Today is National Flag of Canada Day! 52 years ago our flag, maple leaf and all, was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill.1
The Great Flag Debate
The journey to selecting a new flag was not straightforward. There was both passionate support of and staunch opposition to a new flag. Particularly, members of the Royal Canadian Legion did not approve of a design change; they had served Canada under the Red Ensign and considered it an affront to veterans’ service.2 At a speech in Winnipeg on May 17, 1964, then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson spoke to delegates who wore Red Ensign pins as protest to Pearson’s proposition for change.3 There was outrage at the suggestion that Canada needed a new flag. This event started the Great Flag Debate.
Pearson stuck to his belief that Canada needed a new flag that represented all Canadians. Until then they had used both the Union Jack and Red Ensign, which connected Canada to its British heritage. In a time with rising Quebec Nationalism, Pearson viewed national unity of the utmost importance.
However, his proposal for a new flag did not unite the country. Rather, it created a divide between tradition and independence.4 The debate spanned 37 Parliamentary sittings, including over 250 speeches by various parties’ members.5 John Diefenbaker arguably presented Pearson’s biggest obstacle, opposing him throughout the debate. Diefenbaker demanded that Pearson hold a referendum on the question of the flag, and publicly disagreed with the single maple leaf flag design, among other things.6
Hesitantly, Pearson forced a vote on December 15, 1964, using the rules of closure. Parliament voted in favour of the new flag.
Many ideas were brought forward, but were eventually narrowed down. Three of the proposed flags are below:
The three-pronged maple leaf was designed by Alan Beddoe, a Canadian artist and heraldry expert.7 The blue stripes on either side of the flag, as seen above, represented “from sea to sea”.8 Pearson loved this design, and it later came to be known as “Pearson’s Pennant”.9
The middle flag was a mix of emblems that had represented Canada until 1964, as well as the new maple leaf. John Diefenbaker preferred this flag as it included both French and English emblems.10
John Matheson, a Member of Parliament from Ontario, brought forward the single maple leaf flag, as designed by Dr. George Stanley and Patrick Reid.11 Stanley was the Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College in Kingston; Reid was the director of the Canadian government exhibition commission.12
The red and white flag was appealing for a few reasons. First, those colours were declared Canada’s colors by King George V. Second, since the early 20th century all Canadian Olympic athletes had worn a red and white emblem at the games. Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate, stated, “the flag is the symbol of the nation’s unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion”.13 The maple leaf was already a recognized symbol of Canada.
The red and white maple leaf design became the official flag of Canada on February 15th, 1965.
Jumping ahead to the present, the Canadian flag is accepted largely by Canadians as a symbol of the country. All over the world, the maple leaf flag is identifiable as ours.14 Canadians can be seen travelling with maple leafs visible on their belongings, showing their pride for Canada. Though it may not be universally celebrated or accepted, the stark animosity that once surrounded the flag discussions has subsided and is largely replaced by celebration and pride.
1Government of Canada, "National Flag of Canada Day", (25 January 2017), online: <https://canada.pch.gc.ca/eng/1449158599459>.
2Allan Levine, "The Great Flag Debate", Canada's History (15 February 2015), online: <https://www.canadashistory.ca/Magazine/Online-Extension/Articles/The-Great-Flag-Debate>.
4Lee-Anne Goodman, "Canadian flag, now beloved, came into being amid bitter national brawl", CBC News (12 February 2015), online: <https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canadian-flag-now-beloved-came-into-being-amid-bitter-national-brawl-1.2954433>.
5"The Great Flag Debate", CBC Learning (2001), online: ,https://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP16CH1PA2LE.html>.
6Levine, supra note 2.
7Government of Canada, "History of the National Flag of Canada", (13 September 2016), online: <https://canada.pch.gc.ca/eng/1444133232512>.
8Diefenbaker Canada Centre Archives, "Pearson's Pennant" (2003), online: <https://scaa.usask.ca/gallery/flagdisplay/pearson.htm>.
10Diefenbaker, supra note 8.
11Library and Archives Canada, "Alan Beddoe", biography, online: <https://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=104827>.; John Mackie, "Obituary: The remarkable life of Patrick Reid", Vancouver Sun (11 December 2015), online: <https://www.vancouversun.com/obituary+remarkable+life+patrick+reid/11583916/story.html>.
12Reid, ibid; History, supra note 7.
15 Paul Luke, "50 years of the Maple Leaf: How Canada's much loved flag initially divided the nation", The Province (15 February 2015), online: <https://www.theprovince.com/news/years+maple+leaf+canada+much+loved+flag+initially+divided+nation/10812716/story.html>.