By Ken Anderson
Our Canadian flag turns 51 this month on Feb. 15 and the anniversary of its birth brings back memories. It was not an uncontroversial or quiet arrival.
As some critics of the new flag commented subsequently, the only ones who fought under that flag were Prime Minister Lester Pearson and former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
That, of course, is no longer true.
How many times have we seen one of our soldiers come home in a coffin draped in the red and white symbol of the country he or she had served to the end?
Every such occasion brought a lump to my throat and such a deep sense of sadness, mingled with pride and gratitude for the service and sacrifice of the fallen soldier and of his or her family.
I have also seen a photograph from the Sixties of our flag draped across a bunker in Vietnam. The bright red maple leaf and red borders on the white background obviously meant something to its Canadian owner serving with the U.S. military in that conflict, which was not our war.
A flag has an amazing ability to evoke emotions, thoughts and memories. A national flag can and does capture somehow the values, aspirations and history of a people or country. Perhaps that explains something of the rancour and controversy which choosing this then-new flag generated.
Some Canadians clung to the Union Jack or to the Red Ensign. Those flags held meaning for those persons, undoubtedly having to do with their personal experiences and the history and memories that those flags represented to them.
I recently heard on CBC radio a teenager, who identified himself as a Chinese-Canadian, explaining his efforts to have the Red Ensign flown publicly across Canada on certain days of the year. Such is the power and the meaning of flags to us.
I saw demonstrated something of the emotional hold a flag – in this case, our flag – can and does have on us at a religious meeting where the preacher was trying to illustrate the sacredness of a precept he was elaborating on.
He took a piece of white cloth, held it up for all to see, then threw it to the floor and stomped on it. He next took a piece of bright red cloth and did the same, grinding the material beneath his heel.
Then he lifted a Canadian flag on a pole and lowered it towards the floor as if to step on it. The reaction was swift and audible, a combination of unbelief and of disapproval and reproof. The flag never touched the floor, but the preacher had made his point. There is something special about a flag and everyone knows it.
I don’t know what your thoughts or experiences are associated with our flag. Mine are many and varied, such as seeing any number of Olympic events, such as hockey gold medal games, where our flag was front and centre. National pride, national joy, a sense of togetherness.
I have walked the beaches at Dieppe, Puys, Pourville and Juneau, and the ridge in France known as Vimy, and the fields of Passchendaele and Ypres, where so many of our soldiers were killed or wounded, and seen our flag in prominent display.
I remember the gigantic Canadian flag which flew at Expo 86 in Vancouver waving majestically in the wind. I never tire of seeing our flag and seeing it still elicits a response from me.
In the first few weeks of Canada having its new flag, my friend Fats and I were traversing an alley in our hometown. We saw the new flag flying from a pole by Bain’s Furniture Store.
I don’t remember what transpired between us, but Fats pulled a folding knife from his pocket and deftly cut the rope holding that flag in place. We ran the flag down, folded it and walked away with it.
That flag sat in a drawer for 10 years, travelling with me to Calgary and eventually to Vancouver. I never displayed it or flew it.
In Vancouver I became a Christian, and I remembered that flag. I brought it out, wrapped it up and sent it back to Mr. Bain with a letter explaining what I had done, my change of heart, and a sincere apology.
Shortly thereafter, I received a letter in reply from Mr. Bain, thanking me for my letter and the return of that flag I’m sure he had long forgotten or ever expected to see again.
I don’t know what our flag means to you. I believe it is different for each of us. But I think it encompasses a sense of community, of the value of service and sacrifice, of the love of freedom and of valuing and defending what is good and doing what is right.
I can’t help but believe Mr. Bain would agree wholeheartedly.
Ken Anderson is a lawyer in Terrace, B.C.