A flag at half-mast is one of the most universally recognizable symbols of collective sorrow and respect. The tradition is thought to date back to the 17th century when sailors lowered flags to honour captains who died at sea.

One of the earliest recorded stories referring to half-masting dates back to 1612 when an expedition left England for Greenland. Written accounts of the trip describe how the leader of the expedition was killed; when the ship returned to England, its flags flew at half-mast as a tribute.



How and when is the flag lowered?

While the tradition varies from country to country, Canada has specific rules for half-masting the flag, especially when it comes to the flag located on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

The deaths of high-ranking Canadian leaders automatically cause the flag on the Peace Tower — as well as flags on all federal buildings in Canada and abroad — to be flown at half-mast from the time of death until sunset on the day of the funeral. These leaders include the monarch (as well as their spouse and heirs to the throne), the governor general and the prime minister.

Former governors general, former prime ministers, cabinet ministers and the chief justice of Canada receive the same honour on all federal buildings in Canada alone.  

For senators, members of Parliament and privy councillors who die in office, the flag is flown at half-mast on all federal buildings in their region, riding or place of residence from the time of their death to sunset on the day of their funeral, and on the Peace Tower from sunrise to sunset on the day of their funeral.

Certain days also initiate a mandatory half-masting on federal buildings and the Peace Tower, including Remembrance Day, and the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

There is some room for discretion when it comes to half-masting in Canada. For example, the prime minister can decide to half-mast the Peace Tower flag for the death of a foreign head of state or head of government. Exceptional circumstances, such as a terrorist attack, the death of a well-known Canadian, or a national tragedy, can also lead to half-masting.

Recent examples of discretionary half-masting include:

  • The Flight 752 crash in Tehran, Iran
  • The death of Canadian rock star Gord Downie
  • The death of former South African president and honorary Canadian citizen Nelson Mandela
  • The 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001

The prime minister can decide to enhance mandatory half-masting by lengthening the duration, as it was the case for the late Speaker of the Senate the Honourable Pierre Claude Nolin, or adding more locations than prescribed by the rules.

Half-mast versus half-staff?

It’s time to settle this debate once and for all.

In Canada, the official English term for a partially lowered flag is half-mast. Half-staff is never correct! (In French, it’s always “en berne”.)

The confusion is understandable.

Americans, for instance, use both terms; they prefer half-staff for flags flown on land and half-mast for flags flown on ships. Since most flag poles are on land, half-staff is most commonly used. But not in Canada, eh! Just add it to the host of subtle differences between neighbours.

No matter how one refers to the tradition, the meaning remains the same. It’s a powerful symbol of national mourning.

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