To lower or not lower the flag

I think it is nice of officialdom to want to grace our honoured dead with ceremonial recognition, but lowering the flag on the tallest point of the federal Parliament Buildings is not a terrific idea.

First, soldiers are generally big on tradition.  It is inculculated in them through the countless greater and lesser traditions woven into the fabric of military life.  To be blunt, if you have problems with the regular observance of ceremony and tradition, then the military life is definitively not for you.  One of Parliament’s long-standing traditions is that the Peace Tower flag gets lowered only for the death of the Sovereign (or a member of Her family), the current and former governor-general, prime minister, chief justice of the Supreme Court, lieutenant-governors, current members of Parliament, senators and privy councillors.

Recently, we have breached this tradition by adding other days to the roster, and the possibility exists that this gesture will become devalued by overuse.  Kind of like how gold credit cards once represented premium customers, but now lack all snob cachet because they became too common.  Eventually they were superseded in snob appeal by platinum cards, which are also now very common, and now black cards are the mark of the truly exceptional credit risks.  Or at least they are until everyone has one.  Start handing out the exclusive honours to everybody and sooner or later they stop being exclusive, or an honour.  And when we are talking about national honours and not mere credit cards, it becomes a tragedy.

Second, it is a transitory gesture.  Lowering the flag is a mark of honour and respect, yes, but it is low-cost and entirely temporary.  There is no sacrifice on the part of the public.  Not unlike those little fabric ribbons that proliferated in the ’90s for a multitude of causes most of us can’t remember.  You wear them for a week and then toss them in the garbage, and five or ten years later you’ve completely forgotten those little ribbons ever existed.  The men and women who die under arms in the service of this country deserve something permanent that demands a little effort and exertion from those of us at home.  Like an enormous old-school bronze-and-stone monument placed prominently on public property.

I am not the world’s foremost expert on Canadian contributions to the Boer War, but I pass a memorial to it on a semi-regular basis.  It is readily apparent to me, from the prominence of that memorial—in the median of University Avenue—that 1) this city sent forth a worthy contingent of her sons, and 2) the citizens honoured that sacrifice and wanted future generations to honour it as well.  You want to honour the dead who gave their all?  Start collecting money for a permanent memorial.  Lowering flags is great but all too ephemeral.

Third, I have a sneaking suspicion that politicians of all stripes are inherently craven and lazy, and checking the flag on the Peace Tower is an easy way for them to figure out whether there’s a death going on they can score political points from.  That is not its purpose.  You want to score points, read the papers and learn the names of the dead soldiers.  Read about what they did and then decide if you want to play politics with it.

As worthy as it is, I do not want the most notable memorial to our war dead to be the lowering of the flag on the Peace Tower.  They deserve something a little grander that will speak to us and our future generations.

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