This is the chapter entitled, A Canadian Flag for Canada, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.


The Nation
Chap V:


... it would certainly seem that the Maple Leaf ...
is pre-eminently the proper badge to appear on our flag.
Edward M. Chadwick, (1896)



The sole function of any flag is to send a message. A national flag sends the message of nationality. In doing so, it forms the nation's premier graphic symbol, second in importance only to the nation's premier linguistic symbol: its name.

Yet, for nearly a century following Confederation, Canadians lacked a national flag. Although, there were various governmental flags which represented Canada as a state, there was no formal flag which represented Canadians themselves; none which individual Canadians could fly to proclaim their Canadianness: no flag of Canada as a nation.

This omission did not result from indifference on the part of Canadians towards flags, quite the reverse. It resulted from the passion that these symbols aroused in Canadians. The difficulty did not arise from any inherent unwillingness of Canadians to proclaim their identity upon flags, but their factious inability to agree upon a common symbolic identity.

In retrospect, the choice of such a symbol would seem to have been inevitable, for to see a maple leaf is to think of Canada. While the beaver had been pre-eminent in the eighteenth century, its symbolic value was tied to its economic value, and both plummeted in the early nineteenth century. Not only did the fur trade largely bypass Montréal after the amalgamation of the North West and the Hudson's Bay Companies, but what beaver trade there was declined with the advent of the silk hat. This left the maple leaf as the pre-eminent Canadian symbol. In 1836, Étienne Parent added maple leaves to the masthead of his newspaper, Le Canadien, and noted, what he surely thought was obvious to all: "Le principal, la feuille d'Erable, a été, comme on sait, adopté comme l'emblême du Bas-Canada..." A year later, the maple leaf made its first appearance upon a Canadian flag, albeit an informal flag: the patriotes of Saint-Eustache carried a banner with a design of striking similarity to masthead of the Le Canadien.

Following Confederation, the country gained its first official and distinctively Canadian flag: the Governor General's flag, adopted in 1870, bore a wreath of maple leaves in the centre. Then, just prior to its centennial, the country gained its first official and exclusively Canadian flag: the National Flag, raised in 1965, bore a single maple leaf in the centre.

In the intervening ninety-five years, the maple leaf was at the centre of every initiative to establish a distinctive national flag. Indeed after assessing the contenders in one of the earliest of the country's many flag flaps, Toronto lawyer, Edward M. Chadwick, concluded in 1896 that "it would certainly seem that the Maple Leaf ... is pre-eminently the proper badge to appear on our flag." Yet, until 1965, the maple leaf served only a secondary role upon the official flags of the country. The question of why it took the maple leaf so long to dominate the national flag is also the question of why it took so long to even acquire a national flag for Canada.

The long-running controversy over the flag of Canada had its roots in two separate dichotomies: one internal to Canada, one external. The internal dichotomy was found in the ambiguous loyalty which Canadians divided between nation and empire. The external dichotomy was found in the disparate usage of flags in Britain and the United States. If either of these dichotomies had been absent, the controversy would have been muted; with them, confusion and acrimony ensued.


Canadian Nationalism versus Canadian Imperialism

Along the way, the internal division between nationalism2 and imperialism was the more apparent of the two dichotomies.

The issue was one of emotional citizenship: Was the primary allegiance owed to Canada, and thus a national loyalty? Was the primary allegiance owed to the centre of the British Empire, and thus an imperial loyalty? Civilities were long strained as the tension between the two loyalties pulled the country first in one direction and then the other.

It catered to the biases of many people to believe that the division between the imperial loyalty and the national loyalty ran down the middle of the Ottawa River. Actually, the division did not lie as much between the French and English cultures as it did between the English-Canadian nationalists and English-Canadian imperialists. Although Francophone nationalists were active in the controversy all along, they recognized that no significant progress could be made until the Anglophones got their act together.

The romantic vision of the Canadian imperialists, was not only cultivated on Canadian soil, it was largely conceived on Canadian soil. Perceiving Canada as but a roomy extension of the old country, the British settler carried with him a nostalgia for his former home, and this nostalgia gradually congealed into a vision of a distant land of consummate grandeur, power, justice, and freedom. But the romantic vision did not stop there; it was extended over the years into a rather dazzling conception of a global and monolithic British Empire, to which the settler and his children owed homage.3

The vision held in Great Britain, itself, was far more prosaic. For centuries, Britain held a strictly mercantile view of its colonies. It planted colonies (and called them plantations) for the same reason that a farmer plants cabbages; the health of the cabbages was of concern only to the extent that it affected profits. At first the colonies served as a source of raw materials, but subsequently as a dumping ground for surplus people and merchandise. Even Lord Durham's interest in the restoration of stability in Canada in 1838 was not prompted by a parental concern for a member of the British family of colonies, but because:

The experiment of keeping colonies ... ought at least to have a trial, ere we abandon for ever the vast dominion which might supply the wants of our surplus population, and raise up millions of fresh consumers of our manufactures.4

Despite the disparity between the romantic imperialist vision held in the colonies, and the prosaic mercantile vision held in the motherland, the inflated imperialist sentiments served Canada very well, especially before Confederation. Both Ontario and New Brunswick owe their very existence to the Loyalists who were escaping the newly formed American Republic. And, "among the Loyalists, passion for things British amounted almost to a religion."5 The advantage lay in the fact that the quasi-religious belief in things British served as a talisman to protect Canadians against the quasi-religious belief held by Americans that it was their "manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence."6

In the 1860s and 1870s, the common British bond played a significant role in melding disparate colonies into a country. In what became an implicit motto of Canadian imperialists, Sir John A. Macdonald rode to victory with his last electoral address (Ottawa, February 7, 1891) stating: "As for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was born-a British subject I will die."

However, with the coming of the twentieth century, the mindset of Canadian imperialists began to work to the disadvantage of the nation. Theirs was a view, which, as late as 1951, prompted adherents to have the singing of "O Canada" in schools labelled as subversive and unpatriotic.7 In a sardonic assessment of Canadian imperialists, Arthur Lower records a 1953 correspondent's description of them as "Canadians who are actually just 'half-way Canadians', men who insist upon presenting themselves to American visitors as if they were really British who had the misfortune to live in Canada."8 Such attitudes as these were surely ones which a nation would have been foolish to encourage.

Both Canadian nationalism and Canadian imperialism were essentially Canadian inventions and were often, as in the case of Macdonald and, later, Diefenbaker, found as only vaguely reconciled emotions within the same individual. The animosity between these loyalties was never, on any significant scale, directed against the British nation, which was largely indifferent to the issue. Rather, it always surfaced as a running fight among Canadians.

For three-quarters of a century, the divided loyalties of the country lay at the root of the inability of Canadians to adopt a national flag. The feud had left the country seemingly trapped forever in a Catch-22.9 For, until the nation became pre-eminently Canadian, a solely Canadian flag was not a political possibility; yet, until the flag became pre-eminently Canadian, a solely Canadian nation was not an emotional possibility.

The roots of the dilemma facing the country is brought into sharper focus through a discussion of two of the many individuals who had been involved in the flag controversy: Lester B. Pearson, and John G. Diefenbaker. Although each man played an important role during the cathartic resolution of the problem, it is not that role which is at issue for the moment. Rather, of concern is the perspective each man brought to the problem of the Canadian flag, for they epitomize a legion of nationalists and imperialists who went before.

It is important to recognize that Diefenbaker and Pearson were both ardent Canadian patriots. However, they did adhere to different visions for Canada. Indeed, these different visions are, in many ways, encapsulated by the symbols each chose to represent his country.



Diefenbaker's views had been on record longest. His position, varying only slightly over the years, was stated during a campaign speech at Macdowall, Saskatchewan in 1926:

I want to make Canada all Canadian and all British. The men who wish to change our flag should be denounced by every good Canadian.10

Two things stand out: Canada was to be "all British"; a person who shared Diefenbaker's view was a "good Canadian", while those who did not "should be denounced" (presumably as bad Canadians). His remarks lay very much within the mainstream of Canadian imperialist sentiment of the day. What he meant by "our flag" was not specified, but likely he was referring to the Union Flag rather than the Canadian Red Ensign.

Nearly twenty years later, during the flag controversy of 1945-46, Diefenbaker asserted that a Canadian flag must include the Union Flag in "the place of honour"; the remainder of his stand was essentially the same:

In my opinion, sir, any flag which is determined upon for Canada must embody two ideas, one, Canada as a nation with a distinctive flag; the other, Canada within the empire.11

Even Diefenbaker's choice of words is revealing, for Canada had not been "within the empire" since the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. He went on to demonstrate his intolerance of nationalists by challenging "their right" to omit the Union Flag.

