Copps: Flag Day brings back memories of the ‘Shawinigan Handshake’

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When Jean Chrétien had a physical kerfuffle with a protester, the first official Flag Day certainly made history. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 13, 2023.

OTTAWA—Canada’s national Flag Day will once again take place on Feb. 15.

But none will likely be as wild as the very first one.

That was the day when Canada’s prime minister made international headlines by taking down a protester with his bare hands.

The incident became famously known as the “Shawinigan Handshake.”

To this day, it is still infamous. In the birthplace of prime minister Jean Chrétien—Shawinigan, Que.—a local brewery makes a beer named after the takedown.

Apparently, it is a hot seller for tourists coming to visit.

Who would have thought the incident would be so famous?

The day it happened, a blustery cold one back in February 1996, the political temperature was quite different.

The government was just coming out of a referendum where the country teetered on the edge of dissolution.

The prime minister had deliberately played a low profile in the referendum because Quebec organizers for the side that supported a Non separation vote asked him to stay away.

His political instincts said otherwise but he heeded the advice until, within two weeks of the vote, internal polling numbers showed the Yes vote was positioned to win.

The national Liberal caucus swung into high gear and, ignoring pleas from Non organizers, Members of Parliament from across the country gathered in Montreal for the famous rally in Canada Square.

That event, and the prime minister’s speech in Verdun, Que., turned the tide, but the country was still in a state of shock.

With such a razor-thin victory, the prime minister decided it was about time someone stood up for Canada.

I was appointed Canada’s heritage minister on Jan. 26 with a mandate to announce a dramatic measure for Canada’s first official Flag Day on Feb. 15.

Thus was born the million-flag giveaway by the Canadian government. Free flags were distributed to anyone who wanted to fly one at their home.

On a percentage basis, the majority of flags actually went into Quebec.

For too many years, the government had taken the existence of Canada for granted, and it was generally considered gauche to fly a flag in front of your house.

The flag program enraged the separatists and caused a fair bit of anxiety within the bureaucracy at Canadian Heritage.

As part of a program review, the department had just suffered a 25 per cent cut in budgets across the board, so many were miffed that we would spend millions on what they considered a frivolous giveaway.

The designation of flag day was equally hasty.

For some reason, the location chosen to hoist the first national flag was on Quebec soil, and the event was to happen at Gatineau’s Jacques Cartier Park.

I had literally been in the job for less than three weeks, and for the departmental chief of protocol, the first Flag Day was her first day on the job.

In preparation, we gathered in a small onsite meeting room about an hour before the event to discuss the program.

At the time, there was a large number of men already gathered at the venue.

I had an uneasy feeling about their presence, and asked the departmental official if the security was well in place. She replied in the affirmative and said it was being handled by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Meanwhile, we had children from Grades 1 and 2 in the local school gathered to wave little paper flags in honour of the event.

When the prime minister arrived, he jumped out of his chauffeur-driven limousine sporting a pair of back sunglasses. I ran up to him, planning to suggest he take the glasses off, but he was moving so fast I could not catch up in my high heels.

When we both landed on stage, I introduced him, but as soon as he started to speak, air horns went off from all the men in the audience intent on drowning out his message.

Chrétien jumped off the stage and ploughed through a crowd of protesters. One of them shoved his airhorn into Chrétien’s neck. The prime minister thought it was a gun, grabbed the protester by the throat and took him down.

That image flashed around the world. His worried spouse, Aline, called him after the event, suggesting he should tender his resignation because of the incident.

His communications director Peter Donolo was closely monitoring the fallout. The next day Donolo was happy to report that the leader had jumped 10 points in the polls.

No resignation required. But the first official Flag Day certainly made history.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.