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By Tim Miner

    The birth of the Canadian flag is one of the most important events in Canadian history, as well as one of the most intriguing issues in Canadian politics. Since Confederation in 1867, the choosing of a national flag for Canada had been a recurring issue in Canadian politics. Many historians believe that one of the major controversies concerning the choosing of a national flag was whether to keep the Union Jack on the Canadian flag or to get rid of it completely. The controversy had very little to do with the Union Jack at all. The debate surrounding the choosing of a distinctive flag for Canada had more to do with the power struggle within Parliament rather than establishing Canada’s sovereignty from Great Britain. It was a power struggle between two political groups, the Liberals with Pearson on the one side and the Conservatives with Diefenbaker on the other. When the new flag issue was finally settled neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives had won the debate. It was the preferred flag design of the NDP with only one member on the fifteen-member flag committee that was finally chosen. How could this possibly have come about? The answer to that question tells the story of ‘the great flag debate’.

    For years after the Confederation of 1867, Canada was still without a flag of its own. On April 26, 1922 by Order of the Council, the new Coat of Arms for Canada was allowed to be placed in Canada’s Ensigns. The Ensign of the Canadian Merchant Marine was seen as Canada’s unofficial national flag for over 75 years. The Canadian Merchant Marine Ensign consisted of a red background, which included the Union Jack on the top left corner and the Canadian Coat of Arms in the middle of the right side of the flag. This flag was also called the Red Ensign of Canada. A Canadian Order of Council, issued in 1924, permitted the flying of the Red Ensign over government building as Canada’s non-official flag.

    The search for a new Canadian flag started in the early months of 1925, when a committee of the Privy Council appointed by the Federal government began intense research into the design of the new Canadian flag. For some reason a few months later the research stopped and it was never completed. It wasn’t until 21 years later in 1946 that the search for a new Canadian flag started up again. The public as well as politicians submitted over 2,600 designs, but unfortunately the Parliament of Canada was never called forth to vote on a design. Unlike the U.S and other developed countries, the choosing of a new national flag for Canada was always on the bottom of the agenda for most of the Prime Ministers during the first 100 years into Confederation. The United States had a national flag even before it officially became a country. The problem was that Canada didn’t have to fight for its independence as a country and it was too laid-back to nationalize it with a distinctive flag.

    It wasn’t until the early months of 1964 that the question of a new flag for Canada became a major issue again. During the election campaign of 1963 Lester B. Pearson promised that Canada would have a new flag within two years of his election. No previous party leader had ever gone as far as Pearson did, by putting a time limit on finding a new national flag for Canada. When Pearson showed that he planned to keep this election promise the great flag debate got into full swing. The supporters of the Merchant Ensign stood their ground and supporters of the Union Jack stood theirs. It wasn’t just the political parties that got in on the debate about what the new flag design should look like. The Royal Canadian Legion; as well as The Canadian Corps Association, both wanted to make sure that the new flag would include the Union Jack as a sign of Canadian ties to Great Britain. In Winnipeg on May 17, 1964, Mr. Pearson faced an unsympathetic audience of Canadian Legionnaires and with courage and conviction told them that the time had come to replace the red ensign with a distinctive maple leaf flag.

    John Matheson, who was a member of the Liberal party, became the main supporter of a truly Canadian flag. He had developed a keen interest in flag design and had studied heraldry. Some months previous to this, Mr. Matheson has placed two very important questions on the Order Paper. These questions he felt had to be answered before a truly Canadian flag could be designed. His questions were, "Does Canada have national colors, and if so what are these colors?’ and "Does Canada have a national emblem and, if so, what is that emblem?" White and red was the answer to his first question and three maple leaves conjoined on one stem, was the answer he received for his second question. Both these colors and the emblem appeared on the Coat of Arms granted to Canada in 1921.