In 1964, after nearly two more decades, neither Diefenbaker's stand nor his tactics had shifted. While maintaining his steadfast support of a red ensign (bearing a proposed fleur-de-lis badge), he did not scruple to impugn the motives of those who might think differently. During a speech in Toronto on June 3, 1964, Diefenbaker made reference to a recent government-sponsored pay increase for members of parliament, and suggested:

It had a wonderful effect on third-party support. On the flag vote, the attitude would be, not that I love the red ensign less, but $18,000 more.12

The next day, in a shower of justifiable indignation from the Commons, Diefenbaker was forced to ignobly withdraw his remarks, yet he remained unrepentant. The following month, on July 22, during a telecast of the "The Nation's Business," he exhibited the flailings of a drowning man as he alleged that atheism lay behind Pearson's attempt to establish a flag that did not bear the Union Flag. "Why," Diefenbaker asked, "does the Government insist that the Christian crosses, the spiritual element, be removed from our flag."13 Apparently, no aspersion was too egregious.

On December 21, 1964, when the issue of the national flag was finally settled, Diefenbaker wrote sadly:

The Progressive Conservative party, Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, stood alone in the House of Commons against the removal of the Union Jack from Canada's national flag. ... We fought for what we believed was right. We have lost.14

There was a sense of tragedy in Diefenbaker's stand. In his election campaigns of 1957 and 1958, he had engendered a tremendous feeling of national pride among Canadians. But now the Canadianism which he espoused had blossomed beyond his vision and he was left in its wake as the champion of the old Canadian imperialism.

In the end, Diefenbaker argued that he had merely wished to honour Canada's history and that Canada "should be symbolized by a flag containing both the Union Jack and the fleur-de-lis. ... Neither," he said, "was a sign of subservience to a colonial past. There was no colonialism in honouring our history."15 However, a distinction has to be made between honouring the historical British connection, and feeding the imperial mindset. If the Union Flag had, in fact, merely served to symbolize an important part of our history, it might have proved acceptable, as indeed it has continued to do when it is flown as a separate flag to indicate Canada's links with the Commonwealth and its allegiance to the Crown. However, when the Union Flag was placed upon the national flag, it had come to epitomize the imperial attitude which honoured Britain first and Canada second.

There were, of course, many in Canada who were not imperialists and who certainly did not fit Lower's recorded description of half-way Canadians, but who had supported the retention of the Union Flag upon the Canada's flag out of an appreciation of a valued tradition. Nevertheless, there were enough people who still believed that the only "good Canadian" was "all British" that it had become impossible to retain any form of the Canadian Red Ensign, with its embedded Union Flag, simply as an historical symbol.



Pearson's position on the flag had only been on record since January 27, 1960, when as Leader of the Opposition he had issued a press report urging the Canadian government to find "a solution to the flag problem." He acknowledged an inescapable reality: neither the Canadian Red Ensign nor the Union Flag was "acceptable to many Canadians as a distinctive flag of Canada." Nevertheless, he went on to emphasize that the:

Union Jack, which has had, and I am sure always will have a special and honoured significance for all Canadians ... will stand for important things in our history and our traditions. Indeed, whatever action Parliament might take in regard to a Canadian flag, I believe that the Union Jack should be accepted by Canada as an emblem to be flown on all occasions which are concerned with our Commonwealth Association and our status as a monarchy with the Queen as head of that Commonwealth.16

At this stage Pearson's position largely followed that of the many nationalists before him: the present flags are unsuitable and Parliament should find a better one of, as yet, unspecified form. However, significant was his explicit proposal to retain the Union Flag, not as a national flag, but as a symbol of Canadian links with the Crown and Commonwealth.

The government of the day did not accept the invitation to establish a new Canadian flag, so Pearson made it Liberal Party policy in 1961, and part of the election platform in 1962 and 1963. Finally in May of 1964, Pearson followed the lead of seventy years' worth of nationalists as he sought "a flag that is ... as Canadian as the Maple Leaf which should be its dominant design."17 On June 15, 1964, he opened the Great Flag Debate, with extensive historical information, but a very simple message: the flag he sought would be "exclusively Canadian," and would "say proudly to the world and to the future: 'I stand for Canada'."18

Significantly, Prime Minister Pearson acknowledged his respect for the honest disagreement of "others who are as patriotic and as Canadian as I am or can ever hope to be." Like Diefenbaker, Pearson sought to produce a flag which embodied history and tradition, but for Pearson a Canadian emblem should occupy the position of honour. The time had come for Canada to cut the umbilical cord of the banner of Britain.

The divided emotional loyalties of the nation contributed greatly to the battle over the national flag. Canada's long-running flag controversy has been described as a shallow emotional issue of low priority,19 yet, this assessment is, itself, one of consummate superficiality. The battle was not a trivial spat over the choice of a commercial logotype, rather, it was a fundamental and inevitable battle between two powerful but disparate cultural views of the nation. It was a battle waged on the deepest possible level, that of one's personal symbolic sense of identity.

Alas then, the issue had not been whether the maple leaf was pre-eminently Canadian, but whether the nation was pre-eminently Canadian.


Cleaving to American Practice and British Propriety

The internal dichotomy was highly visible, because conflicting loyalties polarized every discussion of a Canadian national flag. The external dichotomy was insidious; it arose from the disparate functions served by flags in the United Kingdom and the United States. The American citizen had a national flag. The Stars and Stripes was the flag of the people since its inception by Congress in 1777, although it had not become an object of widespread public display until the time of the American civil war.20

A British subject had no such flag. The Union Flag was a flag of the sovereign and his or her representatives; citizens were not entitled to its use. Indeed, reflecting the structure of the society itself, every flag in the British pantheon served to distinguish one individual or group from all others. There were flags for royalty, the navy, the army, custom's houses, port authorities, lighthouse ships, the merchant marine-the list goes on-but there was no appropriate flag to be flown voluntarily by a subject to denote his Britishness. Although now thought of as the national flag, the Union Flag was adopted informally by the public, and mainly so in this century. To this day, "the United Kingdom differs from most other countries in that she has no official national flag."21

In clear imitation of the Americans, Canadians sought a flag which they could hoist to proclaim their Canadianness. Yet within the British system, there was neither precedent nor provision for the institution of a flag to represent the people, per se. For Canadians, an irreconcilable gulf grew between their simultaneous yearning for American practice and British propriety. The Canadian public would proudly hoist its identity; and the Canadian authorities would denounce either the flags or the public's use of them as improper.

The Canadian's imitation of American flag-flying practice was more than unconscious mimicry; he looked south of the border and liked what he saw. Even Colonel George T. Denison, that archetypical imperialist, founder of the Canada First movement, and implacable foe of free trade with the U.S., admired American flag practice. In 1890 he chaired a meeting of the Imperial Federation League in which a letter was read from "the United States, mentioning the custom of flying the Stars and Stripes over the schools in that country, and suggesting that a like custom might be advantageous in Canada. The idea was seized on at once." Denison then led a deputation which persuaded the Ontario Minister of Education to institute the flying of the national flag at all schools. Proudly Denison notes, this "movement soon became general, and now in several Provinces the practice of displaying the flag is followed."22

Although Denison and others regularly spoke of the national flag, Canada did not have a national flag before 1965.23 After 1900, inconsistency reigned as two major pretenders vied for the honour, each being bolstered by ardent supporters and denounced by vociferous detractors. Typical were the claims and counter claims made by two Canadian books published in the 1920s. One asserted that "the Canadian Flag today is the British Red ... Ensign with the Dominion of Canada badge in the fly" while "the Union Jack is strictly the King's Colors and should not be displayed by private citizens."24 The other proclaimed "the Union Jack is the national flag of Canada, ... and is the correct flag to be flown on land by all British subjects," but that the Canadian Red "ensign is to be used only by Canadian merchant vessels."25 Conflicting, yet categorical assertions such as these flowed from editors, letter writers, pamphleteers, lobbyists, civil servants, and parliamentarians. Even today there are those who believe that one or other had indeed been Canada's national flag.

Unfortunately, these assertions came close to being correct only when they denounced another man's choice, for no flag officially filled the role the public chose to give it. Equally unfortunate, the claims supporting a favourite were always justified by a mixture of wishful thinking, glibness, and the recycled obiter dicta of like-minded apologists. Yet, the pronouncements supporting a particular flag revealed much about the Canadians' yearning to proudly hoist their identity upon a national flag. Until parliament settled the issue and Canadians gained their long-sought national flag, there was an irreconcilable tension between the cleaving to both American practice and British propriety.

Initially, there had been no question in the mind of the government that the choice of a flag should be determined by bureaucrats, after the British manner, rather than by elected representatives, after the American manner. When, in 1925, a request arose within National Defence for the adoption of a distinctive flag for Canada, the cabinet viewed it as a purely internal matter to be settled by a committee of public servants. Only when the press caught wind of it and expressed umbrage, did Mackenzie King concede that the adoption of a national flag would be left to parliament. Canada was now irretrievably committed to the American approach, although fruition was still forty years off.

