Home > Canada, Democracy, Democracy, Head of State, Human Rights, Republic > Flag Policy Archaic: Commonwealth Day marked with British, not Commonwealth, flag

Flag Policy Archaic: Commonwealth Day marked with British, not Commonwealth, flag

Today is Commonwealth Day. If that’s news, you’re forgiven. The only visible sign is a flag. Not the Commonwealth flag, mind you—the British flag. And that’s the problem. Every year, Ottawa reminds federal properties across the country to fly the Union Jack. It’s a suggestion followed assiduously by the City of Toronto and others, despite the Commonwealth having its own inclusive banner, one that’s Canadian in origin.

To comprehend the irony, revisit the days of the flag debate of the 1960s. Passions were high, both for and against adopting the Maple Leaf. In the final 1964 Flag Act, a line was inserted to placate pro-British sentiment for the old Red Ensign, which had the Union Jack in its upper corner. That line promised the British flag would be “Canada’s symbol of membership in the Commonwealth”. It was a consolation prize that predated the Commonwealth flag by a decade. The authors had no idea that, nearly a half century on, Canada’s symbol for a group of 53 independent nations would be the flag of only one of them—Britain’s.

Based on the Flag Act, the Department of Canadian Heritage promulgates a rule to fly the UK flag for Commonwealth Day, which it guesses came from the prime minister’s office in the 1970s.

The timing is curious, because, in 1973, Ottawa hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Pierre Trudeau wanted distinctive car flags created for visiting leaders, so a stylized “C” symbol already devised was adapted for flag use. This handsome gold and blue pennant was eventually adopted by the entire Commonwealth as its official flag in 1976, thanks to the initiative of another Canadian, Arnold Smith, its first secretary-general.

Today, it flies atop Westminster Abbey in London, and at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh each Commonwealth Day. But, incredibly, it’s not official in Canada. Foreign Affairs must squirm with embarrassment when hosting Commonwealth events. Imagine taking emissaries from India or Pakistan down Sussex Drive, festooned with the flag of their former colonial master, explaining it’s “our Commonwealth flag,” here. Then again, they might pity us.

Here in Toronto, City Hall insists the British flag be flown for Commonwealth Day, attached to the cenotaph at Old City Hall year-round, and placed in the rotunda of City Hall 365 days a year. According to the city’s website, it’s “because Canada is a member of the British Commonwealth.”

We’re also a member of NATO, the UN, and play at the Olympics, but those flags don’t appear. What’s more, there is no “British Commonwealth”. It’s the Commonwealth of Nations, and its constitution explicitly says member states are equal, none superior to another. The British flag is, doubtless, one of the most appealing of all, but it’s not Canadian, it’s not the Commonwealth’s, and doesn’t merit official status above others. Canada should stop playing favourites, and retire these colours from official use.

Even the Commonwealth Secretariat in London was surprised to learn of our antiquated protocol. “The Union Jack…is [not] a substitute for the Commonwealth flag, which represents the association of 53 members and their peoples,” says Simon Grimson at the Secretary-General’s office.

In Ottawa, calls to Heritage Minister James Moore’s office for a change to this and other flag rules have thus far gone unanswered. Some protocols, astonishingly, demote the Maple Leaf flag itself from the position of honour.

For years, Toronto City Hall has refused to replace the British with the Commonwealth flag on the one day dedicated to that body. A citizen can request that it fly in addition, but must petition every year, and, if approved, supply the flag themselves. But it’s the British flag that takes the annual pride of place.

“That’s like flying the U.S. flag for United Nations Day!” piped Mayor David Miller before leaving office. Precisely. Let’s help the new administration fix this. After all, no city is bound by Ottawa’s flag rules, and Toronto is mulling a change. A word to the feds would help, too.

Canada and the Commonwealth have come a long way since 1964, and it’s time flag protocol caught up. It behooves us to cease using a foreign country’s flag as a surrogate, and, instead enlist the global symbol Canada, itself, inaugurated.

