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For Peace Tower flag master, 50th anniversary of Maple Leaf a moment to slow down

Flag master Robert Labonte, who takes care of the flags that fly on Parliament Hill, demonstrates how to fold a flag on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, February 12, 2015. The 50th anniversary of the Canadian Flag is on Feb 15, 2015. The most notable flag Labonte is in charge of is the Peace Tower flag which he changes daily.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
February 15, 2015 - 1:00 PM

OTTAWA - Some mornings, Parliament Hill's flag master likes to see how fast he can trot up 392 stairs in the Peace Tower, raise the Maple Leaf that flies over top, and climb back down.

But today, Robert Labonte plans to slow down.

Though it's a weekend, Labonte asked specifically to work so he could raise the flag over the Parliament Buildings on the 50th anniversary of the iconic emblem's debut.

He plans to take a few extra minutes at the top.

"I'll definitely take more time," he said. "I'll definitely enjoy it, probably snap a few pictures."

As a boy growing up in Northern Ontario, Labonte fell in love with Canadian history and decorated his bedroom with his own painted flag.

He started working on Parliament Hill after college and in 2010, after a quick tutorial, became the person who raises and lowers the Maple Leaf nearly every weekday.

He normally does the job alone; the only time he has ever been escorted since his training session was on the day after a shooting attack on Parliament Hill last October.

Raising the flag that day was a particularly proud moment.

"It was kind of telling the people that we're going to keep going, we've got to move on," he said.

"It was really special."

On the way up each day, he fist-bumps the two lions at the base of the Peace Tower, whom he's nicknamed Richard and William. As he climbs back down, he sings the national anthem in both English and French.

The 32-year-old estimates since he started the job, he's lost more than 25 pounds climbing the stairs.

"It might not be the highest point in Canada, but it sure feels like it," Labonte said.

Once he comes down with the big flag, which is 2.3 metres by 4.6 metres, he'll get it ready for whomever is to receive it — since 1994, Canadians have been able to sign up to get one of the Peace Tower flags. The current wait time is 48 years.

"You can teach somebody to fold a flag, you can teach the steps, that's not the hard part," he said.

"The hard part is to get it right you've got to do it with love and that's the part that you can't teach."

The original flag flown over the Peace Tower on Feb. 15, 1965 was never given away.

It's currently part of the House of Commons heritage collection and is on public display in the Hall of Honour until March 1.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sunday that he will present 50 Canadian flags to 50 Canadians and organizations in recognition of their contributions to the country.

"The Canadian flag is a symbol of the values of peace, democracy, freedom and justice that define and unite us as Canadians," Harper said in a statement.

"It is a common rallying point for great moments in our country’s history and a testament to our ingenuity and achievements, both at home and on the international stage."

Gov. Gen. David Johnston is also set to mark the anniversary Sunday by unveiling a commemorative coin and stamp, one of many events planned across the country.

"The national flag of Canada is so embedded in our national life and so emblematic of our national purpose that we simply cannot imagine our country without it," Johnston said in a statement. "It stands for the people we are, the values we cherish and the land we call home."

Johnston also passed on a statement from the Queen.

"On this, the 50th anniversary of the National Flag of Canada, I am pleased to join with all Canadians in the celebration of this unique and cherished symbol of our country and identity," she said.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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