The distinction between the two approaches was dramatically underscored in 1964, when the parliamentary flag committee sought the advice of various experts, among whom was a representative of the authoritative College of Arms in England. The Chief Herald, Sir Anthony Wagner pompously assured the committee that it was irrelevant: if Canada wanted a flag, he would grant one to the country. This antediluvian man was promptly dropped from the guest list.26

The dual dichotomies long rendered any attempt to settle the national flag controversy impotent. If either the emotional loyalties or the flag usage had been less ambiguous, Canada might have settled the issue in the nineteenth century when it first arose. For the flag controversy, however, the dichotomies only provided the background; it was the flags which provided the battleground.


The Contenders

Prior to 1965, the honour of being the National Flag of Canada was contested by a long series of both pretenders and contenders. The pretenders, those flags used as if, and widely believed to be, the national flag, were few in number but extensive in use. Nominally there were only two important pretenders, the Canadian Red Ensign, in any one of its manifold forms, and the Union Flag. The contenders, those flags offered as aspirants, were many in number but rarely in use. Yet of the innumerable flags proposed, there were a few which were either seminal or widely regarded.

Each of the pretenders has had a chapter devoted to it, but, as historically important as they were to the symbolism of Canadian identity, the National Flag did not evolve (in any simple manner) out of either flag. Rather, the Maple Leaf Flag owes its lineage (to a much greater extent) to the rich heritage of contenders, flags which arose from the Canadian public rather than having been prescribed from above.

From Confederation until the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, all attempts to establish a distinctively Canadian national flag were directed at merely establishing a Canadian beachhead upon a British flag. After the Statute and with independence confirmed, there arose the first attempts to capture the whole flag for Canada.



From the beginning, the search for a flag which would distinguish Canada was a search for an identity which would distinguish Canada. The initial manoeuvers were small but prescient. In 1870, just three years after Confederation, the Canadian government turned a necessity into a statement by placing a wreath of maple leaves, rather than the standard-issue imperial laurel leaves, upon the flag of the governor general. Then, in 1871, an article in the Canadian Illustrated News erroneously promoted the badge from that governor general's flag as an ensign badge. In short order, the ensign and its badge, evolving all the while, became that really strident symbolic statement of Canadian identity of the late nineteenth century, the aberrant Canadian Red Ensign.

1892 is sometimes credited as the beginning of the Canadianization of the flag for that is the year in which merchantmen were authorized to use a Canadian badge on the Red Ensign. While this was certainly a victory for Canadian nationalism, the authorization merely legitimized a well established use. Yet, the badge which had just been authorized was rarely to be seen on land. Rather it was the aberrant Canadian Red Ensign, or as an observer in 1894 put it, "the erroneous flag, so commonly everywhere displayed" with its "Dominion badge in all forms of incorrectness," which served as the statement of Canadian identity.27

The 1890s were a time when, according to the Toronto Globe of the day, "the revival of the national sentiment is again becoming popular."28 Newly established Canadian Clubs had agenda filled with patriotic and historical talks and halls filled with Canadian Red Ensigns.29

This was also the time when the first proposals began to appear for the alteration of the Canadian Red Ensign. The concern of the nationalists of the day was the establishment of an effective Canadian badge on the Red Ensign; a national beachhead, as it were, on the flag of another country. The first attempts to capture the whole flag for Canada were not to come for another forty years, and success in that venture was another thirty years beyond that.

The proposals all sought a simpler badge which would replace the one that represented Canada as a composite of its provinces, with one that represented Canada as an entity in itself. The public press was replete with suggestions, and, in 1896, Edward M. Chadwick, a Toronto lawyer and amateur armorist, assessed them and rejected most as not meeting his criteria for a Canadian flag. The badge, he said, must not be un-British in character; it must be something which may be generally recognized as Canadian; it should conform to heraldic propriety; and it must be simple. With the sometime exception of the first, these criteria were to guide the search for a Canadian flag for Canada until the issue was settled in late 1964.

Even the design elements differed only slightly over the years. Proposed flag badges which Chadwick considered and rejected were ones based on: various crosses (rejected as an unnecessary repetition of elements of the Union Flag); the French tricolour (an anachronism as it had no link with the old French Regime in Canada); the beaver (no great nation has ever selected a weak or insignificant animal); and a star with a ray for each province (proposed by Sir Sanford Fleming30 and rejected as sending the wrong signal to Americans). Finally, Chadwick made a seminal assessment of the appropriateness of the maple leaf on the flag of Canada:

A great number of suggestions have been varieties of the Maple Leaf badge, which is generally recognized all the world over as typical of Canada. Many of these last are artistic and suitable for decorative purposes, but unsuited for use in the Flag ... it should be the Maple Leaf in a simple form, either the single leaf, ... or the triple leaf.... It would certainly seem that the Maple Leaf, as complying with all four of the essential conditions above stated, is pre-eminently the proper badge to appear on our flag.31

One cannot read these words without coming to the overwhelming conclusion that in the succeeding two-thirds of a century, from 1896 to 1964, nothing much new happened as the same ideas were endlessly recycled. Granted, Chadwick was discussing a badge to be placed upon the Red Ensign, but then even that remained an issue in 1964. Of interest is the lack of any mention of a design using the fleur-de-lis, however, in 1896, that device had yet to attain the popularity in Quebec it was to gain in the next half-dozen years.

Chadwick's own choice for the Canadian flag badge was a sprig of three maple leaves: red when placed on the Blue Ensign, and yellow when placed on the Red Ensign. Proposals for flags which included a cluster of three maple leaves surfaced again in both the Second World War and the 1964 flag debate. However, the proposals most commonly put forward in the years between the 1890s and 1965 followed the lead of Canadian author, Barlow Cumberland. In a paean to the Union Flag published in 1897, Cumberland had suggested that the present "undistinguished medley" on the Canadian Red Ensign be replaced by a single maple leaf.32 Cumberland's preference was for a green leaf; subsequent authors added gold and red to the list of proposed colours.

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, the first exchange in Parliament took place on the subject of the appropriate flag for Canada. Since the early 1870s, the Canadian Red Ensign had flown over the Parliament, but now, accompanying the general upsurge in imperialist sentiment through much of the land, the Union flag replaced it. The substitution was protested in Parliament by Henri Bourassa, but he did not succeed in moving the government from its position. Indeed, the issue of Canada's flag appeared to be set in concrete, when in 1911, William Pugsley announced:

I believe with every member of this House, that the Union Jack will fly over Canada as an integral part of the British Empire, until the end of time.33

But then came the First World War. The nation came through the war with a new sense of direction as the returning veterans brought home a feeling of independence and Canadian identity. They had proudly worn the maple leaf on their uniforms. They had taken part in the victory celebrations amidst the flags of all the victorious nations. The resurgent feeling of nationalism throughout all of Canada prompted a desire for a flag which was distinguishably Canadian.

The independence granted by the Statute of Westminster was still more than a decade away, and at this stage a distinctively Canadian flag did not mean an exclusively Canadian flag. The mood had merely returned to the nationalist feelings of the 1890s which had promoted the adoption of a simple Canadian symbol to be displayed on a British flag. Characteristic of this sentiment were the 1919 proposals of the Antiquarian and Numismatic Society of Montréal. They suggested that the badge be a golden maple leaf, which when placed on the Union Flag would form the national flag for use on land, and when placed on the Red and Blue Ensigns would be used at sea.34

However, the advantages of this proposal were partially undercut as the government, reacting in part to the same upsurge in national identity, arranged for Canadian arms, the shield of which was placed on the ensigns in 1922. This simplified the clutter on the Canadian Red Ensign, but it did nothing to assuage the concerns of all those who wanted an officially approved flag to distinguish Canadians ashore. A few years later, the pursuit of that goal prompted a parliamentary brouhaha.



In 1924, the first Mackenzie King government quietly authorized the use of the new Canadian Red Ensign on Canadian buildings abroad: Canada House in London, and the new legations in Washington, Geneva, Paris and Tokyo.35 This aroused little protest at the time, presumably because it did not pose much of a threat to the imperialists' sense of identity at home. The next event was not taken so calmly.

On April 23, 1925, the Cabinet received a seemingly minor request from the Minister of National Defence. He noted that the Canadian Blue Ensign was authorized for Canadian government-owned vessels, and that the Canadian Red Ensign was authorized for other vessels registered in Canada, but that "there is throughout the country a desire that there should also be adopted for use ashore a distinctive flag which shall be recognized as the flag of the Dominion of Canada."

The issue was regarded as a purely internal matter, and Prime Minister King was not even present when the Cabinet dealt with it by appointing a committee of public servants "to consider and report upon a suitable design for a Canadian flag." King apparently did not even learn of the issue until it erupted in the press early in June. Driven by cries of outrage from Toronto branches of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, and the Loyal Orange Lodge, the issue entered Parliament. On June 17 the member for North Toronto, T.L. Church, attracted national attention when he demanded details of the order, who had sought it, and whether the Union Flag was Canada's only official flag.

