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Flag Etiquette in the 1000 Islands

For several years I’ve been interested in flags and flag etiquette and wanted to share some of the correct and incorrect ways I’ve observed flags being flown in our area. Flags evoke national pride, are good for business, and can be very colourful and fun (Fig.  1a and Fig.  1b).

I’ve discovered mistakes are often made when flying flags, either unknowingly or uncaringly. Flag etiquette and even flag legislation can easily be found on the internet (rules for flying the flag in Canada, Canadian Heritage; the Flag Code in the USA) and I encourage readers to further pursue information on proper etiquette and protocols on their own if interested. Perhaps the best way to start in this article is to look at protocols for single flagpoles, working our way through to multiple flagpoles.

I think most would agree there have been noticeable increases in the last few years in national flags being flown in our area on both sides of the river. On the New York side it may very well be as a result of the 9/11 attacks; on the Ontario side it may be the result of government encouragement programs, the Vancouver Olympics, etc.

It is impressive the number of U.S. national flags being flown down Webb Street and Riverside Drive in Clayton, and Church Street and James Street in Alexandria Bay. In a quick reconnaissance I found only a few Canadian flags flying in Clayton and only two in Alexandria Bay (and one outside of town at a motel), whereas I found ten U.S. flags flying in Gananoque. In any event, the flags add pride and colour to any residence (Fig. 2a and Fig. 2b) and surely add a welcoming feel to tourism in our area.

Where people tend to make errors is when more than one flag is flown on a single pole. It is quite proper to fly a national flag on top and a flag of lesser importance below, for example an Ontario flag below the Canadian flag and the New York State flag below the U.S. flag, or a corporate or civic type flag below the national flag (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).

However, it is not good etiquette to fly the national flag of one country over top the national flag of another country. This is something that occurs quite often in the 1000 Islands (Fig. 5 and Fig. 6). Either an additional flagpole or a cross member and two halyards on the single flagpole solves this issue (Fig. 7 and Fig. 8).


Once two flags are flown in this manner, there exists a protocol for position. This protocol is worded slightly differently in the two countries, but the result is the same. Fig. 7 and Fig. 8 depict properly flown flags on Canadian soil with the Canadian flag being displayed on the left to the main viewing area. Figure 9 shows flags in Gananoque too small for the size of the flagpoles, as well as the order of the flags to the main viewing area being incorrect (Canadian flag should be on the left).

In past years these flagpoles carried what were likely the largest flags in the town. Fig. 10 and Fig. 11 depict the U.S. flag “on its own right” as the Flag Code states and so the protocol ends up the same (as in Canada) when flown on U.S. soil, where these two examples of the stars and stripes are correctly on the left side of the viewer.

I discovered recently that at the international border crossing between Hill and Wellesley Islands, both sets of national and state/provincial flags are flying on the wrong poles. When entering the U.S. by driving onto Wellesley Island, the U.S. national flag should be on the left and the NY flag on the right (they are reversed). When entering Canada via Hill Island, the Canadian national flag should be on the left and the Ontario flag on the right (they too are reversed). This mistake near two federal institutions is either accidental or possibly quietly by purpose. The error of protocol does mean the national flags (not the provincial/state flags) are near the travelled road portions of the international bridge when entering from either side of the border, and not partially obscured by trees. When the trees were smaller, all four flags would have appeared much more prominent.

I should also point out that the Grenadier Island Country Club example (Fig.  8) is the most accurate because of the flag sizes, which are also national protocols when the flag is three feet wide (Canadian flag is 3x6 feet; U.S. flag is 3x5 feet). Figures 10 and 11 depict U.S.-made Canadian flags; made to U.S. flag specifications. Also, they could be made in China – to U.S. flag specifications. U.S.-sized Canadian flags are occasionally seen on Canadian islands in the river and are noticeably shorter in length for their width.

Three flags can be flown from either a single flagpole fitted with a cross member and three halyards or from three separate poles. Sometimes the order of the flags is not according to etiquette or is simply politically incorrect. Figure 12 flown along the 1000 Islands Parkway in Ontario shows all three flags in the incorrect position. As viewed when entering this campground, the Canadian red maple leaf flag should be in the centre, the U.S. flag should be on the far left (as the next highest ranking flag), and the Ontario flag should be on the far right. Ironically, these flags were flown correctly in 2011 and 2010. The correct order can be found at the OLG Casino in Gananoque (Fig. 13).

