A complaint about Canada’s flagpole etiquette has prompted Seven Oaks School Division to ask staff members to take down rainbow banners from poles on which the national flag is also hoisted in the middle of Pride Month.
Superintendent Brian O’Leary sent a memo Monday, telling employees he had been informed the Winnipeg division was breaching protocols by flying Pride flags underneath Canadian flags — a decade-old practice in Seven Oaks — and advising them to find another way to display the banners.
O’Leary told the Free Press he researched flag protocols earlier this month, after a "patriotic parent" got in touch with concerns.
"Our hope had been that we would continue to fly the flags through June and then look, site by site, at what we could do to respect the protocol going forward," he said, adding those plans were upended earlier this week.
An official from Manitoba Education emailed O’Leary on Monday morning to say the education minister was recently notified about a concern regarding flag etiquette at multiple schools.
A bureaucrat with Manitoba Education asked Seven Oaks to ensure its schools are aware of national practices and remove any secondary banners.
Per national rules, Canada’s flag is supposed to be flown on its own mast and "it is improper to fly two or more flags on the same mast or flag pole (for example, one beneath the other.)"
In response to a query about the department's request, a spokesperson for Cliff Cullen said the minister was not, in fact, aware of this issue and his department is looking into how the communication occurred.
"The ministry fully supports the LGBTTQ+ visibility community, the celebration of Pride Month and the flying of the flag. The manner in which flags may be displayed in Canada is not governed by any legislation, but by established practice," the spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday.
"The province of Manitoba recommends that schools follow the flag etiquette rules and guidelines set by the federal government whenever possible."
O’Leary has suggested schools display flags on separate flagpoles if possible, or in windows or on buildings.
The notice, however — which comes during a month promoting LGBTTQ+ visibility — has left community members both disappointed and frustrated.
The Queering Seven Oaks Network released a statement late Tuesday, saying the Pride flag, while symbolic, is a "beacon of hope" for students who identify with it at the end of a school year that has challenged their mental health like no other.
"When 2STLGB+ students see the flag raised, it validates who they are and it validates the staff who live their truth in these schools. Removing the flag sends a message to these students that is loud and clear — and harmful. They don't matter as much as one person's vision of Canada and it calls back to 2STLGB+ rights being vulnerable and reversible," it states. "That message is not something we can stand by."
In the statement, the collective added the situation has its members wondering what guarantees the province can make to ensure all students are able to belong in Manitoba schools.
Mia Guenther, principal of Edmund Partridge Community School, called the flagpole rules "antiquated" Tuesday.
Guenther said staff members, and students on the school's gay-straight alliance feel deflated about moving their new inclusive flag — which, in addition to the rainbow, includes baby blue, pink and white as a nod to the trans flag, and black and brown stripes to represent people of colour who identify as LGBTTQ+.
Pride flags have since been installed on either side of the school's sign on Main Street and staff have been invited to wear different colours on the emblem Wednesday. The middle school’s principal has already picked out a pink shirt.
"Our school motto is EP pride — that stands for Practising Reconciliation, Inclusion and Dignity for Everyone. This is one way, I think, we can show that and put some action behind it," Guenther said.
O’Leary acknowledged the real concerns staff have about the directive Tuesday.
"We’ve worked very hard in Seven Oaks to see that everyone feels safe and feels a part of the community. This is something that is a symbolic act to fly the flag in June and celebrate Pride," he said.
"When something isn’t doing anyone any harm is stopped, I think people do feel kind of threatened and don’t feel as safe."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.