Canada adopted the Maple Leaf as its official flag fifteen years before it adopted O Canada as its national anthem and seventeen years before our constitution was brought home from Great Britain. A grade school student, I sat in the visitors gallery of Parliament watching Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker debate the proposal to replace the Red Ensign. In my bedroom flew the ill-fated “Pearson Pennant”, the Prime Minister’s personal design, which had three joined maple leafs to symbolize the union of the French, English, and Indigenous peoples. Of course, the Great Flag Debate wasn’t really about pageantry or heraldry. It was about national unity at a time when separatist violence was raging, threatening even Royal visits to Canada.

Today, there is another flag debate, and it, too, is about more than symbols. The Maple Leaf has been flying at half-mast since May. While most Canadians publicly agree that the gesture was, at the time, an appropriate expression of national mourning for the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children, few are of the view that the flag should remain at half-staff indefinitely.

Our laws provide regularly scheduled occasions for half-masting the flag. In addition, the prime minister, acting on the advice of the Heritage Department and the recommendation of the Privy Council, may order the flag to be flown at half-mast in “exceptional circumstances”. But there appears to be no legal authority for the prime minister to outsource a decision which is his alone unless he is unavailable, in which case the Clerk of the Privy Council is delegated to decide the matter. And it is the Heritage Department that provides advice to the prime minister on the half-masting’s duration.

That’s where the shoe pinches. The Prime Minister has abandoned, or, at the very least, unlawfully delegated his legal responsibilities to decide when to go full mast to Indigenous leaders.

Parliament has recently passed Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But what is the point of passing laws If the rule of law itself isn’t observed when addressing the grievances of Indigenous peoples and the grief of all Canadians?

Me.Howard Greenfield


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