Flag flap

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 May, 2006, 12:00am

State protocol is, by its nature, a delicate matter. That's why its rules are so fastidiously detailed and observed: no one should feel excluded or offended, and the dignity of the state must be preserved.

What's missing in Canada this week are official guidelines governing the conduct of a debate about changes to protocol. A very public, hammer-and-tongs quarrel has broken out over the simple matter of when the flag on the Peace Tower - over the Parliament buildings in Ottawa - should be flown at half-mast.

The battle royale is being waged in newspapers and on talk shows across the country. It broke out after four Canadian soldiers were killed in an explosion caused by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan at the weekend. They are only the latest in a continuing parade of casualties suffered by Canadian troops in the Kandahar region.

Before the bodies were returned to Canada, Minister of National Defence Gordon O'Connor announced that, unlike other recent military casualties, these soldiers would not be honoured with a lowering of the flag on Parliament Hill. Instead, there would be a return to historic protocol, and flags would be flown at half-mast at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa from the day of the death until sunset on the day of the funeral. In addition, flags at the soldiers' operational and home bases would also be lowered.

Mr O'Connor has been badly stung by this hornet's nest: the papers have been filled to overflowing with letters that open, as this one did in The Globe and Mail: 'I cannot express how outraged...'

But, clumsy timing aside, Mr O'Connor has a point. Long-standing protocol dictates that those who die in national service are recognised on November 11, Remembrance Day. The flag is flown at half-mast on all federal buildings throughout Canada, including the Peace Tower. It was the former Liberal government of prime minister Paul Martin that made an ad-hoc change to convention. It decided to lower the Peace Tower flag in 2002, after four Canadian servicemen were killed in Afghanistan - victims of a trigger-happy American fighter pilot who mistook them for the enemy.

Mr O'Connor is a member of the new Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has been trying to re-establish warm relations with US President George W. Bush after a long freeze-out during two preceding Liberal governments.

This week, Mr O'Connor stuck his hand back into the hornet's nest - banning the press from photographing the return of the soldiers' coffins. This made it clear that the issue is not protocol: rather, it's the potent symbols of a foreign war.