King, unsure of himself, heading a minority government, and trapped in a position not of his making, attempted to address all the questions and then to assure Parliament that "the Government would not for a moment consider adopting a national flag other than by resolution of this House and the full sanction of the Parliament of Canada."36 This commitment was to prove binding on all future governments and ultimately would lead to the Great Flag Debate of 1964.

However in 1925, King's assurances did little to abate the storm of protests from imperialists. Few nationalists voices were raised in his support, and imperialists continued to castigate him as a tyrant, a dissembler, a bumbler, and a lackey of the Americans. The last straw was added when a letter to the Toronto press noted that the committee (which had been appointed strictly on the basis of competence) was composed entirely of Roman Catholics. This, it considered, was an "insult to the sensibility of every loyal Canadian British subject."

The political temperature had risen too high on an issue about which Mackenzie King appeared to care little. He dismissed the flag committee and ended the unsavory affair without a debate on the issue in Parliament.

The vituperative reaction to the mere existence of a flag committee was highly localized and centred in Toronto. The Ontario imperialists never seemed to question but that they spoke for the nation, yet elsewhere a slow tide was rising against them. Within a year the Balfour Report would describe the Dominions as "autonomous Communities within the British Empire ... united by a common allegiance to the crown" and this would be given legislative sanction in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster. Nevertheless in 1925, the nationalist voices were not much in evidence.

Taking up the cudgels the following year, La Presse commented delicately that "reasons [about] which we need not comment, caused the Government to postpone the study," and so the newspaper held a flag contest "with results surpassing our fondest hopes." The judges, mainly of French origin, chose a white ensign with a golden maple leaf on the fly and a Union Flag in the canton. The fact that they did not insist on the presence of the fleur-de-lis is significant. Francophones in Canada as a rule did not have the same strong attachment to their mother country as did Anglophones to theirs. Many felt that France had not given them the required support in their time of crisis, and so had developed a measure of patriotic respect for the British monarchy.37

In Parliament, the issue refused to die. J.S. Woodsworth, the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the precursor of the NDP), was widely known as the "conscience of Canada" for his championship of the cause of workers. In 1927, the same year as he succeeded in manoeuvring Mackenzie King into establishing an old-age pension plan, he commented wryly about that year's celebration of Canada's Diamond Jubilee which, "so far as we can determine will consist very largely of flag-waving ... at a time when we do not have ... a distinctively Canadian flag to wave." Mackenzie King, being astute if not courageous, did not rise to the bait.

Before the pivotal passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, even the most ardent of nationalists always included the Union Flag in any proposed design.38 Some of these early proposals attempted to appeal to both factions, but were presented with such unctuous equivocation that they probably offended imperialists and nationalists alike:

In presenting this design for a Canadian flag, I do not wish to give the impression that I am advocating that Canada should have a distinctive flag of her own, or should substitute the Union Jack. But recognizing that there is a deep and growing sentiment for a national flag in Canada, I believe, that instead of opposing such a sentiment it were far better to guide that sentiment in the right direction, so that when the demand becomes imperative, we may wisely select a design for it which will be truly emblematic of a nation.39



The first shots fired in the campaign to capture the whole flag for Canada came not long after the passage of the Statute of Westminster. The pamphleteers lead the way in proposing flags which not only emphasized the maple leaf but omitted the Union Flag.

In 1937, Frank McDonagh of Toronto noted that there had been a "change in the constitutional position of Canada from crown colony to a sovereign, independent nation," and that "1937 will be recorded in Canadian history as the first year in which a king, at his coronation, swore to govern Canada according to Canadian laws and customs." With the battle cry of "a country without a flag is like a man without a name," he offered "A Canadian Flag for Canada" (from which this chapter gets its name). His flag for use on land superimposed a crown on a single autumnal maple leaf on a blue field.40

McDonagh's maple-leaf flag set a precedent as it was exclusively Canadian; the crown it bore represented the Canadian, not the British, sovereign. However, his maple seed fell on imperialist ground and did not grow. If McDonagh's proposal, published in Toronto, evoked little response, the next one, published in Québec in 1943, proved to be one of the most influential designs to arise from the pamphleteers.

The Ligue du Drapeau National, in the first bilingual pamphlet on the subject, promoted a flag with a green maple leaf centred on a field divided diagonally from upper hoist to lower fly, red over white.41 The flag was simple and effective. Forming the background of the green Canadian leaf was the red of Royal Britain and the white of Royal France. This flag was subsequently endorsed by the Native Sons of Canada, and went on to become a major contender for the national flag until well into 1964.

An exclusively Canadian flag was in the wind. It was a vision apparently shared by the men who served overseas during the Second World War. In 1945, the Maple Leaf, a paper published by the Canadian Armed Forces in London, printed a suggestion that the Battle Flag should become the national flag of Canada. This flag not only bore three red maple leaves, but also prominently displayed both the Union Flag and three fleurs-de-lis. The paper was inundated with letters from angry men and women of all ranks who condemned any inclusion of foreign symbols on the flag of Canada. Said the letters, "To the devil with the Fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack"; said the paper, "Servicemen Speak Out Loud for a truly Canadian Flag."42

However, among servicemen, opinion was not as monolithic as the Maple Leaf made it seem. According to an RCAF officer who had seen service overseas, "there was a distinct difference of opinion ... between those who had been overseas and those who had not. Those who had seen active service disapproved the use of the Union Jack in the Canadian flag while those who had not favoured its use."43 This preference for an exclusively Canadian symbol on the part of those who had served overseas is understandable. As John Ross Matheson has noted, "All you have to do to become passionately Canadian is [to] live away from the country...."44

Meanwhile in parliament, the struggle continued through a series of private-member's motions made nearly annually from 1931 to 1943. The motions all seemed to be directed at merely modifying the Canadian Red Ensign by adopting a maple-leaf badge and then sanctioning its use on land. Parliament had reached the point where it was gingerly discussing a position advocated by Chadwick and Cumberland in the 1890s.

An interesting pattern of behavior in the parliament during this period sheds light on regional differences in attitude. A flag motion typically would be presented by a member from the west (MacIntosh from Saskatchewan, or Dickie from B.C.), or from Quebec (LaCroix). It would then be opposed by Torontonians (Church or MacNicol) who "as always more royalist than the King, cried, 'Hands off the Union Jack'."45 Sometimes the motion would even be given pro forma support by party leaders before being allowed to die without a vote.

Nevertheless there was evidence that the long-lived Prime Minister Mackenzie King was beginning to see the merit of settling the issue. In 1938, he had given amorphous support to McIntosh's flag motion; in 1943, he had insisted that the Canadian Red Ensign fly along with the flags of Britain and the U.S. at the Québec Conference; in 1944, the Canadian Red Ensign had been authorized for use by the Canadian Army in Europe; and again in 1944, he suggested to the cabinet "that Canada take the Canadian Ensign and accept it at once as her national flag." However, his uncertain resolve is revealed by his almost simultaneous response to a question from Maclean's Magazine about whether Canada should have its own flag. Equivocated Mackenzie, "Yes, at an appropriate time."46

In 1945 the troops returned from the Second World War, having not only distinguished themselves in battle, but having had themselves distinguished in battle by the flags they bore. To now lose the distinction upon returning to their own Union-Flag-festooned country was hardly a satisfactory reward. The Canada of 1945 was, after all, an independent nation. On V-E Day (Victory in Europe, May 8, 1945), the Canadian Red Ensign temporarily replaced the Union Flag on the Peace Tower of the Parliament Buildings, and pressure began to mount to have it proclaimed official.47 Bowing to this, Mackenzie King issued an order-in-council on September 5, 1945, to the effect that:

Until such time as action is taken by Parliament for the formal adoption of a national flag ... it shall be appropriate to fly the Canadian Red Ensign within and without Canada wherever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag.

Mackenzie was nothing if not a politician. What appears to be rather tortured language was actually masterly. It "permitted French Canadians to think the Ensign had been rejected as a permanent standard, English Canadians to think it had been accepted, and others to cling to the hope that a new national emblem was imminent."48

The Canadian Red Ensign now returned to the parliament from which it had been displaced for the last forty-three years by the Union Flag.



Two months later, Prime Minister King approached the problem at arm's length. On November 8, 1945, his acting prime minister moved that a joint committee of the Senate and House of Commons be appointed to consider and report upon a suitable design for a distinctive national flag. With that, his Minister of Veterans' Affairs put the case for the government, while being careful to assure the parliament that "narrow nationalism" was not the goal. Whereupon the Conservative member from Nanaimo, Maj.-Gen. George Pearkes, offered an amendment that would have circumvented the committee by immediately adopting "the present Canadian Red Ensign as the official national flag." There probably were sufficient votes available to pass this motion at the time, but the Speaker, Dr. Gaspard Fauteux, (known to the press gallery as Dr. Ghastly Faux-pas) ruled the amendment out of order.49 Likely, this was the closest the country ever came to having the Canadian Red Ensign as its official national flag.

