of all that is good and righteous that Canada projects upon the rest of the world, says Veldon Coburn, an Algonquin, and a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Ottawa.
“(Out there) we’re peacekeepers and we’re the kinder ones. We’re here to spread democracy. But at home, it’s founded upon the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the ongoing human rights violations of others.
“There are those who take a dim view of the Canadian flag right now, because it’s been in that symbolic name that a lot of harms have been perpetrated against Indigenous peoples.”
He, personally, is indifferent to the flag, he says. He doesn’t place a lot of stock in symbolic politics; he’s more interested in material issues.
Like the nearly ubiquitous land acknowledgments, the flag is a hollow symbol; it makes others feel better, but it doesn’t change anything, he says.
“Every time they say a land acknowledgment, my life doesn’t get better. Being Algonquin on my own unconquered territory, it’s like, ‘Yeah, well guys, we still can’t drink the water on both of our reserves.’ ”
And like any kind of symbolic representation, says Coburn, the flag is up for debate and the challenging of interpretations, and those interpretations have become hotly contested in this particular cultural moment.
Hence the tug of war.
In the midst of the February protests, there was a “take back the flag” movement, where Ottawa residents flew flags with pro-vaccine hashtags and signs that said, “My flag too.” And in the days leading up to the anticipated Canada Day protest, social media channels have been buzzing with people eager to reclaim their flag.
After watching protests unfold in Ottawa, B.C. graphic designer Victor Crapnell became one of those.
“I was appalled,” says Crapnell, who grew up in Ottawa and now lives in Victoria. “They created a stigma around the flag where after the events, people were hesitant to show the Canadian flag either flying on their home, or wearing a lapel pin, or putting a sticker on their car, for fear of being associated with the Freedom Convoy.”
On the suggestion of his wife, he designed a sticker showing a truck trailer with the words “Fredumb Konvoy” being crushed under the weight of the Canadian flag. “Take back your flag” is written in block letters across the bottom.
“It represents the fact our flag is more powerful than the small group of protesters,” Crapnell says.
Has the Canadian flag been tainted? Press, the vexillologist, says perhaps yes, perhaps in the short term. In Ottawa, where he lives, he says, he’s seeing a lot fewer Canadian flags going up in the lead-up to Canada Day.
But that state of affairs is not permanent. Flags, he says, have always been partisan and always political.
“I think in a sense, as long as Canadians don’t give up on the flag and leave it to the far right, I think that there is an opportunity here for the flag to mature, (for it) to become a symbol that is used across the political spectrum and represents a variety of different opinions,” he says.
“(The flag) has always been political. And it can only be tainted if Canadians let it be.”
With files from Maria Iqbal
Steve McKinley is a Halifax-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @smckinley1
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