Meet Robert Labonté, Parliament Hill’s flagmaster
When he was a boy, Robert Labonté painted his bedroom in red and white, a patriotic tribute to Canada. Now, the 32-year-old finds himself the flag master of Parliament Hill, climbing to the top of the Peace Tower five days a week to change the flag. Bruce
Q Describe the changing of the Peace Tower flag. What are all the steps?
A I start out in the office, in the sub-basement of the Centre Block. That’s where we store the flags. There are maybe 300 of them there at any one time. We usually keep about a month’s worth for the Peace Tower. They’re all serial-numbered. So I sign one out, check to make sure the connections are good.
Q Do you do it at the same time every day?
A We try to do it first thing in the morning. We try to do it before 9 a.m.
Q Is it all stairs to the top?
A Some days it is, some days it isn’t. There’s an elevator that takes you up to the observation deck of the Peace Tower. But after that you’re climbing stairs.
Q How many?
A One-hundred and forty-one from the observation deck. If you do the whole tower, it’s 392 from the ground floor. This morning the elevator wasn’t working so I had to climb all the stairs. And to climb the stairs, change the flag and climb back down, it took me eight minutes and 55 seconds, a personal best.
Q I understand you have some rituals?
A Yes. As I’m coming into the Peace Tower, there are two lions guarding the entrance. So I fist-bump the one on the left as I walk in. Then I change the flag, and as I’m coming down I always sing O Canada.
Q Are you making that up?
A No. I sing it every time I change the flag, and I sing the first part in French and the last part in English, something I learned watching hockey with my dad in Montreal. That’s how I learned the national anthem, so that’s how I sing it. And then I fist-bump the other lion on the way out.
Q And you gave them names?
A William on the way up, and Richard on the way down.
Q Richard for Richard the Lion-hearted?
And William for … ?
My son, William.
A Then I take the flag back to the office, hang it up to dry for a couple of days, and then fold it up a specific way. And then we give them to the minister’s office.
Q Lots of people change flags every day, at offices, fire halls, schools, etc. But the Peace Tower flag seems to me somehow more than all of those.
A It’s not more than all of those. It represents all those. Anywhere you go in the world, the symbol of Canada is the flag, and the flag is on top of the Peace Tower.
Q Do you often consider that when you change the flag?
Every day. Every time.
Q Really? There aren’t days where you were up late the night before, a little hung-over, and changing the flag is just a job?
A If that’s the case I take an extra second and I still think about it.
Q What other duties do you have on the Hill. I know you maintain and empty the coins from the Centennial flame.
A We maintain all of the buildings. Heating and cooling, that sort of thing.
Q No kid ever says ‘I want to be a flag master when I grow up.’ So how did this happen?
A Dumb luck. Like I said, I’m a buildings systems technician, and I was coming to Parliament Hill to do that, without knowing anything about the changing of the flag. And it just happened that that’s one of the duties.
Q You don’t change the flag in really bad weather. How often does that happen?
A In my 4½ years, we haven’t missed a day because of weather.
Q Is this something you want to keep doing?
A Yeah. If I could be here in 25 years to celebrate the 75th, I’d be happy.