Why I fly the Red Ensign


I’ve never  been a flag waver. My patriotism is a little closer to the bone. It doesn’t need bells and whistles. Since the late 90’s, however, I have made a point of flying a flag on Canada Day, but the one I fly is the Red Ensign. Here’s why.
Red Ensign

In the late 90’s I was playing a series of Arts and Culture gigs in rural Manitoba. Playing for local Arts councils is usually a good time. Most of the tickets are sold on subscription, so no worries about attendance. The sound is often great because you are playing in the local theatre or arts centre-the equipment has been kept up to date and the sound person is a professional.

On one of the stops on the tour, though, things went sideways.
The Theatre was beautiful-one of those halls built in the 1920’s when all music was acoustic music. There was going to be a good sized crowd.
I arrived at the appointed time for the soundcheck. The President of the arts council was there to greet me and show me around. As I was putting my stuff on the stage she introduced me to the sound guy. She apologized and said that their regular tech wasn’t there but that X would do. She seemed dismissive of him, but I didn’t think much of it.
Then we started the soundcheck.
It was obvious that the guy didn’t have a clue. It’s wasn’t that he was a sound guy and was useless. He really didn’t have a clue how the board worked, what a monitor was…anything.  The Pres could sense the tension and started berating the guy, which really wasn’t helping matters.
I didn’t have time to get bent out of shape about it. I’d mixed enough to know I could get it all up and running and sounding decent. I went to the sound desk, got levels into the ball park, labelled the board and then had the guy make minor adjustments. Once we had it sorted, I showed him the master volume. “ That’s the only one you have to worry about,” I said.
The Pres had left by this time and it was just the tech and me in the hall. I asked him why he was doing the sound, it was clear that he didn’t know what was going on.
He said that he would help out the regular tech on concert nights because he just couldn’t afford tickets. They had just assumed that he could do the job when the other guy couldn’t.
I asked what his regular gig was and he looked a bit shy.
He was just out of prison, he said. He took whatever work he could, but jobs were hard to find for him. It was a small town, everyone knew he was an ex-con.
It clicked for me why the Pres had been dismissive of him.
After the show I helped him pack up. He asked me if i wanted to get a beer. I said sure. He didn’t like going to the bars, too easy to get into trouble, he said. We went back to his bachelor apartment and he cracked some beers.
We talked about this and that, keeping it light.
After about an hour I was done in and wanted to get some shut eye.
He thanked me for hanging out and then rummaged in a box in the bottom of his closet. He pulled out a red piece of cloth and put in front of me.
I want you to have this, he said.
I unfolded it. It was a Red Ensign, the old unofficial flag of Canada before we adopted the maple leaf in 1965. He found it, he said, in a store room at York Factory, on the shores of Hudson Bay. He’d been part of a prison work party who had gone up there to clean the place out and get it ready for its designation as a national historical monument.
Thanks for being kind, he said.
That guy was trying his best, but he  would forever be an ex-con. He’d paid his debt to society for whatever it was he had done. He was rehabilitated, but neither the Pres of the arts council or the local bartender were ever going to let him forget he had been a convict.
I fly that flag every Canada day to remind me of the Canada that we are supposed to be living in. The Canada that my parents worked to create. A place where we take care of the hindmost, and who aside from an ex-con is more in need of our help and encouragement?
That Canada is being dismantled before our eyes. As a nation we have become meaner, less caring, less involved in community, more polarized. This is something that has been done from the top down by people who should know better. It’s being done by people who want to burn the ladder they climbed up on. Flying a flag won’t change that, but it will remind me that everyday, we have to try to build a more caring and inclusive country.




Posted in Musings, The things I've seen and tagged .


  1. Thank you for your most eloquent story about why you fly the Red Ensign. You have touched many people with your wonderfully crafted songs and stories. Have an epic Canada Day and come back to Calgary soon!

  2. Thank you; this is a lovely essay.
    I am not Canadian but in my line of work I encounter many ex-cons. A few fit the permanent-criminal stereotype; many do not, and are trying to make an honest and lawful life. Unfortunately, the latter are often stymied by social bias, unable to find jobs or appropriate housing because of their legal status. I really appreciate your perspective and hope that Canada returns to the caring and inclusive path soon.

  3. Articulate. Thought-provoking. I had to do some research though, as I thought the maple leaves were red. Turns out that Robert Borden wanted red leaves, but the College of Arms thought green was better. The actual proclamation signed by George V said “proper” rather than indicating a colour, but green seems to have been more official from 1921 until the shield and Coat of Arms were revised in 1957, when the colour of the leaves became red. And that’s a CanFact.

  4. Thank you for this, James. My mother always flew the Ensign, for similar reasons. She used it to remind her of all of those who went to serve in wars, and what they were fighting for. I think I’ll go back to it (if I can find the one she gave me!)

  5. Great thoughts, James…and so well expressed. So many people get labeled and have a harder life than is necessary. We need to “label jars,,,not people”. You continue to touch so many with your songs and stories. Continued success. Please come back to Ohio.

  6. I’ve been living in America since I left Calgary in 2000. It is sad to hear that Canada is becoming more like the U.S. everyday. Please don’t. Canada has the ability to remain the small, welcoming, and community minded place it has been. Many people I meet would love to live there because of the quality of life it offers. I know it is not a perfect place but it is pretty darn good. Fight hard to keep the good things about it alive. Thanks, James, for the story and for all your wonderful music. Let’s hope someone else gives that guy a chance to have a decent life.

  7. What a terrific story and beautifully put! I wholeheartedly agree… And to add … We have become a nation of “entitlement” which is really disturbing too.

  8. My father was in the Navy during WWII. When his ship came back, he somehow got hold of its tattered Red Ensign, and he took it home. He flew that tattered old flag proudly in his back yard every Canada Day, and when he passed away, we hung it up in the church at his funeral. I think it’s still around somewhere in my mother’s house. I’m sure he would agree with your sentiments. He was proud to have fought for the freedom of our nation.

  9. Let’s remember what was said about the intentions of the then newly elected government:
    “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m finished with it”! Now we all know what he means.

  10. Grand story. I fly the George cross flag with a green maple leaf in each quadrant. From the Sally Ann! See you next week at Atlin James.

  11. I just wanted to say that was a nice story that really touched me. My grandfather fought under that flag in World War Two and he didn’t like the change. I’ve recently started to fly the red ensign as a sign of respect to him and all the other people that fought and died for that flag

  12. I wonder if you’ve ever tried to work this into a song. Perhaps It could be a powerful one. It’s already a damn powerful piece of writing.

  13. Thank you for sharing this. I love history, and its backstories. That is one of the reasons I so enjoy your music. More importantly, thank you for your decency and humanity towards the sound tech. As an American – with deep Canadian roots -I desperately seek out any indication that there is hope for our world. Happy Canada Day!

  14. While I appreciate your sentiments and story line, I am a little disturbed at the overall tone that Canada is not as good as it could be. You might be right, but there are plenty more countries that are far worse at some of the woes you list. A reason I would not fly that particular flag is simply because of the Ensign; it reflects a time when another country had too much influence over Canada – our country. The Maple Leaf version at least recognises we are an independent nation and have caring people like you and that ex-con; I prefer to look ahead rather than rearwards.

  15. A beautiful and thought-provoking story, James. Thanks for WRITING it – and for sharing it.

  16. Thank you for this kind story. I’m a Brit living in the US, and look to Canada as a beacon of sanity compared to Trump and Brexit. Your post is just 5 years ago, yet long before the twin horrors in my world today. It’s really sad to read your concern for Canada, but heart-warming that there are still good men like you out there.

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