When only one national flag is flown with two subordinate flags, the order should descend according to flag importance. Figure 14 at the author’s home shows three flags on one pole using three halyards. Viewing from the water, the Canadian flag takes centre, the historical flag of Gananoque is positioned left, and the flag of Queen’s University is positioned right. Figure 15 is a very poor example of 3-flag etiquette at a Bed & Breakfast Inn in Gananoque. While I’m sure it is good for business, it is quite politically incorrect.

The Ambassador Hotel in Kingston seems to have gotten this one right while I’m sure at the same time - being very good for business (Fig. 16). Using four flagpoles, the Ambassador displays the Canadian flag left, the U.S. flag next, then the two neighbouring provinces – Ontario and Quebec.

Another example of four flag poles being used can be found at the Arthur Child Heritage Centre in Gananoque. In preparation for celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812, the Centre is displaying the Royal Union Flag circa. 1801 to the left, the historical flag of Gananoque next (with the circa.1707 Royal Union Flag in the canton position, emblematic of the United Empire Loyalists), the War of 1812 flag created for celebrations in Gananoque, and the Iroquois Confederacy flag (Fig. 17). It’s possible the Iroquois Confederacy flag should be immediately to the right of the Royal Union flag, having greater importance than Gananoque’s historical flag and the flag created for the town to commemorate the War of 1812. Nonetheless, it is great to see these flags flying here, and it will surely be great for business.

The Royal Canadian Legion in Gananoque displays four flags in correct order at the front of the building – the Canadian flag left, the Royal Union Flag under which many Canadians fought in WWI next, the U.S. flag, and the Ontario flag lastly to the far right (Fig. 18).

Some businesses on the Canadian side go all out by displaying all 10 Canadian provincial flags and those of the 3 territories. The Ramada Provincial Inn at Gananoque and Stratford’s on Hill Island are to be commended for the extra expense these businesses endure, but the colour, attraction, and inquisitive interest among tourists are I’m sure worth it (Fig. 19). What may not be known though, is proper protocol calls for the flags to be flown in line-order of their coming into Confederation.

I would not want to suggest I’m a stickler for all flag protocol. To some extent, I think one needs to pick and choose just how strict one wishes to stay within the guidelines. For instance, flags are supposed to be lighted at all times by sunlight or a light source. I would much rather see flags flying at night at homes and cottages without lights covered in bugs and without instances of lightning strikes on islanders lowering flags at dusk in thunderstorms. I think it's safe to say all the protocols may not work in a modern, busy summer lifestyle.

In conclusion I would like to address an all too common mistake that many are unaware they’ve committed. I’m sure we all remember the 1992 World Series game incident in Atlanta where the Toronto Blue Jays were visiting the Braves. A U.S. military colour party was shown on live television carrying a Canadian flag upside down. To right the wrong, a colour party travelled back to the Skydome in Toronto to walk onto the field to respectfully make things right. Chances of flying the Canadian or U.S. flag upside down by accident would be, as occurred in Atlanta, pretty rare. Still, today there is a common error of flying a flag upside down and it happens both in Canada and the U.S., as well as many places around the world. The Royal Union Flag, or “Union Jack”, is the flag of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and as mentioned earlier, dates back to 1801. It is not a perfectly symmetrical flag and can be mistakenly mounted on a flagpole upside down. Figure 20 shows the Royal Union Flag being flown upside down at a poche resort at Peters Island, British Virgin Islands, while below it is the flag of the BVI’s which has the Royal flag in the canton position and thus could not be mistakenly flown upside down (just as the Ontario flag could not be mistakenly flown upside down). The other flags, the U.S. flag and Resort flag, are both properly positioned for the viewpoint of the sailboat in the picture. Can you spot the difference in the two Royal Union flag examples in the banners on the centre pole?

To be rightside up, the Royal Union Flag requires that “the broad portion of the white cross of St. Andrew should be above the red band of St. Patrick (and the thin white portion below) in the corner at the top nearest the flagpole”. If a worker is sent out to install a new flag, and doesn’t know the rightside up position, that employee has a 50% chance of getting it right and a 50% chance of installing it upside down. To compare, the Royal Union Flag in Fig. 17 is flying correctly at the Arthur Child Centre. I have seen this flag flown upside down at residences, prominent businesses, and one Legion site on the Ontario side. Last year the flag was upside down at a PGA golf ‘Major’ in the U.S. Although an easy mistake to make with this flag, flying a national flag upside down is internationally recognized for “distress’, but outside of that actually disgraces the flag.