On November 14, the motion to establish a committee passed with only two opposed. This said more for Parliament's desire to resolve the issue than it did for its unanimity on the nature of the best solution. There were now four camps, those favouring: the Union Flag, the Canadian Red Ensign, a modified Red Ensign, and, for the first time, an exclusively Canadian flag, the chief contender for which was the Ligue du Drapeau National's green leaf on a diagonal red and white field.

In opening the committee's deliberations, Secretary of State Paul Martin specified that the ideal flag of Canada should be easily recognizable, unlike any other, discernible at a distance, characteristic in structure, and appropriate and symbolic of the country and of its position as a sovereign state in the family of nations. Yet, in the end, the committee recommended "that the national flag of Canada should be the Canadian red ensign with a maple leaf in autumn golden colours in a bordered background of white," and thereby violated most of the Martin's criteria.

Having conceived a lion, the committee gave birth to a house cat. The recommended flag was but a trivial variation on many other proposals dating back to the 1890s. But what had been an assertion of an independent spirit in colonial Canada, was now an assertion of a colonial spirit in an independent Canada. Before 1931, the attempt had been to place a Canadian symbol upon a British flag; after 1931 the attempt was to remove a British symbol from a Canadian flag.

The committee's recommendation for the red ensign with the golden maple leaf had been carried twenty-three to one, with eleven absentees. Yet, despite what appeared to be overwhelming support, the Prime Minister rejected the committee's report on the superficial grounds that it was not unanimous. He then dropped the flag issue, even though the recommended flag had been his personal choice.

What could have brought about this odd sequence of events? The answer, in part, was that the consensus of the committee was clearly not the consensus of the country. Of the 2,695 designs submitted to the committee by May 9, 1946, analysis revealed that maple leaves were featured in 1611 (60%), Union Flags in 383 (14%), stars in 231, fleurs-de-lis in 184, beavers in 116, crowns in 49, and crosses in 22. By this vote not only had Canadians shown their continuing love affair with the maple leaf, but only one in seven had shown a desire to retain the Union Flag on the national flag. Yet, that is what the committee chose to do.

Within the committee the fundamental controversy had been over the retention of the Union Flag upon the flag of Canada. The imperialists, were adamant that Canada's flag should include the Union Flag. Nationalists from within and without Quebec said no. In particular, the Quebec Legislative Assembly urged the committee "to choose a really Canadian flag, that is to say a flag that excludes any sign of subjection, of colonialism, and which all Canadians, regardless of their origin, may display with pride." In a rational world, this request would have been treated as additional evidence that the inclusion of the Union Flag was inappropriate; but in this polarized committee, it probably only served to harden the defensiveness of the imperialists.

Finally, Walter Harris, the chairman of the Commons portion of the committee, had received word from above. Prime Minister King had turned the committee's work into a mummery by instructing the Liberal majority to support the red ensign with the golden maple leaf.50 So King had obtained what he wanted, but as it was not what the country wanted, to have pressed the matter would have invoked nothing but trouble. If he were to drop it, the Canadian Red Ensign in its present form would continue to fly, in the words of the order-in-council, "wherever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag." King dropped the matter.

But the problem refused to go away. In response to the rebuff given to Quebec's request, a provincial movement was initiated to persuade the government of Quebec to fly a truly Canadian flag over its legislative building.51 Two years latter, the movement was successful as Quebec became the first province to declare its own flag.52 Although this provided some measure of satisfaction within the province, it did not solve the national problem.



The controversy over a Canadian flag for Canada now became a national sport which was played regularly in newspapers, magazines and parliament. Following the 1946 flag debacle, the issue resurfaced with chronic regularity in Parliament. "During the speech from the throne Opposition members invariably referred to the failure of the government to produce a national flag. When the Liberals were in power Conservatives were the critics; when the Conservatives attained office in 1957 Liberals voiced their complaints."53

Familiar, and justified, laments were offered during the Korean war (1950-1953) that "Canadian soldiers are being asked once more to fight abroad and shed their blood under a flag which is not theirs."54 However, far more ironic was the issue of the flag raised in another war: that waged by the French and English against Egypt after President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. This occasioned Lester Pearson's greatest diplomatic achievement, for, in the proposal which brought him the Nobel Prize, he suggested that the French and English forces be replaced by a United Nations peacekeeping force. Yet when Calgary's Queen's Own Rifles were offered for the force, President Nasser remarked that the Canadian troops might be mistaken for the British, because of their uniforms, their regimental name, and the Union Flag in the Red Ensign.55 The Queen's Own Rifles were withdrawn and Canada sent only equipment and a contingent of support services.56

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the major contenders for the national flag were the Canadian Red Ensign, and the green leaf on a red and white flag diagonal field (as proposed by the Ligue du Drapeau National). The Union Flag was no longer seriously in the running. Since the Second World War, a gap had formed between public sentiment and Canada's ambiguously national and increasingly inappropriate flag. Although the flags were used by officials, the general public's taste for flying them had waned. In commenting on the attitude in Canada in the early 1950s, Arthur Lower noted that "no flags are flown in this curious country on the day devoted to celebrating its birth because it has no flag to fly, not one that all its people will accept, anyway."57

In 1958, a extensive poll was taken of the attitudes that adult Canadians held toward the flag. Of those who expressed opinions, over 80 percent wanted a national flag entirely different than that of any other nation, and, in results remarkably similar that obtained from the 1946 flag submissions, 60 percent wanted their flag to bear the maple leaf, while only 13 percent wished it to bear the Union Flag.58 Imperialists were beginning to feel threatened. In defence, societies were formed for the promotion of the Canadian Red Ensign and, for the first time, pamphleteers began to sing its praises.59 What the supporters of the Canadian Red Ensign lacked in numbers, they certainly made up in passion.



The Great Flag Debate of 1964 was played out on that same field of emotions as the many other Canadian flag controversies since Confederation: Canadian nationalism verses Canadian imperialism. But somehow the battle in 1964 loomed larger than life; the combatants, of mythical proportions, served as champions for the legions who had gone before. In 1964, very little was new, with a major exception: the battle, once joined, was carried to its cathartic conclusion.

The opening shots in the final battle of this civil war were fired by Pearson in January 1960 when he was Leader of the Opposition. He invited the government to solve the flag problem. Prime Minister Diefenbaker, who controlled Canada's largest majority to that date, could have easily accepted the invitation, but he did not seize the opportunity. So, Pearson continued to quietly gather information which would serve him well in the future.

The one man who is most responsible for our present Canadian flag was John Matheson, the Liberal member for Leeds County in Ontario. On February 5, 1963, in the flickering twilight of the Diefenbaker regime, Matheson had placed two questions on the order paper: "Does Canada have national colours, and if so what are these colours? Does Canada have a national emblem and, if so, what is that emblem?" Both answers were to be found in the Canada's 1921 Grant of Arms. The national colours were red and white, as found on the torse and mantling, and the national emblem was three maple leaves conjoined on one stem, as found in the base of the arms. Matheson, a student of heraldry, already knew the answers, but he had been laying the groundwork for the actions of a Liberal government in the succeeding months.

The election of the spring of 1963 had brought the Liberals back to power, but with a minority government. During the campaign, Pearson had promised that Canada would have a national flag within two years of his election, in plenty of time for the 1967 centennial of Confederation.60 To do this he needed a knowledge of flags and a plausible proposal. John Matheson continued to advise the Prime Minister and followed a preliminary letter of February 14, 1963, with a detailed submission on May 23. In these he proposed a flag bearing "three red maple leaves conjoined on a single stem" on a white field.61 It was Canada's national emblem in Canada's national colours.

From the beginning, Matheson's aim had been to avoid creating something new, but rather to use that which Canada had long held as its own. In this sense the proposal was very old: three red leaves on a white field was the Canadian badge proposed by Edward Chadwick for the blue ensign in 1896; the emblem of Canada on the Fortescue Duguid's Battle Flag of 1939 (first proposed in 1924); it was Canadian element of the army badge of 1947; the Canadian element on the revised arms in 1957 and the Queen's personal flag for Canada of 1962. In another sense, the proposal was strikingly new; this was the first time it appeared unaccompanied and so proclaimed the single message: Canada.

