A controversial “thin blue line” flag flying at the headquarters of one of Canada’s largest police force unions is raising concerns about what message members are trying to send.
The Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) replaced its red and white Canadian flag with a black and white version that features a horizontal blue stripe outside its Barrie, Ont. office in June.
The union said in a statement that the flag symbolizes its support for the family of RCMP officer Heidi Stevenson, who was killed in the Nova Scotia mass shooting, and will remain up in honour of B.C. Const. Allan Young, who was beaten to death while off duty, as well as “all fallen officers.”
“The police community displays this flag to represent support, solidarity and respect to our fallen heroes,” said OPPA President Rob Jamieson.
“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 thin blue line flag is also tied to the Blue Lives Matter campaign, founded in the U.S. in 2014 as a harmful countermovement to Black Lives Matter. Experts say this position — popular among police unions — advances a detrimental “us versus them” mentality (instead of cooperation with community groups) and undermines the real issue of police violence against Black people.
Blue Lives Matter creates a “reverse discrimination” narrative that casts police as victims who are under attack and shields them from “public accountability for their own violence against racialized communities,” said York University professors Mark Thomas and Steven Tufts in a recent study that looked at the relationship between police solidarity, unions, race and populism in North America.
A thin blue line version of the American flag was flown alongside Confederate flags by white supremacists and neo-Nazis during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
The San Francisco police chief recently banned officers from wearing the symbol on face masks, concerned the public would view it as “divisive and disrespectful,” the Associated Press reported.
Watch: Black Lives Matter Toronto delivers message to police. Story continues below.
In the current climate where police across Canada are under increased scrutiny for their use of force against Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, and amid widespread calls for defunding forces, the police union displaying the flag is “incredibly insensitive,” said Barrie Coun. Keenan Aylwin, who has been pushing for local police to reform and defunding.
He took issue with the OPP union using “dehumanizing” language in its statement to describe people who commit crimes.
“It is particularly troubling to me that they would characterize huge swaths of people who are struggling and need support as ‘evil,’” Aylwin said in an email.
“Not only does it ignore the realities of how crime is constructed — namely through poverty, mental illness and systemic oppression — it also pushes a harmful ‘us versus them’ mentality that contributes to a breakdown in trust.”
OPPA said the flag was approved by its board of directors after determining the Canadian flag was torn and needed to be replaced. The union is planning to put up more flag poles to make room for Canadian, Ontario and Pride flags.