To close, I know those of us who choose to proudly fly our flags here in the 1000 Islands are contributing to national and civic pride, improving tourist enjoyment, and adding a great splash of colour, …don’t you think?!

Bud Andress, Hill Island, ON

Bud Andress is well known in the Islands. He is the former Canadian Co-chairman of the St. Lawrence Bald Eagle Working Group and currently the Co-Chairman of the Raptor Working Group of eastern Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River, an international organization devoted to the better understanding and monitoring of the status of our region's great raptors. He is a  retired Parks Canada employee where he conducted research and monitoring of various flora and fauna in the national park and the Thousand Islands region and has co-authored many published papers on ospreys, common terns, and bald eagles. He spent many years monitoring the Park's rare flora, including the Park's symbol – the pitch pine (Pinus rigida). In September 2008, TI Life team member, Kim Lunman wrote about Bud in Eagles in the Islands.  Bud also wrote Where Have All the Shorelines Gone? for our e-zine in March, 2008, and  The Eagle Watch Update November 2010.

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Rick Casali
Comment by: Rick Casali ( )
Left at: 12:22 AM Friday, June 15, 2012
Enjoyable & informative article. Boaters need to adhere to flag etiquette as well. Since vessels often transit from U.S. waters to Canadian sections of the River (and back), American-registered or documented yachts should fly the U.S. flag from the stern of watercraft, and should fly a smaller "courtesy" Canadian flag from the bow. (The same courtesy flag rule applies when U.S. vessels enter the waters of any foreign nation.) The U.S. flag or U.S. Yacht Ensign should be about one-inch in horizontal length per foot of the yacht. So a 36-foot yacht should fly a 36-inch U.S. flag or yacht ensign. Too many boats are flying U.S. flags which are far too small for the size of their yachts, or not flying a proper flag at all. The U.S. flag should not be flown from the bow of an American vessel.

It seems that Canadian boaters are better at displaying
U. S. courtesy flags on their vessels than Americans showing the maple leaf when in or near Canadian waters. Unfortunately, there seems to be more boaters in eastern Thousand Islands displaying pirate flags of all sizes and shapes rather than proudly flying the stars & stripes. This is unfortunate, and makes one wonder where their priorities lie.
Dave Rappold
Comment by: Dave Rappold ( )
Left at: 8:37 AM Friday, June 15, 2012
In the past an Island resident would fly their flag to let people know that they were in residence and accepting guests. If a flag wasn't flying it meant that they were not there or not receiving guests at that time.
Tom Banditelli
Comment by: Tom Banditelli ( )
Left at: 9:14 AM Friday, June 15, 2012
Thank you for writing this article. Incorrect placement for flags has always bothered me, and I guess it's from my military service. Hope everyone reads this article and changes their flags to the correct positions. One addition I didn't see, (and maybe I missed it), in time of peace, all countries flags should fly at the same height. I fly the U.S. flag and Canadian flag at home. Lighted at dark.
Bud Andress
Comment by: Bud Andress ( )
Left at: 2:05 PM Friday, June 15, 2012
Thankyou Rick, Dave, and Tom for your informative comments. I ignored the boat-flag issue simply for space, but Rick you are bang-on. Unlike your U.S. example, a Royal Union flag can be flown on the bow jackstaff of one of her Majesty's ships, which is credited for the now commonly accepted slang term "Union Jack". Flying a pirate flag for two weekends in August has its tourism merits, but I agree - I've seen boats only fly a pirate flag May - November. Dave you brought back something I had forgotten about and do recall how islanders used their flags as "signals" in this way. Tom, without going further into detail when I mentioned the flying of one national flag over top another national flag, I was essentially thinking the same thing you were - they should be at the same height on separate halyards or separate poles. Good point, and congrats on maintaining the light!
Something I only thought of later which might have added a touch of humour to the article: I was going to hoist up my flagpole my Toronto Maple Leafs flag and caption it a... "wishful thinking flag".
Ken Larson
Comment by: Ken Larson ( )
Left at: 3:48 PM Friday, June 15, 2012
Good article with good information. My family ran a flag company for fifty years. I grew up with my dad being the "answer man" when it came to flag etiquette. I still sell a few flag poles and do a few installations so I'm still answering the old questions. It was fun to read all "Good Information"! There are a number of self-proclaimed flag experts who don't get it right...I'll fly my Bruins flag next to your Maple Leafs flag. Long live the Original Six. Here's a parting question for everyone to look up...On a flagpole, located in the US with a yardarm and a gaff, where do the following flags belong?
The US flag, the flag of the state of New York, the Canadian flag and the private signal of the flag pole owner...Good luck
Bud Andress
Comment by: Bud Andress ( )
Left at: 11:10 AM Saturday, June 16, 2012
Ken, I might be out on a limb here, but here goes...