In February 1964, the three-leaf design was leaked to the press. Only a couple of months later, while Pearson was preparing for the forthcoming flag debate, Matheson's elegant proposal was muddied. One Saturday morning (probably early in May) Matheson was invited to the PM's residence to show him several drawings of the three-leaf flag. He took along Alan Beddoe, an advisor and artist. As Matheson described the incident:

The prime minister studied the sketches produced. Then without any prior advice or warning to me, Beddoe extracted from his brief case another design, with vertical blue bars, which he handed to the prime minister saying: "Perhaps you would prefer this flag which conveys the message: From Sea to Sea."62

Beddoe's design caught Pearson's fancy immediately, and shortly afterwards on May 14, 1964, Pearson informed the press of his choice and his intention to proceed with the flag legislation. With the addition of the blue bars, the three-leaf flag quickly attained the derisive epithet "Pearson's Pennant." In addition to offering the predictable captious comments, critics noted that vertical blue bars do not normally represent water, as was the attempt here. Rather, water is traditionally shown by blue and white wavy lines, such as could be seen on the flag of British Columbia. Further, Canada's colours were red and white only. Nevertheless, the three-leaf design with, and without the blue bars, quickly developed a following among Canadians ranging from flag-carrying demonstrators on Parliament hill, to Toronto night-club strippers who climaxed their acts by jiggling on stage with three strategically placed red maple leaves.63

One thoughtful criticism of the Pearson design was offered in a widely circulated brief by George Bist, who, while retaining the blue bars, replaced the three leaves with a single red leaf on a white square, and thus evoked Eugène Fiset's 1919 suggestion for the Arms of Canada. Immediately, the New Democratic Party seized upon the idea as its own,64 and it became widely promoted by the instantly formed apolitical group, a Citizen's Committee for a Single Maple Leaf.65

Meanwhile the supporters of the single green leaf on the diagonal red and white field had been busy. The Native Sons of Canada arranged for miniature copies of their favourite to be delivered to every member of parliament, where, on May 12, they bloomed in the House on the desks of thirteen members of the Créditiste party.66

In the battle for public opinion, Pearson took his campaign into the lions' den. In 1925, and again in 1945-46, the Orange Lodge had been the main force opposed to breaking the imperial link and losing the Union Flag. In 1964, the Royal Canadian Legion was the most vocal supporter of the status quo in the form of the Canadian Red Ensign. For months, every issue of their magazine, Legionary, had carried a picture of the ensign with the caption "This is Canada's Flag-Let's Keep it Flying."67 Prime Minister Pearson took his case to the 20th RCL Convention in Winnipeg on May 17. But, unlike King before him, Pearson was a veteran, having enlisted for service at the age of 17 during the First World War. The Prime Minister told a bemedaled and ensign-flying crowd at the convention that he meant no disrespect for the Union Flag, or the Canadian Red Ensign, but declared, "I believe most sincerely that it is time now for Canadians to unfurl a flag that is truly distinctive and truly national in character," to which the Legionnaires thundered "No! No!"68 There was an irony in the fact that the Legionnaires, who had recently replaced the Union Flag on their own badge with a maple leaf, rose to their feet, booed, and continued to yell "No!" after Pearson said: "I believe that today a flag designed around the maple leaf will symbolize and be a true reflection of the new Canada."69 But Pearson had sought a flag which would be "Canada's own and only Canada's" and the next day public reaction ran strongly in his favour.

The Prime Minister opened the parliamentary debate on June 15, 1964, with a resolution

to establish officially as the flag of Canada a flag embodying the emblem proclaimed by His Majesty King George V on November 21, 1921-three maple leaves conjoined on one stem-in the colours red and white then designated for Canada, the red leaves occupying a field of white between vertical sections of blue on the edges of the flag.70

Then, in a moving speech, Pearson outlined the history of the Union Flag, the Canadian Red Ensign, the Canadian coat of Arms, and the maple leaf as symbol. He assured the Parliament that the issue would be solved by neither an order-in-council nor a referendum, but rather, by Parliament itself.

Before the debate had opened, John Diefenbaker had placed himself in the untenable position of denying the historical affinity of Canadians for the maple leaf as a symbol; said Diefenbaker, "The Government proposed Maple Leaf design bears no relationship with Canada's past."71 Then, as he opened the opposition side of the debate, he denigrated it further with: "Surely Canada deserves something better than ... the symbol of three maple leaves."72

Both history and the mood of the land were against him. Diefenbaker had trapped himself in the sincere, but ultimately futile, position of denouncing his country's very popular and indeed official symbol, while simultaneously lauding that of another independent nation, albeit one with close emotional and historic ties with Canada. As Peter C. Newman observed, "the thirty-seven angry days of the flag debate allowed the Liberal Leader to transcend his time while the Tory Chief remained a prisoner of his heritage."73 Diefenbaker became increasingly isolated, even within his own party. Eventually some thirty English-speaking Conservatives and the whole ten-man Quebec contingent refused to support Diefenbaker's leadership on this issue.74

If history was against Diefenbaker, it was not always clear at the time that history was on the side of Pearson. Not only had newspapers speculated that Pearson was about to commit political suicide,75 but his colleagues were not always confident that the country would back him on the emotional issue of a new flag.



The seemingly endless debate raged in Parliament and the press with no side giving quarter. Then on September 10, the Prime Minister yielded to the suggestion that the matter be referred to a special flag committee. The Conservatives at first saw this event as a victory, for they knew that all previous flag committees had suffered miscarriages. The all-party committee had fifteen members: seven Liberals, five Conservatives, one New Democrat, one Social Crediter, and one Créditiste. It was to report to the house of Commons in six weeks, and its meetings were understood to be confidential. Although the Prime Minister had asked John Matheson to be the chairman, he declined on the grounds that he could be more effective as a member. So on Matheson's recommendation, Herman Batten, the Member for Humber-St. George, was appointed chairman. This ended Pearson's involvement in the controversy for the time being, for unlike Mackenzie King in 1946, Pearson did not interfere with the committee's work.76

The committee received extensive advice on flags and heraldry, yet while relevant to the question on hand, it was not clear that the members were listening. Seemingly impervious to expert testimony, two intransigent camps persisted: the Anglophone Tories, who insisted that the Union Flag should occupy the position of honour on Canada's flag; and the rest, who supported a flag based exclusively on the maple leaf. There was no such thing as a calm or reasoned discussion in the committee and weeks dragged on with no progress.

John Matheson realized that if the committee were ever to produce a good flag, he would have to choose it himself, and then manoeuvre the committee into supporting it. For anyone as familiar as he was with the history of Canada's very long and factious flag controversy, this was a daunting prospect. The fact that Matheson succeeded gloriously earned him the Prime Minister's appreciative appellation: "the man who had more to do with it than any other."77

The first problem was the design. Already Matheson had abandoned any expectation of obtaining acceptance for either his original three-leaf flag or Pearson's favourite blue-bar modification. Each had sunk beneath an overburden of political criticism. Further, he was becoming persuaded of the elegant simplicity of a single leaf design. Extensive conversations with two friends, neither of whom made formal presentations to the committee, strongly influenced Matheson's ultimate choice.

The first was Lt.-Col. George F.G. Stanley, Ph.D., then Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College, at Kingston, and later to be lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick. John Matheson tells of one of their conversations which took place in Kingston earlier that year:

I particularly recall standing beside George Stanley and looking up at the Royal Military College flag.... This flag had three vertical pales, red-white-red, with the college crest (a mailed fist holding three maple leaves) on the white centre pale. Dr. Stanley remarked "There, John, is your flag." Interpreting him literally I remarked that Canadians would not accept a mailed fist symbol. He said, "No, I mean with a red maple leaf in the place of the College Crest."78

Not only was the RMC flag in the national colours, but its striking red-white-red pales were very probably modeled upon the ribbon on Canada's first military medal, the General Service Medal, issued for the defence of Canada between 1866 and 1870. However, the equal pales presented a flag too close to that of Peru, and the centre white pale was too narrow to effectively display a single large maple leaf. So, following the suggestion of Eugène Fiset to the arms committee in 1919, Matheson broadened the central pale to a form a square. The irony of thus presenting the angry Legionnaires with what was their own badge appealed to Matheson's sense of mischief.

Matheson's second confidant and advisor was Conrad Swan, a herald at the College of Arms in London. In the end, Swan, a native of Vancouver Island, not only provided the heraldic language used on the flag proclamation, but in describing Matheson's unusually broad central pale, gave it a new heraldic term: the Canadian Pale. In the ensuing years, the Canadian Pale became a common feature of flags in Canada as it blossomed on the flags of territories, municipalities, crown corporations, and associations.

There remained the choice of a leaf design. As Chadwick had noted in 1894, a simple, stylized version of the maple leaf is to be preferred on Canada's flag to a detailed, naturalistic rendition. Matheson's design was refined throughout the fall of 1964, but the final version was based on a leaf that Jacques Saint-Cyr of the Government Exhibition Commission had designed for and placed on some exhibition shipping crates. Matheson only had to straighten out a slight curve in the stem of Saint-Cyr's design to have the leaf that now appears on our flag.79

Throughout, Matheson had striven to select a design whose roots ran deep into Canadian history and symbolism. His choice satisfied that criterion admirably, but how was he now to arrange it so the committee would adopt his choice. Stealth was in order, for even a very good design, if promoted by the Liberals, would become a target for unbridled criticism. Surreptitiously, the Matheson flag joined the other proposals on the wall.

