A former senior official with the Ontario Provincial Police says a darkened Canadian flag with a thin blue line hoisted at the OPP association (OPPA) building in Barrie, Ont. is a "tone-deaf" and "thick-headed" gesture.
The Thin Blue Line, which dates back to the 1960s, was a symbol used to represent the separation between lawfulness and unrest — and was often used by police to suggest they maintained that order, says Paul McKenna, a deputy director of the OPP Academy and an assistant director of the force's policy and planning branch in the early 1990s.
"It was a symbol that the police propagated or promoted that said, 'We are your last defence against chaos," McKenna told CBC News Tuesday.
"It's never been true but it did have considerable resonance."
McKenna, who's now a lecturer in information management at Halifax's Dalhousie University and president of a consulting firm called Public Safety Innovation, says he was "surprised" to hear the symbol was hoisted, considering it's not common practice to fly the flag, especially not in the modern policing world.
"I thought that view was largely outmoded and dispensed with," he said.
Flag sparks controversy
The OPP, like other police forces around the world, has come under fire in the last couple of months following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minn., which sparked protests in the U.S., Canada and in many other countries. Demonstrators and community groups across the world are calling on governments to defund the police and spend the money on other programs aimed at tackling poverty, racial inequality, mental health and other issues.
"They call it the Thin Blue Line but I think it's very thick-headed of them to put forward that kind of symbol in the face of the really legitimate opposition that police are facing right now," said McKenna.
"I think it shows they are particularly tone-deaf in the sense of the current controversies that are facing ... post-modern policing."
Dr. Cheryl Thompson, an associate professor in creative industries at Ryerson University, agreed.
"It seems like this is them digging in their heels," said Thompson, who is also an author of Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada's Black Beauty Culture.
"Say a Black or Indigenous community changed the Canadian flag...There would be complete outrage," she said.
"Our sense of being Canadian would be challenged. But when the police do it, suddenly it's about defending the police."
And it's taking away from the conversation that needs to be had, she explained.
"The problem that I'm having in this discussion is a lack of reflection on the part of our police institutions. It is not as if the 'attack' is unwarranted. Instead of reflecting on practices, reflecting on actual behaviours, they're saying, 'You guys are calling us names.'"
Flag replacing 'torn' Maple Leaf
In a statement posted on Facebook, OPPA president Rob Jamieson said the building's usual red and white Canadian flag was "torn and needed [to be] replaced."
Instead of using the traditional one, Jamieson said, the Thin Blue Line flag is used to "support" the family of RCMP officer Heidi Stevenson and all fallen officers through a "Blue On Blue" campaign.
Stevenson was one of the victims in the mass shooting that took place in Nova Scotia back in April.
"The police community display this flag to represent support, solidarity and respect to our fallen heroes," the statement said.
"The dark colour of the flag is purposely subdued to show respect, and the 'thin blue line' symbolizes the police line between good and evil, for honourably serving and protecting our communities."
The statement also says $100,000 has been raised from sales of this particular flag. A fifth has been donated to Stevenson's family and the rest will be given to "girls sports and other charitable items."
The OPPA's statement says the flag has been up since June 29 and will "remain up."
There's nothing in the statement about if or when the flag will be taken down.