Is it Crime to Burn the Canadian Flag?

August 7, 2021


It is legal to burn the Canadian flag.
It is legal to burn the Canadian flag.

It is legal to burn the Canadian Flag, in Canada. The Canadian flag may be a symbol of Canadian nationality, associated with pride and a unified nation, however it’s not against the law to disrespect, deface, and destroy it. As burning the flag is a mode by which an individual may destroy it, it follows that it is not illegal to destroy it. There exists no legislation where burning the flag is a criminal action, under the Canadian Criminal Code or any other statue. However there are official government rules on flag etiquette that state that the Canadian flag “should not be subjected to indignity,” but there are no laws against desecration, such as burning, shredding, stomping, or spitting on it. These official etiquette rules simply express the Canadian Governments sentiments regarding flag burning, but there is no corresponding legislation by which the government may enforce this sentiment.  While some may find flag burning to be a disrespectful act, such acts are protected forms of expression under the Charter of Rights And Freedoms. Such laws, permitting forms of expression, are a reflection of the high value held for freedom of expression in Canadian society. As with all Charter rights, protected expression is subject to limits, as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” but flag burning isn’t deemed to legally exceed these limits.

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There are many reasons why an individual may feel compelled to burn the Canadian flag. It is an anti-national expression protesters may use to demonstrate anger or frustration with the Canadian government.  It can be an expression of political anarchism, where an individual holds an anti-nation state position.  There have been historical incidents of protesters burning or otherwise destroying the Canadian Flag. In a 2012 at a Quebec separatist rally Canadian flags were stomped on and run over by cars in Montreal. This was an expression of the desire these protesters felt to separate from Canada and for Quebec to be an independent nation. None of these protesters faced criminal charges for destroying the Canadian flag in this incident. Similarly it is not illegal to burn an American flag in the United States. Popular American band, Rage Against the Machine burned an American flag on stage at Woodstock 1999, in protest. While it was frowned upon, they faced no criminal charges.

Typically more conservative nationalistic countries have laws that criminalize flag burning. Following is a list of countries where flag burning is illegal and therefore punishable by law: Austria, Brazil, China, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Japan, India, France, Turkey, and Germany, among others. Turkey is an example of a Country that has strict laws prohibiting anti national expression. Under the 1983 Turkish flag law, burning the flag is strictly forbidden, punishable by a prison sentence of three years. There are other countries that similarly frown upon flag burning but do not have legislation to make this action illegal. Countries such as Belgium, United States and Australia allow for flag burning as a free expression not punishable by law.

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Jonathan Pyzer
Written By:
Jonathan Pyzer
Criminal Defence Lawyer (B.A., L.L.B.)
Jonathan is a highly skilled and sought after criminal defence lawyer who represents clients charged with criminal offences all over the Province of Ontario. He is a member in good-standing with the Law Society of Upper Canada, Criminal Lawyers’ Association and Toronto Lawyers Association.
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