Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Athabasca County.
BOYLE – An apparent political statement involving the raising of a Hitler Youth flag, emblazoned with a swastika in Athabasca County, set off a fury of reaction and debate on local social media last week that is now spreading throughout the province.
Reports of the flag on the property, just south of the Village of Boyle, on Highway 831 started trickling in Monday morning May 3, and by the next day pictures of the flag flying on the property were posted to social media with some calling it absolutely unacceptable and advocating for it to be forcibly removed if necessary. Others say it is a valid form of free expression on private property, and an appropriate symbol of protest in the current political environment.
The post and the comments were removed by page moderators after a few hours, after the argument turned personal. A second post the following day was also removed. Similar posts on other social media pages, now have hundreds of comments. The flag was taken down Wednesday evening.
The design of the Hitler Youth flag consists of a centred swastika on a white background, with red stripes above and below. In 1920s and 30s Germany, and during the Second World War, the flag was flown by the Nazi Party’s youth organization, which was made up of boys aged 14-18. The group was outlawed at the end of the war and the display of Nazi imagery in Germany remains illegal, except for educational and research purposes. Similar laws do not exist in Canada.
Previous to this particular flag being raised in Athabasca County, locals say a Trump 2020 flag flew on the property instead.
John Zwierkowski is the owner of the land, and has operated his mechanical and trucking business from there for many years. The Athabasca Advocate was able to reach Zwierkowski as he was driving Wednesday afternoon. He said he wasn’t able to comment at the time and asked for a return call three hours later, which went unanswered. The voicemail connected to Honest John’s Inspection Services, and the message left has yet to be returned.
Social media comments also alerted the RCMP to the flag. The official Alberta RCMP Twitter account acknowledged they had received the complaints Wednesday morning, posting: “Thank you for the information. We have forwarded your message appropriately.”
On Thursday, Alberta RCMP media relations manager Fraser Logan said Boyle RCMP members visited the property Wednesday and the flag was taken down immediately.
“Boyle RCMP did speak to the property owner yesterday evening and the flag was taken down voluntarily at that time, and our investigation continues as to whether this was criminal or not,” he said, adding RCMP experts are still looking into it.
That will largely be determined by the intent and the motive behind the flag-raising, which he could not speak to.
Doris Splane is the Athabasca County councillor for Division 3, which covers the area south and east of Boyle. She provided a short statement when reached Thursday morning, and was clear she was not speaking on behalf of the county.
“People are entitled to their own opinion and I feel I cannot comment on what people do on their own personal property,” she said, adding there is a lot of fear out there right now with COVID-19, vaccines and the accompanying restrictions that may be contributing to people’s actions.
As an elected representative, she said, she has to see all sides of an issue, and without knowing the intent behind the flag, she wasn’t willing to take a definitive stand either way.
On Thursday afternoon, Athabasca County sent out a statement in a media release that acknowledged there was an "inappropriate flag flown on private property located within the county," and that the matter had been referred to RCMP.
“Athabasca County prides itself on being a warm and welcoming region,” said reeve Larry Armfelt. “This type of display, and the messages it sends, has no place in our communities.”