Ideas and Impressions: Remembering Canada’s first Flag Day

By Jason Moscovitz

This week Canada marked National Flag of Canada Day. Not a statutory holiday, Flag Day commemorates the moment in 1965 when Canada began to fly its new flag which was another important symbolic step away from Great Britain.

For most Canadians, Flag Day comes and goes every February 15 without much thought. But there are at least three Canadians who won’t forget the first officially declared Flag Day in 1996. I am one of them.

February 15, 1996 was a miserably cold day. That morning I got to the warmth of the CBC parliamentary bureau on Wellington Street and was told prime minister Jean Chrétien was giving a morning speech to mark Flag Day at a park in Gatineau.

As the reporter who covered the prime minister, it was usually my job to go where he went. But when the events were not considered newsworthy, the assignments were usually given to more junior reporters to cover. Flag Day was left to my discretion and I chose not to go. No other reporter was assigned. The camera crew went alone.

Journalists know that something untoward can happen at any moment, at any time, and in any place, but being human means any professional can make a mistake. For almost 25 years, I have known I made a mistake that freezing cold day. It’s obvious in retrospect: I should have gone to Gatineau to hear Chrétien’s Flag Day speech.

As expected, there was nothing newsworthy in the speech. But who knew there would be so many angry unemployed demonstrators shouting down Chrétien as he tried to speak? That, too, is not necessarily newsworthy until something more unusual happens. And happen it did.

Now etched forever in political history, Chrétien finished the first-ever Flag Day speech and charged across the park with his RCMP guards to get to his warm car. He was a fast, determined walker and it is no exaggeration to visualize him charging across the park.

Following him were the demonstrators who weren’t anxious to see him depart because that meant their fun was over. A demonstrator tried to block the prime minister’s path and an angry, frustrated Chrétien reached out, grabbed the man by the throat and forced him to the ground.  They called it the “Shawinigan handshake.” I called it my nightmare.

It is not every day a prime minister chokes a demonstrator all by himself in broad daylight. No question it was breaking news and a terrible blunder for a reporter not to be there. I had to rely on the camera crew to bring me hopefully great video of the instantly unforgettable Shawinigan handshake.

But the CBC camera crew was nowhere close to the choke. The camera and sound people were not well positioned and got the back of people’s heads. Global News got the video and won an award for it. A still photographer from the Toronto Star got it, too. My day from hell kept spiraling downward.

It was my job that night to do the lead story for The National telling Canadians how their prime minister choked a demonstrator on the first-ever Flag Day. We had to credit Global News and the Toronto Star for the images and as humiliating as that was, it was just the beginning.

The story wouldn’t go away. An old friend in government used to say when newspaper is used to wrap rotting fish it means the story is dead. The Shawinigan handshake just kept smelling and there was a columnist from the Toronto Sun who for months always found a way to remind his readers how the CBC, the state-funded CBC, missed such a big story.

Then the demonstrator, Bill Clennett, sued Chrétien because he claimed his denture was broken in the altercation. As for Chrétien, he tried to use choking Clennett as a positive sign of how tough and no-nonsense he could be. Chrétien’s critics, though, saw it as a window into his nasty side which, they claimed, he tried to keep under wraps throughout his political life.

I don’t know about Chrétien and Clennett, but every mid-February I remember Flag Day and wished that I didn’t.