U.S. flag on top most centre (correction: "center"!)halyard of the flag pole.
Canadian flag on left to the main viewing area on yardarm.
N.Y. flag on right to the main viewing area on yardarm.
Private signal on the gaff.

Jack Patterson
Comment by: Jack Patterson ( )
Left at: 11:17 AM Saturday, June 16, 2012
My brother and great grandfather raised and lowered the flags at the point of the island. I recently had a picture (of them ritualistically doing so) framed and I presented it to my brother. An important family emblem or token. Their practice, formalized act of raising and lowering the two countries flags, morning and evening, was symbolic of family (our extended family) and place (Canada and the United States and the then barely perceptible and, of course, peaceful border) for many generations of us on the island. When any in my generation think of raising flage we think of Bob and Gramps doing so as in the picture (from about 1941). One (cedar pole) flagpole. We were rigorously told- wrongly it appears, to place the Canadian flag above the American flag. Told the flag placement indicated we were...on Canadian territory (a Canadian island- thus Canadian flag above) but were Americans (thus an American flag flown as well...) So we were told. Both on the same halyard. We had (have) a flag pole over the boathouse- same procedure. Same procedure in every case. Is good to have confirmed the proper and MOST respectful way to do this. Is more costly for us now and always was an,'extra', but one that, as above, we believed indicated to others that, "Hey, we're here...", in residence (on our Canadian island) and a little bit about who we were ("Yanks!"). Also, may have to stay as is.
Ross David Pollack
Comment by: Ross David Pollack ( )
Left at: 6:49 AM Friday, June 22, 2012
Thank you, Bud, for a brilliantly-conceived and -executed article about a very pleasing subject: the widespread display of flags in the Thousand Islands. While you gently currect errors of etiquette and protocal, it all is in addition to, never taking away from, your love of the enthusiasm and pride of flag display. I wish more poeople were familiar with sub-national flags. It can tell you at a glance what is going on in buildings, or a town, and even on open lands in a region. Your work is a real tour-de-force!
Mary Alice Snetsinger
Comment by: Mary Alice Snetsinger ( )
Left at: 2:33 PM Sunday, July 8, 2012
Hi Bud. This was a most informative article. Thanks very much - I learned a lot. Hope you and Bev are doing well. If you hoist that Leafs flag, though, I wonder what that will tell potential visitors? Bring beer to cheer us up?
Bill Strong
Comment by: Bill Strong ( )
Left at: 7:58 AM Friday, July 13, 2012
I have been approached with a question regarding placing a Canadian Flag imprint in concrete. I have concerns as it will be placed where people would naturally walk on the surface.
This is not a flag: It would be a coloured imprint in the concrete.

Any thoughts on this please.
Bud Andress
Comment by: Bud Andress ( )
Left at: 3:03 PM Sunday, July 15, 2012
Hi Bill,

Here is a quote from Canadian Heritage: "The National flag and representations of it should always be shown, represented or used in a dignified manner. It should not be defaced by way of printing or illustrations or masked by other objects, but displayed in a manner which may be described as aloft and free, in which all symbolic parts of the flag can be identified." To me this would suggest your coloured imprint in concrete, although not a flag per se would be a "representation" of the National flag and if on the surface where people would naturally walk would be neither dignified nor "aloft and free".

Raymond Norwood
Comment by: Raymond Norwood
Left at: 7:15 PM Friday, July 10, 2015
When in Canada is there a proper way to display a Canada an American and a provincial flag on a single pole with three halyards?