National Post

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December 7, 2001

Half mast, double standard

Homage to Montreal victims outweighs that paid to fallen soldiers of three wars

Christie Blatchford
National Post


Darren Stone, National Post
A flag flies at half-mast as Petty Officer Stuart James works aboard HMCS Winnipeg at CFB Esquimalt yesterday. The show of national mourning was ordered by Sheila Copps, Canadian Heritage Minister.: (Photo ran in all editions except Toronto.)

What Parliament once designated as a day of remembrance for the victims of the Montreal massacre yesterday became an arbitrary show of national mourning when the Canadian Heritage department ordered flags across the country lowered to half-mast.

The directive was government-wide, and included not only federal buildings and installations within Canada, but also the navy's six ships that are deployed on operations, five of them as part of the Operation Apollo coalition in the Arabian Sea.

The move yesterday means that the Canadian government has achieved the dubious distinction of paying more widespread honour to 14 young women slaughtered by a lone gunman than to the more than 100,000 Canadians who died in two world wars and Korea.

On a federal level, a fact confirmed by the ministry's own Web site, it is only the flag on the Peace Tower in Ottawa that must be half-masted every Remembrance Day.

Until this year, that was also the only federal flag ordered lowered on Dec. 6.

The decision to broaden what is called the "National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women" was the sole purview of Sheila Copps, the Heritage Minister.

Ms. Copps was travelling to Winnipeg and Edmonton last night, and could not be reached for comment.

But Joseph Kira, one of her press aides reached in Ottawa, told the National Post, "I don't think honouring the memory of these women, and the enormity that is violence against women, takes anything away from our forefathers who died in battle."

However, of the discrepancy between the homage paid to Canada's war dead and the Montreal victims, Mr. Kira admitted, "It's a good question, it's a very good point."

Mr. Kira and Akim Thibouthot, a Ministry spokesman, indicated that Ms. Copps made the decision on or about Oct. 3 this year.

Though Mr. Kira said, "We consider the issue to be of such fundamental importance to all Canadians that it was appropriate it [half-masting] be done from coast to coast to coast," he said that to his knowledge, Ms. Copps did not issue a single press release about the change.

Ms. Thibouthot said, and the propaganda on the heritage Web site confirms, that the order was meant to apply only to buildings and installations within Canada.

But Sub-Lieutenant Pierrette LeDrew in Ottawa yesterday told the Post that the half-masting directive "included ships here and abroad," and specifically the five -- HMCS Charlottetown, Halifax, Vancouver, Iroquois and Preserver -- that are part of the United States-led mission in Afghanistan.

It is unclear whether the Heritage Department directly ordered the warships overseas to comply, whether its protocol office simply sent the order there by mistake, or whether the pointy-heads at National Defence Headquarters, ever alert to accusations of insensitivity to women, merely interpreted the memo that way.

But the directive -- dated Dec. 1 -- also means that the predominantly male members of the Canadian navy, here and in the Operation Apollo task force, were required to participate in what was akin to an atonement ceremony for the actions a dozen years ago of one man named Marc Lepine.

It was late in the school day on Dec. 6, 1989, that Lepine, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, walked into a classroom in the engineering building at the Université de Montréal, was heard shouting "I want the women!" and began shooting.

In addition to the 14 female students who were killed, nine other women and four men were injured.

Almost immediately, the massacre became a potent symbol for hardline feminists who saw women-directed rage by men as part of a continuum that began at one end with pornography, jokes and the "poisoned atmosphere" of a sexist workplace, encompassed wife assault and rape, and rather unsurprisingly culminated at the other end of the spectrum with rampages such as Lepine's.

Two years after the shooting, Parliament designated Dec. 6 as a day of remembrance.

Every year since, across the country, the murders of the women -- all bright, in the prime of their lives and certainly worthy of being remembered -- are commemorated with candlelight vigils and marches.

But how that tragedy came to surpass the wartime sacrifices of thousands and thousands of young men, the vast majority of whom had volunteered to serve their country, is a national disgrace. Probably, it also yesterday rendered Canadian sailors the laughingstock of any of their coalition counterparts who noticed their ships' lowered flags.

On a ship, the historic meaning of a lowered flag -- called striking your colours -- is surrender.

A flag half-masted is a traditional sign of mourning, usually reserved for a fallen monarch, prime minister or governor-general.

Most recently, Canadian ships half-masted their flags as a show of support for those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Post confirmed that Ms. Copps' order was carried out -- from sunrise to sunset-- on ships in port at the Canadian Forces' naval bases at Halifax and on Vancouver Island.

It was 140 years ago that a great American orator, Protestant minister Henry Ward Beecher, wrote in an essay called The National Flag the following: "A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation's flag, sees not the flag only, but the nation itself..." and the principles and truths it holds dear.

Christie Blatchford can be contacted at cblatchford@nationalpost.com

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