Others were also becoming discouraged. One afternoon Liberal, Grant Deachman, and New Democrat, Reid Scott, confronted Matheson with the startling information that they were prepared to cave in and go along with the Conservatives on an ensign. They pointed out the obvious: Pearson's favourite had no chance of success. Matheson protested that he had long since been persuaded of the superiority of a one-leaf design and that it was imperative that the committee not choose an ensign, but a flag, and one which displayed both Canada's colours and Canada's emblem. The design, he said, should at least match the aesthetic standards of the stylish Pearson Pennant, still on the wall. When Deachman and Scott sought an example of such a flag, Matheson pointed out the flag he had so carefully nurtured. Almost instantly an agreement was reached: that design was to be the choice.80

But how to get the flag accepted? For now, secrecy must be maintained lest the Conservatives disparage the flag solely because others were in favour of it. It was also was agreed that Deachman, who was the government strategist, would orchestrate their efforts. The strategy required that at all times the Conservatives should vote in fear of an ultimate victory for the three-leaf Pearson Pennant. They must not suspect that everyone else had agreed to support Matheson's proposal. This plan was greatly facilitated by a general agreement that all votes would be taken in camera. Although the vote would be recorded in the minutes, the committee would only be informed of the success or failure of each motion.

The fateful day for the voting came on October 22, 1964. The chairman, Herman Batten, who did not vote, started by placed three motions before the committee. First, the Conservative motion to decide the flag question with a national plebiscite, was defeated (by 9 to 5). Next, the motion that there should be but one national flag passed (14 to 0). Finally, the motion that the national flag should be the extant Canadian Red Ensign was defeated (by 10 to 4, the four in favour all being Anglophone Tories).

As the national flag now would not be the Canadian Red Ensign, the committee had to choose from among the new designs. The flags were grouped into three classes, and then, by a procedure previously agreed upon, each class was reduced to a single representative flag. There were now only three finalists, and a vote was taken for the retention of each.

The class of three-leaf designs, represented by the Pearson Pennant, was retained (by a vote of 8 to 6), as was the class of one-leaf designs, represented by Matheson's flag (13 to 1). The final class, containing either the Union Flag or fleur-de-lis, was rejected (9 to 5).

This was a significant achievement: for the first time it was clear that the flag of Canada would be exclusively Canadian. But, with flags in the form of ensigns eliminated, the problem still remained to choose between the one-leaf and three-leaf designs. The Conservatives assumed that the Liberals would still be committed to the Pearson Pennant, but all others would vote against it. So the Tories made their choice for the one-leaf flag, not on the basis of design, but solely as a way to humiliate the Grits with an split and inconclusive vote. This is exactly what government strategy had expected them to do.

The vote in favour of Matheson's design was a unanimous fourteen to nothing. The Tories were horrified at what they had done. So, on the next motion, which asserted that the just-chosen design represented a suitable flag for Canada, they cast an ineffective four votes in opposition. There followed a motion recommending the continued permissive use of the Union Flag "as a symbol of Canada's membership in the Commonwealth of Nations and her allegiance to the Crown"; this passed (8 to 1 with 5 Tory abstentions).81

In the end, the Conservative obstinacy had done the country a great service for it had bought the extra time necessary to develop the best possible flag. But having a unanimous choice for a flag in the committee, as amazing as it was, did not constitute acceptance by Parliament itself.



The flag controversy was all over but for the shouting; unfortunately there was plenty of that left. John Diefenbaker led off with a broadside over national CBC TV in which he asserted that the chosen flag "shows nothing of our heritage."82 It was downhill from there. The fact that the Conservative members of the flag committee had voted for the new flag did not stop them from opposing it now that it was before Parliament. The pro-ensign voter, minority though he seemed to be, still relied on the Conservatives to block the new flag, so the debate staggered on acrimoniously for six weeks as the Conservatives launched a filibuster.

Tory tactics soon began to backfire as they began to be blamed for, in the phrase of the Montréal Star, "holding the Parliament to ransom." Soon even the Conservatives felt trapped as one after another expressed his frustration with his leader's obduracy. Complained, Nova Scotian MP George Nowlan, "The Liberals have got to use closure, to get us off the hook. We can't just quit, our people would never forgive us for it. They've got to take the responsibility of forcing us."83 Then both Léon Balcer, Diefenbaker's Quebec lieutenant, and the Créditiste, Réal Caouette, invited the government to end the parliamentary travesty by applying closure.

Responding to the inevitability of it, the government cut off debate with a closure motion which passed 152 to 85. When the final vote on the adoption of the new flag came at 2:00 a.m., December 15, 1964, it passed by 163 to 78. Everyone was drained; commented the Globe and Mail on December 16: "Flags that have been torn in battle with a foreign enemy can still fly with pride. This will surely be the first flag in history that was shred by its sons."

On the afternoon of December 15, the House of Commons dealt with the continued use of the Union Flag. The vote was a whopping 185 to 25 in favour of its retention as a symbol of Canada's allegiance to the Crown and its membership in the Commonwealth. The Senate, in turn, passed the resolution on December 17. Then, on Christmas Eve 1964, the Queen of Canada approved the Maple Leaf Flag. She signed the Royal Proclamation on January 28, 1965, when both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were in London attending the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.

By the Proclamation, the Maple Leaf Flag became the flag of Canada on February 15, 1965. At noon on that day, throughout Canada and at Canadian legations and on Canadian ships throughout the world, the Canadian Red Ensign was lowered with great honour and the Maple Leaf Flag was raised. On Parliament Hill, Gaetan "Secours, a 26 year-old R.C.M.P. constable pulled smartly at the halyard of the flagpole beside the dais and moments later, a sudden east wind gave the first breath of life to Canada's red maple leaf flag."84


A pre-eminently Canadian Nation

From early in the nation's history, two things were clear: the maple leaf is the pre-eminently Canadian symbol; a flag is the pre-eminent manifestation of a national symbol. Yet, for the better part of a century these two ideas could not be joined to produce a Maple Leaf Flag for Canada, because the nation, itself, was not pre-eminently Canadian. Canada's soul was rent by conflicting allegiances.

The seemingly endless quest for the national flag quickly became an almost formalized ritual through which the nation agonized over its emotional identity. Since 1871, every conceivable device was used-newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, books, speeches, sermons, radio and television programs, and parliamentary questions and motions-to explore the symbolic soul of the nation. The din was incessant, so much so that ironic concern was expressed in 1964 over how Canadians would handle the deprivation, if their favourite controversy was ever actually settled. Speculated Walter Stewart: "many of us will remember it longingly, the way a toothache victim probes with tender tongue for the spot recently vacated by a throbbing molar."85 The national toothache, certainly a prosaic metaphor, but the flag quest did have an chronic presence shared by few other national problems, and the grail when found, contained the most soothing of national balms.

For the first third of a century, an enthusiastic public had festooned holidays and patriotic events with flags. A fallow period followed, during which time a gap slowly widened between public sentiment and Canada's ambiguously national and increasingly inappropriate flags. Although the flags were used by officials, the Canadian public's taste for flying them had waned.

Then with the happy adoption of the National Flag, and the widespread reverence it received, the use of flags of all kinds in this country was profoundly influenced. Not only was the Maple Leaf Flag proudly displayed everywhere, but a parade of provinces, cities, villages, associations, and businesses quickly followed suit and enthusiastically hoisted their own identities upon masts. A proliferation of flags, often including either a Canadian pale or a modern maple leaf, now fills both the large cities and a deep need. Canadians have become a flag-flying people once again.

The National Flag has now became fused with the Canadian identity so comfortably that it is now hard to imagine the nation without it. As Arthur Lower noted when describing the change only two years after the event:

Since the adoption of the new flag, something very interesting has happened to the Canadian psyche ... the country is ... coming to see itself as an entity.... Each time ... the average citizen looks at the new flag, he unconsciously says to himself "That's me!"86

Finally the maple leaf has been joined by the nation in being pre-eminently Canadian, and, all three-the maple leaf, the flag, and the nation-say, in the words of Lester B. Pearson, "I stand for Canada."


This is the chapter entitled, A Canadian Flag for Canada, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



1. E.M. Chadwick, "The Canadian Flag" Canadian Almanac, 1896 (Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1896), p. 228.

2. Nationalism in this treatment is taken to mean Canadian nationalism so it includes the sentiments found in both founding nations which promoted a Canadian as opposed to a British, or even an American, identity.

3. Arthur R.M. Lower, "The Evolution of the Sentimental Idea of Empire: A Canadian View," History (January 1927): 289-303. Reprinted in History and Myth: Arthur Lower and the Making of Canadian Nationalism (Vancouver: U.B.C., 1975), pp. 290-304.

4. Durham, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of, Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America, edited with an introduction by C.P. Lucas (Oxford: Claredon, 1912), 2: 331.

5. Lower, "The Evolution of the Sentimental Idea of Empire."

6. The phrase was coined by John L. O'Sullivan in his United States Magazine and Democratic Review (July-August 1845), but he was just enunciating what had been, and continued to be, an American predilection which Canadians understandably found threatening.

