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The untold stories of the Parliament Hill flags

By Christopher Guly      

From the cost of each Peace Tower flag ($150) to the current wait time to receive one from Public Services (69 years), we uncover some of the rituals, people, and symbolic meanings attached to the red and white Maple Leaf ensign.

Bruce Schollie holds his Parliament Hill flag from Centre Block, which he waited 11 years to receive. P&I photograph by Bruce Schollie
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Andrej Litvinjenko is a bright and ambitious lawyer-in-training who will be articling with a major global law firm in Ottawa later this summer.

He’s a recipient of a law degree from the University of Ottawa; a master’s degree in economic policy from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs; a manager of policy and regulatory affairs at the Canadian Space Commerce Association; and his paper on the legality of space mining was published last year by Princeton University’s Journal of Public and International Affairs. In other words, 27-year-old Litvinjenko has future Member of Parliament written all over him.

In terms of timing, it is quite possible he could find himself sitting in the House of Commons before he receives a flag that flew on the Peace Tower, which he requested by email on Feb. 21, 2014.

A Canadian flag flutters above the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. P&I photograph by Jake Wright

Public Services and Procurement Canada, which runs the program that donates Parliament Hill flags to Canadian residents (only one per household), informed Litvinjenko to expect his flag in about 38 years, or 2052, the year he will turn 62.

The estimated wait time for a Peace Tower flag is now 69 years.

Litvinjenko isn’t bothered by the delay, or that he is one of 13, 698 names on the waiting list as of May 6, despite having already decided what to do with the massive 2.3 metre by 4.6 metre (7.5 feet by 15 feet) flag once it arrives.

“In the future, when I have a big enough piece of land on which I can place a proper pole [with a height of between 11 and 15 meters] I’d fly it on special occasions, like Canada Day,” he says, adding that he would also have a regular flag flying all the time.

“It would be really cool to have a flag from the Peace Tower because of its back-story that, on one day in time, it was flown on Parliament Hill in our capital,” says Litvinjenko.

His back-story is no less intriguing.

Born in Belgrade, Litvinjenko emigrated from Serbia with his parents and younger brother following the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia and arrived in Canada in late 1995. Four years later, in the spring of 2000, the Litvinjenkos received their Canadian citizenship and a Canadian flag to mark the occasion, which is now draped across the wall of the walk-in closet in Litvinjenko’s Byward Market condo.

“It’s like a family relic,” he says, adding that his favourite day of the year is Canada’s July 1 birthday, and he says he greatly admires the Maple Leaf, which to him means “openness and opportunity, and a connection to [his] identity as a Canadian.”

He’s also gone to great heights—literally— to put his affection for the flag on display.

In the spring of 2015, while working as a parliamentary assistant for now-former Ontario Conservative MP Jay Aspin, Litvinjenko took a constituent on a tour of Parliament Hill.

When they arrived at the elevator to take them to the observation deck of the Peace Tower, the door that leads to the 141 stairs that ascend to the tower’s top opened, and a “mechanic whose name
was Tom stepped out,” recalls Litvinjenko, referring to the previous flag master, Tom Sutton, who has stayed-on to assist in daily operations.

“He asked us, in a very casual way, if we wanted to change the flag, and we said, ‘Oh, absolutely!’”

Litvinjenko on top of the Peace Tower, where he was invited to help fly the Canadian flag. P&I photograph courtesy of Andrej Litvinjenko

All three climbed the stairs with the flag, passing by pipes and plywood and the back of the Peace Tower clock, until they arrived at the summit and opened the hatch.

“It’s a small space, about a couple of square feet around, with no platform to stand on or railing to hold onto, and you can only stick your torso out,” says Litvinjenko. “There’s nothing to hold onto, so if you’re outside standing and the wind blows, you’re a goner.”

As it turned out, he and his guest weren’t the only ones to get to the very top of Centre Block.

In that cubbyhole, Litvinjenko saw “hundreds of signatures” written with a black permanent marker on the walls, where he added his own imprint: “Andrej 2015.”

That once-in-a-lifetime experience will one day be matched when Litvinjenko gets his own Peace Tower flag.

Bruce Schollie already has his.

The 54-year-old Red Deer, Alberta market researcher was “blown away” when, in 2005, he heard that Public Services was giving away flags that have flown above the Peace Tower, as well as over both the West Block and the East Block.

“I thought it was a neat idea, and getting a flag would be a really cool souvenir and a bit of history to have in our possession,” says Schollie.

So, he applied for a Peace Tower flag for his family and was told he would have to wait 11 years to receive one.

Schollie wasn’t discouraged. If the flag delivery was on-schedule, it would coincide with his son Evan’s high school graduation.

On April 4, 2016, Schollie received an email from Public Services informing him that a Peace Tower flag would soon be heading his way.

The flag, which flew above the tower on May 11, 2016, came with a serial number, and arrived via regular mail in-time for his son’s graduation ceremony in late May.

Similar to Litvinjenko’s plan, Schollie only occasionally displays the parliamentary Maple Leaf, which usually sits, carefully folded, in a bedroom closet.

Schollie, who is actively involved with Scouts Canada, took the flag with him last fall on a hiking trip with a group of Scouts, and will bring it with him on similar excursions in the future.

“I don’t want to fly it all the time in case it gets damaged or stolen,” Schollie explains. “It’s now in the category of family heirlooms.”

The treasured flag “feels like you’ve got a piece of the country that’s wrapped up in patriotism and citizenship and honour,” says Schollie.

That sentiment is echoed by the man whose job it is to raise the flag on weekday mornings above the Peace Tower.

Robert Labonté has been Parliament Hill’s flag master since November 2010. The 34-year-old native of the northeastern Ontario community of New Liskeard makes the daily climb—ideally before 9 a.m.—to the top of the tower to change the flag as part of his duties as supervisor of building operations and maintenance with Public Services.