Wayne Adam

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  1. March 14, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    The Commonwealth Secretariat “flag” is a corporate logo on a banner and has no basis in law, Canadian or otherwise. But doesn’t this over-reaction about the Union Flag being flow in Canada in honour of Commonwealth Day (PS: It’s an institution that has something to do with the UK!), doesn’t this prove that your republicanism is merely the political expression of your anglophobia? You are a band of bigots.

    • March 14, 2011 at 11:09 pm

      ‘Over-Reaction’? True, the Union Jack flying on Commonwealth Day is just a ‘suggestion’ bit what about Royal Standards officially legislated to fly above the Canadian Maple Leaf? How would you like to our Maple Leaf Flag taken down while see William’s Standard flies high on the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill when he an Kate are officially on Parliament Hill for Canada Day. Sorry, but I’m Canadian, not British…

      And, if you want to honour the Commonwealth because we are a member, then why not honour the Commonwealth Flag and not the British Flag? That’s like flying the American flag in replace of the Canadian on United Nations Day because we are a member and ‘it’s an institution that has something do with the US’.

      We’re no more anti-Anglophone than you are pro-Anglophone – either way you’re defending a foreign country to have precedence in this country.

      Live on this land – if you love Britain so much then take a flight and get out of here…

      • March 15, 2011 at 6:29 am

        Gotta love a Hispanic-Canadian telling an Anglo-Canadian whose family can trace their roots back beyond Confederation that the Anglo should leave Canada “if you love Britain so much”. Such juvenile thinking, the Canadian equivalent of the redneck slogan “love it or leave it.”

        Except I do love Canada, more than you do. I love Canada including her history and her constitution — and I don’t have a colonial chip on my shoulder about Canada’s organic link with the UK (and our Australian/NZ cousins).

        Your non-argument about Canada flying the Union Flag on Commonwealth Day instead of flying a corporate logo for the Commonwealth Secretariat proves to me that your republicanism is a cover for hating WASPs. I suggest you fly back to whatever Latin American narcorepublic you are descended from if you hate Canada’s constitution so much.

      • March 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm

        @ Jared Westgate: I see British Class does not resonate in you, shame…

      • R.J. Masuga
        March 16, 2011 at 3:01 am

        The Union Jack’s flying is more a directive than a suggestion, but it, like the rules for flying royal flags, is not legislated. It could be changed easily, without consent of Parliament, and I believe should be.

        Ivysands, I believe you mean anglophiles, not anglophones.

        Jared, if Ivysands’s invitation to leave the country is “juvenile thinking”, you’ve incriminated yourself and voided the strength of your comment by extending the same invitation to him. Consistency, please.

        Saying ‘I love it more’ and ‘my roots go deeper’ are emotional, but irrelevant. The point is we’re speaking as people with opinions. One need not even be Canadian to make a persuasive case. By the way, I’m a WASP, and don’t sense any hatred coming from the points Ivysands makes.

        Jared, if you would, stick to the topic are make a case that we should NOT fly the Commonwealth flag for Commonwealth Day. That I’d like to read.

  2. Shawn Desjardins
    March 14, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    To borrow from, and share some of the Québécois sentiment, I think that “Vive le Canada Libre” is appropriate.

    We are an independant country and should act like one.

    Enough of using British symbols, including the monarchy.

    Moving forward and having our own symbols, head of state, does not take away from our history. Our history pre-dates the British era, we should not forget that also.

    Outsiders do not see Canada as a seperate country, but as part of the British Commenwealth, with the Queen as head of state.

    The British monarchy represents many things to Canadians, both good and bad. It is time for us to take the final step to full independance from being a Colony and subjects to a queen of another country.

    • March 14, 2011 at 11:10 pm

      Well put…

      • March 15, 2011 at 6:32 am

        Eighth grade politics.