7. Kingston Whig-Standard, February 10, 1956.

8. Arthur R.M. Lower, Canadians in the Making (Don Mills: Longmans, 1958), p. 439. The letter, from New York, was dated March 25, 1953.

9. A novel, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, introduced the term into the language to denote a difficult situation or problem which apparently has alternative solutions, but which are nevertheless mutually contradictory.

10. Peter C. Newman, "The Great Flag Debate" The Distemper of Our Times, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968), p. 254.

11. John Ross Matheson, Canada's Flag: A Search for a Nation, (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980), p. 46.

12. Canada: House of Commons Debates, June 4, 1964, IV, pp. 3917-20.

13. Newman, The Distemper of Our Times, p. 259.

14. John G. Diefenbaker, One Canada (Toronto: Macmillan, 1977), p. 225.

15. Diefenbaker, One Canada, p. 223.

16. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 66.

17. From Pearson's speech to the Royal Canadian Legion at Winnipeg on May 17, 1964. See Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 74.

18. Pearson's speech of June 15, 1964 can be found in its entirety in the Canada: House of Commons Debates, IV (1964), pp. 4306-4309, 4319-26. Most of it is also found in the pamphlet, I stand for Canada! (Ottawa: Liberal Federation of Canada, 1964). Also see Matheson, Canada's Flag, pp. 80-86.

19. This assessment was offered by Patrick Nicholson in, Vision and Indecision (Don Mills: Longmans, 1968), p. 347.

20. Whitney Smith, The Flag Book of the United States (New York: William Morrow, 1975), p. 91. An excellent discussion of the gradual apotheosis of the American Flag as the premier icon of American civil religion can be found in Scott M. Guenter's book, The American Flag, 1777-1924 (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickenson, 1990). 254 pp.

21. E.M.C. Barraclough, and W.G. Crampton, Flags of the World (London: Frederick Warne, 1978), p. 22. Most authors are not as careful with their language as these are. As a result, the number of authors who categorically name the Union Flag as the national flag of Britain is legion. Such authors seem unprepared to make a distinction between a flag being regarded as, or being used as, a national flag, and a flag actually being the national flag. Yet, for Canada, this distinction is crucial, for in its absence, the order-in-council of September 5, 1945, which only authorized the "flying of the Canadian Red Ensign wherever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag," would have created a national flag. However, it did not.

22. George T. Denison, The Struggle for Imperial Unity, (London: Macmillan, 1909), pp. 134-136.

23. Conrad Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1977), p. 79.

24. Andrew D. MacLean, British Flags on Land and Sea (Toronto: Hugh C. Maclean, 1929), pp. 23, 37.

25. Charles P. Band and Emilie L. Stovel, Our Flag (Toronto: Musson, 1925), pp. 11, 34.

26. Matheson, Canada's Flag, pp. 120-21.

27. Colin Campbell, "The Imperial and Canadian Flags," Canadian Almanac, 1895 (Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1895), p. 217.

28. Globe, (Toronto: March 1893). Quoted by Nina L. Edwards, The Story of the First Canadian Club, 1893-1953 (Hamilton: 1953).

29. Edwards, The Story of the First Canadian Club.

30. Sandford Fleming, "The Canadian Flag: A Proposal for The Meteor Flag of the Dominion" The Week, (Toronto: May 31, 1895), Cover, p. 639.

31. Chadwick, "The Canadian Flag" Canadian Almanac, 1896, pp. 227-28.

32. Barlow Cumberland, The Story of the Union Jack, (Toronto: William Briggs, 1897), pp. 227-30, Plate IX. On the title page Cumberland bills himself as both the "Past President of the National Club, Toronto, and Supreme President of the 'Sons of England,' Canada."

33. George F.G. Stanley, The Story of Canada's Flag (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1965), p. 29.

34. Herbert George Todd, Armory and Lineages of Canada, 7th annual issue, 1919 (Yonkers: self, 1919), Plate I.

35. The discussion of the flag controversy of 1925 is based mainly on Matheson, Canada's Flag, Ch. 3.; and Stanley, The Story of Canada's Flag, Ch. 8.

36. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 29.

37. Personal communication from Auguste Vachon.

38. One proposal presented only a pastiche of the Union Flag; it featured, however, a single crowned maple leaf. The pamphlet, Proposed Royal Arms for Independent Canada (Boston: Dexter, 1903), p. 4, was prepared by the Aryan Order College of Arms in Canada.

39. J.F. Mitchell, Proposed Design for Canadian Flag (Winnipeg: self, 1929), 15 pp.

40. McDonagh, A Canadian Flag for Canada.

41. Ligue du Drapeau National, Pour un Drapeau National -For a National Flag (Québec: Ligue du Drapeau National, c. 1943), 20 p.

42. Maple Leaf (London: Canadian Armed Forces, December 10, 1945), editorial.

43. T.S. Ewart, A Flag for Canada (Ottawa: self, 1947), p. 5.

44. John Ross Matheson, "Birth of a Flag" The Archivist 17, 1 (Ottawa: National Archives of Canada, 1990), p. 6.

45. Blair Fraser, "The Great Flag Debate: Maple Leaf Rampant" The Search for Identity (Toronto: Doubleday, 1967), p. 237.

46. Fraser, The Search for Identity, p. 238.

47. Walter Stewart, "The Great Flag Fight" The Star Weekly (Toronto, July 4, 1964).

48. Stewart, "The Great Flag Fight."

49. Fraser, The Search for Identity, p. 238.

50. Fraser, The Search for Identity, p. 238.

51. Jean-Guy Labarre, Non au Drapeau Canadian (Montréal: Les Éditions Actualité, 1962), p. 52.

52. Although Nova Scotians have made use of a banner of their arms since 1858, the province has never formally adopted it as the provincial flag.

53. Stanley, The Story of Canada's Flag, p. 58.

54. The observation of Léon Balcer made in Parliament in May, 1951. See, Stanley, The Story of Canada's Flag, p. 57.

55. Chicago Tribune Press Service (January 5, 1957).

56. Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1985), p. 242.

57. Lower, Canadians in the making, p. 439.

58. The poll was taken by the Canadian Cross-Section, a CIPO affiliate. The statistics are presented by Jack Gale in "What Canadians want in a Flag," The Star Weekly (Toronto: March 21, 1959), p. 12. A total of 1,110 people were sampled from across the country. To the question, "Do you approve or disapprove of Canada having a national flag entirely different from that of any other country?" 74.9% approved, 14.9% disapproved, and 10.2% offered no opinion. To the question "If Canada did get another flag what should be on it?" 46.7% said the maple leaf, 10.2 said the Union Flag, 10.0% said a beaver, 3.6% (but 0% in Quebec) said the fleur-de-lis, and 23.0% expressed no idea.

59. Examples of the pamphlets are: Does Canada need a new flag? (Toronto: British-Isreal-World Federation, 1957, 1958), 20 p; R.E. Wemp Our Flag, its origin, history, symbolism, & significance (Toronto: British-Isreal-World Federation, 1959), 32 p, 2nd edition (1961), 24 p; and, Canada's Flag Keep it Flying (Toronto: Canadian Patriotic Association, n.d.), 8 p.

60. Stanley, The Story of Canada's Flag, p. 63.

61. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 68.

62. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 128.

63. Newman, The Distemper of Our Times, p. 257.

64. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 125.

65. The Citizens Committee for a Single Maple Leaf advertised their choice widely in newspapers in June 1964. See, for example, the Montreal Gazette (Montréal: June 15, 1964), p. 9.

66. Stewart, "The Great Flag Fight."

67. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 69.

68. Stewart, "The Great Flag Fight."

69. Information extracted from a film clip of Pearson's Legionnaire Speech broadcast on the first program of the PBS series "Canada: True North" (September 17, 1988).

70. Canada: House of Commons Debates, IV, 1964, p. 4293. The resolution had been placed before the parliament first on May 28. See, p. 3675.

71. Montreal Gazette (Montréal: June 11, 1964).

72. Canada: House of Commons Debates, IV, 1964, p. 4330.

73. Newman, The Distemper of Our Times, p. 254.

74. Newman, The Distemper of Our Times, p. 259.

75. In its lead editorial, the Vancouver Province (Vancouver: January 18, 1964), suggested that "Mr. Pearson Flirts with Political Suicide."

76. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 128.

77. Time, 85, 9 (February 26 1965). Also, Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 186.

78. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 122.

79. Personal communication from John R. Matheson. See also Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 178.

80. Matheson, Canada's Flag, pp. 127-8.

81. Matheson, Canada's Flag, pp. 132-5.

82. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 136.

83. Fraser, The Search for Identity, p. 245.

84. Matheson, Canada's Flag, p. 186. He is quoting from the Canadian issue of Time magazine.Those sources give the officer's name as Joseph Secours. In fact, his name was Gaetan Secours.

85. Stewart, "The Great Flag Fight."

86. Lower, Queen's Quarterly (Summer 1967).


This is the chapter entitled, A Canadian Flag for Canada, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.