Labonté follows a routine, as he detailed to the Ottawa Citizen in a 2015 interview. He fist-bumps the two stone lions—whom he has named Richard, for Richard the Lionheart, and William, after his son—that guard the entrance to the Peace Tower in the third-floor rotunda. One (William) gets a power five on the way up to change the flag; the other gets the st-bump as Labonté descends the tower, singing a bilingual version of the national anthem along the way.

Labonté, who, with his father, painted his childhood bedroom the red-and-white colours of the flag, views the Maple Leaf as representing “who we are” as Canadians.

“It means good, it means humble, it means caring and helping others,” he says. “I just get this sense of pride every time I see it. It’s magical.”

Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government revised the Peace Tower flag-changing policy from weekly to every working day, and the Maple Leaf may be replaced more than once in a day if it needs to be lowered to half-mast as it has 108 times since Labonté became flag master.

When the Queen or the Governor General visits Parliament Hill, their flags are flown above the Peace Tower.

Labonté tell P&I that he treats every flag with great respect; he never lets one touch the ground. Each flag has a serial number and is signed out every time Labonté takes one from the sub-basement of the Centre Block, where some 300 flags are stored at any time.

Quebec City flag manufacturer L’étendard supplies Parliament Hill with the Maple Leaf flags.

Each one costs $150 and during the 2016-17 fiscal year 264 new flags were used (at a total cost of $39,600) above the Peace Tower, as well for the East Block and West Block, and on a “courtesy pole” situated between the Centre and East Blocks.

Those three flags are only changed weekly, and the one on the courtesy pole is replaced on Victoria Day, when the Union Jack is flown, as well as when a head of state comes to Parliament Hill and the flag of that visitor’s country is raised.

Canadian residents can also request the smaller, non-Peace Tower (1.35 metre by 2.7 metre, or 4.5 feet by 9 feet) flags, which have a relatively shorter wait time of 56 years. That list features 11,064 names, as of May 6.

Public Services’ Gatineau office is tasked with sending the flags to Canadians, along with a certificate, signed by the minister, indicating on which day the flags were own on the Hill—but Labonté is the man who raises them, despite his fear of high altitudes.

“I don’t like heights,” he laughs. “You get a little lightheaded if you look up at the top and it’s windy and the flagpole is moving. It gives you the impression that you’re moving. But after the first couple of times, I got used to it.”

The Peace Tower flags weather the elements well. Over the past seven years, only two of the 876 flags Labonté has raised have been damaged, which happened when they got caught on one of the four lightning rods at the top of the tower.

And while Labonté says he feels truly “privileged” to be responsible for the task, there have been difficult moments, too.

One of the hardest times for Labonté was lowering the flag to half-mast after the Oct. 22, 2014 shootings on Parliament Hill, as well as on the night of the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris, when he had to leave the National Arts Centre, where he was attending a Bobby Bazini concert, to fulfill the solemn duty.

The happiest times are, unsurprisingly, on Canada Day when he hoists the flag up the Peace Tower and remains on the Hill all day and into the night to catch the reworks display.

But despite his close relationship with the flags, he cannot simply take one for his Aylmer home in Gatineau and must wait, like everyone else, for a Parliament Hill flag.

A John Ross Matheson-signed Maple Leaf Flag listed on eBay for $80,000. P&I photograph courtesy of Bob Harper

“I put my name on the list in 2011 when the wait time was about 27 years,” he says. Or, Labonté could get one sooner if he had $80,000 to spare. That’s the price of a John Ross Matheson-signed Maple Leaf Flag listed on eBay.

The flag belongs to Bob Harper, who runs the Canadian Flag Education Centre in Brockville, Ont., which he considers to be the birthplace of the Maple Leaf ensign.

Harper credits Matheson, a Liberal MP from 1961 to 1968, for the then-federal Ontario riding of Leeds, as the “father” of what became Canada’s flag in 1965.

Although George Stanley, a historian who served as the first dean of arts at the Royal Military College is widely considered the man who proposed the red-and-white maple leaf design, Matheson, whom Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson entrusted to bring Canada’s national flag to fruition, was the one that assembled a team of seven design experts building on an idea first proposed decades earlier, according to Harper.

“The first suggestion that the Canadian flag should be a single red maple leaf in a white field with two red borders came from Major-General Eugene Fiset [a future lieutenant governor of Quebec] in 1919,” says Harper, a 62-year-old, self-described “flag nerd” who claims to have pored over more than 40,000 documents to discover the origin of the iconic design.

“George Stanley’s idea was like 2,940 other people who suggested a national flag with a maple leaf on it.”

He explains that Matheson, who signed the eBay-listed flag that flew above the Peace Tower in 2012 just months before his death, wanted him to tell the “true story” about the flag’s origin.

Harper says the $80,000 price tag for the flag will help him do that.

The non-profit Canadian Flag Education Centre that he and his wife, Susan, established in 2010—and contributed $165,000 of their own money towards—has a minivan called the “Flag Mobile” that they take to community events to provide information about the flag. The couple hopes to expand their reach into schools, and use the money received for the flag to fund this outreach over the next four or five years.

“We are negotiating with the Ontario Ministry of Education to have the flag story included in the Grade 10 curriculum, which we would help write,” says Harper, who has his own Matheson-signed flag from Parliament Hill.

“John signed it in 2008, and I got it from my MP [Conservative Gord Brown, who represents Matheson’s reconfigured riding of Leeds-Grenville-thousand Island Rideau Lakes in the House] and it’s either from the East Block or the West Block. But we keep it in a safety-deposit box because it’s made of cloth and could get damaged.”

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