        “Outsiders do not see Canada as a seperate country, but as part of the British Commenwealth [sic] with the Queen as head of state.” Not true.

        Epic fail.

  3. R.J. Masuga
    March 15, 2011 at 6:29 am

    Jared, I rather support this change, and I’m of Anglo stock–hardly afraid of anyone or thing from the Isles. The Commonwealth flag was adopted by the organization itself; Canada likely voted in favour of it, since it came up with the idea. It makes sense to use it here officially.

    I think you’re incorrect calling it the “Commonwealth Secretariat’s flag”. That office may have one (I’m not aware of it), but this article speaks about the Commonwealth flag.

    You say it has no basis in law. That is not an argument against changing its status in Canadian law, but rather a statement of existing fact as you understand it.

    Yes, I suppose it is a corporate logo on a banner. That’s the basis of myriad flags worldwide: cities, towns, counties, regions, corporations, etc. Again, that’s not an argument against making a change. Perhaps it’s your attempt to belittle its design, but snobbery doesn’t win points of persuasion.

    Neither does name-calling (“bigots” ‘anglophobes’). But don’t stop…it will help attract reasoned supporters of a change to the status quo.

    While I’m not an anglophobe, perhaps you are an anglophile. This article doesn’t even speak of republicanism, but you injected it. Does a minor change like this somehow threaten your love of things British imposed upon Canada, like monarchy? Is this symptomatic of a larger desire to retain symbols of Empire? This is much more than just about a flag, isn’t it?

    Do not mistake love of this country for hatred or fear of another. The two are not connected. Canada has imported so many British symbols that it has suffocated national potentials to make our own, and nearly killed the Maple Leaf itself. Thankfully it didn’t. Forward, I say.

  4. Shawn Desjardins
    March 16, 2011 at 3:32 am

    Jared Westgate :Eighth grade politics.

    Sorry, but insulting my personal experience in the world outside of Canada is not relevant. (aka Ad hominem argument)

    I do apologize for my misspelling.

    Canada for Canadians, eh?

  5. Nalliah Thayabharan
    September 22, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Commonwealth was a prominent opponent of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and suspended Nigeria from its membership for 3 years after the 1995 hanging of the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Zimbabwe was suspended from Commonwealth in 2002. The Commonwealth allows for member countries to be suspended for Human Rights abuses, but ignores the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on some of the poorest countries in the world. The definition of serious violations should embrace much more than it does now.
    In 2007 Canada has successfully blocked more than 50 Commonwealth countries that were seeking a climate change resolution that would force industrialized countries to adopt a binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Canada should be suspended from the commonwealth for its record on climate change. Canada’s lack of action on climate change is contributing to droughts, floods and sea level rises in small island states and vulnerable commonwealth countries such as Maldives, Bangladesh, and Mozambique. Canada’s emissions have risen by more than 25% between 1990 and 2007. Canada is at the bottom of the G8 league table for action to tackle climate change. Canadians consumes far more than their fair share of petroleum and owe a debt to developing countries of the Commonwealth for the impact of their emissions on the climate. Canada is getting away with climate crimes that are destroying homes and livelihoods of the people live in developing countries of the Commonwealth. Present Canadian government continues to support for the extraction of oil from Alberts tar sands, a process which is 3 times as damaging to the climate than extracting conventional oil.
    Extracting millions of barrels of dirty oil from Alberta tar sands and abandoning the Kyoto treaty is not the behaviour of a responsible commonwealth country and Canada should be suspended from Commonwealth immediately. Canada’s complete failure to cut its emissions is making the global situation worse. If the Commonwealth countries are serious about holding their members to account, then they should suspend Canada immediately since it is threatening the lives of millions of people in developing Commonwealth countries. Unless Canada is willing to stop blocking international climate negotiations through its continued support for the Alberta tar sands, Canada should withdraw its membership with Commonwealth. The Commonwealth should hold Canadian government to a higher standard.
    – Nalliah Thayabharan

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