Canada celebrates its 147th birthday on Tuesday and among the countless celebrations being held across the country are a series of living monuments to national pride – the Living Flag.
Massive gatherings of men, women and children dressed in red and white clothing will congregate in cities across Canada, herd themselves into position and stand, laughing and singing, in the shape of a Canadian flag.
And by the time Canada Day comes to an end, one flag will rule supreme as several cities vie to form the country's largest living Canada Day monument, in a friendly contest of national pride.
In Winnipeg, thousands of residents and tourists from across Canada, and even abroad, are expected to gather outside the soon-to-be-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights to form what could be the largest Living Flag in Canadian history.
"We're engaged in some friendly challenges, trying to egg Victoria residents and Brandon residents to also come out for their flags," said Jason Syvixay, managing director of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. "We're looking forward to being the city that defends its title once again."
In recent years, Winnipeg has turned the Living Flag into an art form. Downtown Winnipeg BIZ started organizing the event in 2011 on the lawn of the provincial legislative building. About 4,000 people participated that year and in the years since a combined total of more than 10,000 people have joined the act.
That first Canada Day human flag in Winnipeg is considered to have set a national record, and the showing has been equally impressive in following years. An image of Winnipeg’s 2012 Living Flag was selected by Canada Post to be part of the Canadian Pride stamp series.
Earlier this year organizers received part of a $14,000 fund provided to local celebrations by the federal government, with Heritage Minister Shelly Glover congratulating the performance.
"These events bring together thousands of people to celebrate our great country, and I encourage all Winnipeggers to join their friends and neighbours and come out to show their pride in being Canadian," she said at the time.
While Winnipeg may be the watermark, Victoria, B.C., is the original Canadian trendsetter. The city first started organizing Living Flags as part of its Canada Day celebrations in 2006, with 350 volunteers participating. City councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe came up with the idea after watching the opening ceremony of the previous Olympics. As far as she knows, it was the first time a large-scale Living Flag had been attempted on Canada Day.
"I said, 'I would love to see us get a whole bunch of people in red and white t-shirts and make it look like the Canadian flag,'" she told Yahoo Canada News.
"We are very proud that other cities across Canada started to take the idea and do it as well."
Thornton-Joe said they shape the flag by laying out rope and tarp so everyone knows where to stand. Then they capture the image by taking photographs of the flag from the top of a fire truck ladder.
"It is definitely a fun energy. It takes a little bit of patience and standing around and getting coordinated to get to the right place,” she said.
The event has grown since those early days. Last year, Victoria's Living Flag was made up of 2,500 residents and visitors. While massive in its own right, it was about 1,000 people short of Winnipeg's own 2013 flag.
A few weeks ago, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ published a letter in the Victoria Times-Colonist, challenging Victoria to a contest. Biggest flag wins the day.
"While we’re excited you’ll be showing your national pride on July 1, Winnipeg wants you to know that we’re the city to beat," Syvixay wrote.
Syvixay told Yahoo Canada News he thought the challenge would be a fun way to add more energy to the event, and create a connection between the various Living Flags being formed across the country.
"Canadians are quite patriotic and we love a friendly challenge," he said. "Winnipeggers are proud of our city and we have beaten cities in the past, so we know that we can come out on top this year. Fingers crossed, and good luck to the rest of the cities."
Thornton-Joe agreed. "It's always fun to have a challenge. We are proud to be the very first one to do it, and we're honoured, you know. The highest form of flattery is imitation," she said.
"We're going to do our best to get as many people as we can get, but we have to understand that our event is a full-day activity."
Ottawa had one last year and, in 2012, Langley, B.C., took a shot at setting a Living Flag international record. They aimed to have 25,000 people come out to hold up red and white squares. It would have been the largest human flag at the time, though the bid fell short.
According to Guinness World Records, the record for the largest human national flag was most recently set in February during a youth festival in Lahore, Pakistan, when 28,957 participants formed the national flag inside the National Hockey Stadium.
Syvixay says they’re not concerned about setting any new records, just making sure Winnipeg puts together another great event. He says the Living Flag creates a strong bond between participants, as well as between cities that participate in the growing Canada Day ritual.
While the obvious theme to the event is patriotism, another point strongly highlighted by Living Flag organizers is diversity: The diversity of participants, their lifestyles and ethnic backgrounds, their families and their stories.
Thornton-Joe says that participants sing 'O Canada' and swap stories while the flag is being formed, and those stories are varied.
"We like to know where you're from and what countries are represented in the flag. Diversity is what makes Canada a great country. We want to know where they came from, and we want to know where visitors are from who are enjoying our city," she said.
Anyone who would like to participate in Winnipeg's Living Flag event is invited to gather wearing red and white shirts in front of Scotiabank Stage at The Forks beginning at 9 a.m. The first 2,000 people in attendance will receive free t-shirts.
Those looking to participate in the Victoria Living Flag are invited to gather in red and white shirts on the lawn of the legislature beginning at 1:30 p.m.; 1,200 shirts will be available.
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