Tradition and rules govern protocol of lowering Canadian flag to half-mast

The Canadian flag has been lowered to half-mast frequently over the past several weeks.

Following recent tragedies, including the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 16 and the van attack in Toronto on April 23, the flag was lowered to half-mast for extended periods.

The decision about when to lower the flag is steeped in tradition and governed by specific rules. Some discretion is also vested in offices of the prime minister and provincial premiers.  

In Canada, lowering the flag on buildings is referred to as half-masting. In the United States, that’s called “half-staffing.”

Protocol offices handle notices

There are protocol offices at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels of government to make sure the rules are followed.

The rules for half-masting can be found on the federal government’s website, said Marc Belanger, senior ceremonial and protocol officer with the Canadian Heritage department. He’s the person responsible for sending out notices of half-masting to all federal departments.

“At certain times of the year, there’s an automatic lowering of the flag, like Remembrance Day or the National Day of Mourning,” he said.

When a member of Parliament dies, that’s covered under Rule 8, he said.

When Ontario Conservative MP Gord Brown died on May 2, the flag was flown at half-mast on all federal buildings in his riding from the time of notification of his death to sunset on the day of his funeral.

The Canadian flag on the Peace Tower was also lowered in his memory from sunrise to sunset on the day of his funeral, Belanger said.

Leaders have some discretion

Rule 16 provides for the flags to be lowered at the prime minister’s discretion.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exercised that discretion and had the flags at federal buildings lowered for the Humboldt Broncos bus crash for 16 days, one for each person killed. He did so again after the van attack in Toronto.

The province of Alberta follows the rules from Canadian Heritage on lowering flags at the legislature or on provincial buildings, though the premier also has discretion to have the flags lowered for events that fall outside the rules.

“It’s a tough decision to make, because every tragedy, every sad incident in the province, is worthy of noting,” said Cheryl Oates, spokesperson for the office of the premier.

For events like the Humboldt Broncos crash or the van attack in Toronto, “it’s incumbent for the province to recognize how citizens are feeling,” she said.

The City of Edmonton takes its lead from the Alberta government when it comes to lowering the flag, said Lesli Olsen, protocol officer with the city.

There are occasions, though, when the city will go to half-mast on its own.

Between the tragedies in Humboldt and Toronto, former Edmonton city councillor Ron Hayter died on April 21. That led the City of Edmonton to fly the city hall flag at half-mast.

Edmonton Catholic Schools also follow the protocol of the provincial government.

The superintendent does have discretion to lower flags at the schools for matters of importance to the community, as after the passing of Archbishop Joseph MacNeil in February 2018.

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