    Matheson also discussed the question of the flag design with two well-known Canadian historians from Ottawa who were both experts in heraldry, Col. A. Fortescue Duguid and Mr. Alan Beddoe. After weeks of searching both Matheson and Bebboe found a flag design, which they both liked: a flag showing three red maple leaves on a white background. Controversy arose in the House of Commons when Pearson put forth his idea that red, white, and blue were Canada’s national colors Without a doubt Pearson wouldn’t be pleased without blue being in the flag design. Matheson changed the design to go along with Pearson’s preference. He put two blue stripes on both ends of the flag. Later on the press called this design "Pearson’s Pennant".

    The proposed design came under sharp criticism from many directions. The Conservatives still wanted the red ensign and the NDP favored a one-leaf design. Some of the newspapers had got quite mean and were calling the proposed flag "the poison ivy flag". Finally after weeks of debate the Government agreed to refer the flag question to a special committee. On Sept. 10, 1964 a committee of 15 members was appointed, and it was made up of seven Liberals, five Conservatives and one each from the NDP, the Social Creditors and the Creditistes. During the next six weeks and 41 meetings the committee looked at over 2000 designs. This committee ground to a halt as well as each committee member was determined to support his party’s choice of design and not compromise.

    At this point Matheson remembered a suggestion made by Dr. George F.G. Stanley, Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College of Canada. In a memo he had sent to John Matheson about the beaver and maple leaf as Canadian symbols, Stanley had sent along a sketch, which would show the various principles of flag design. It was made up of three vertical panels, red and white and red, with a stylized red maple leaf on the white panel in the centre.

    This was close to the design favored by the NDP. Matheson realized that there was never going to be agreement on the three leaf flag design and so he decided to support the Stanley design (single leaf) with one or two changes. The white section would be equal to the red sections combined and the red maple leaf would have eleven points.

    On June 15, 1964, Pearson opened the Great Flag Debate in the House of Commons. Diefenbaker used every possible parliamentary method to block the adoption of the proposed new flag design. They just could not agree on what this flag should look like. The Flag debate was put on hold on many occasions over the next several weeks, due to other issues that Pearson and his party had to deal with; for example, on June 17 the debate was put on hold due to pension and money bills, and on July 3 the debate was put on hold again for passage of six more government bills. Over the next several weeks, close to 300 members of Parliament stood up to speak about the new design for the Canada’s flag. On December 10, 1964, Mr. Diefenbaker made a final plea with Parliament to include the Union Jack in the Canadian flag, but he was defeated 153 to 82.

    Diefenbaker had a major problem with the proposed new flag design. He believed that the flag should contain both French and English symbolism to show loyalty towards both countries. He wanted the flag to contain the Union Jack as well as the fleur-de-lis. He wanted to keep the Red Ensign colors, but replace the Coat of Arms, with the fleur-de-lis and have the exact same size as the Union Jack. Diefenbaker was pro- British and anything other than his design would break his heart.

    Finally after weeks of debates Parliament decided to vote on the single leaf design. In the early morning hours of December 15, 1964, the House of Commons approved the proposed maple leaf flag by a vote of 163 to 78. The Senate endorsed it on December 17, 1964. On Christmas Eve, Queen Elizabeth II approved the flag, and on Jan. 28, 1965, the Queen signed the official proclamation.

    On February 15, 1965, during special ceremonies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, as well as ceremonies across the country, the Red Ensign was for the last time taken down off of flagpoles across Canada and replaced by the new Canadian flag. It was the beginning of a new era for Canada and hopefully for many years to come.

    The birth of the Canadian flag will be remembered in history books for centuries to come as well as the many people involved in its design. The funny part about this historical event is that the two parties that wanted their design to represent Canada were both disappointed, and the design favoured by some members of the NPD was finally chosen instead. The new flag in many ways symbolizes the nature of Canada and the Canadian government- rather plain and unassuming, serene but colourful, controversial and compromising, and liberal and conservative with a good dash of socialism on the side. The flag is an important part of our national heritage, and an ever-present symbol that we have all come to love and be proud of. Thirty-seven years later it is hard to imagine Canada without its proud red maple leaf flag!



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