The Great Canadian Flag Debate

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There have been many issues that have divided Canada in its history. There was the conscription crisis of 1917, or the referendums that threatened to break up Canada. Even things like Medicare caused furious debate across Canada.

One event that was hotly debated across Canada, loved by some, and hated by others at the time, was the debate over Canada’s flag. For most countries, a flag is created early in its history and there is little debate over its creation. In Canada, no national flag existed until almost 100 years after the formation of the country. Other flags had existed, de facto national flags, but nothing was official.

Today, I am looking at the Flag Debate that dominated Canada in the mid-1960s.

After Canada became a country, the Royal Union Flag, known as the Union Jack, was used as the national flag of the country, while the Canadian Red Ensign was recognized as a distinctive Canadian flag.

The Canadian Red Ensign was first used during the time of Sir John A. Macdonald, and upon his death the Governor General, Lord Stanley, wrote to London, stating quote in 1891:

“The Dominion Government has encouraged by precept and example the use on all public buildings throughout the provinces of the Red Ensign with the Canadian badge on the fly, which has come to be considered as the recognized flag of the Dominion, both ashore and afloat.”

When Sir Wilfrid Laurier came to power in 1896, pressure from pro-imperial Canadians resulted in the Union Jack flying over Parliament, where it would stay until the 1920s when the Red Ensign came back into prominence.

From 1873 to 1921, as provinces entered Confederation, the Red Ensign was incorporated into nine provincial flags in some way. The issue was that the flag was not officially a Canadian flag, so many flag makers added their own embellishments, adding a crown on the shield, placing the shield in a white circle and more.

To deal with this, in 1921 the government asked King George V for a new coat of arms of Canada, that incorporated the cultures of England, Scotland, Ireland and France. In 1922, through an Order in Council, the coat of arms with the new shield became the Canadian Coat of Arms.

In 1924, the new version of the Red Ensign was approved for use on Canadian government buildings abroad.

Throughout the coming decades, various suggestions would pop up for new flags. One design by the newspaper La Presse, published on Jan. 11, 1930, featured a Union canton, five blue point stars making up The Big Dipper constellation, and a large North Star at the top of the flag. One flag proposed in 1946 featured the Union jack canton, with a white background and a maple leaf on the right side.

In 1939, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had the Union Jack flown over Parliament during the Second World War, but in 1945 he used an Order in Council to make the Canadian Red Ensign the official Canadian flag on federal buildings. King attempted to give Canada its own flag and 2,600 ideas came in, but the project faded, and no flag was chosen.  

In 1947, Adelard Godbout, who was premier of Quebec from 1939 to 1944, suggested a design based on the League of the Canadian Flag, which was divided diagonally between white and red with a maple leaf in between.

By the 1950s, attitudes were changing, and many Canadians wanted their own flag that was distinctive in the world. In 1956 during the Suez Crisis, Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester Pearson, would defuse the situation and earn the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. A United Nations Emergency Force was created but the Egyptians rejected Canada’s participation in it as the Canadians were too British in their uniforms and symbols. This would push Pearson to create a new symbol for Canada. A large poll was held in 1958 and it found that 80 per cent wanted a national flag different from any other nation, and 60 per cent wanted the flag to have the maple leaf on it.

The maple leaf had long been associated with Canada, serving as a national symbol dating back from as early as the 1830s. During the First World War, 60 per cent of Canadian cap badges had the maple leaf on it.

On Jan. 27, 1960, Lester B. Pearson, the Leader of the Opposition, put out an invitation to create a new flag in Parliament but the Conservatives, headed by John Diefenbaker, were not interested in doing so. This opposition to a new flag only grew in the coming years.

As a result, Pearson made it a Liberal Party policy in 1961 and a part of the election platform in both the 1962 and 1963 federal elections. It became a main part of the campaign in 1963 when Pearson promised to have a new flag in place within two years if the Liberals were elected. The Liberals won that election, but with a minority government, which would make implementing a new flag no easy task.

Pearson would write in his memoirs, quote:

“The flag was part of a deliberate design to strengthen national unity to improve federal-provincial relations, to devise a more appropriate constitution, and to guard against the wrong kind of American penetration.”

The creation of a new flag was not just something that came out of nowhere. The country was growing increasingly divided, the FLQ were bombing mailboxes and businesses in Quebec and Pearson felt that the new flag would serve as, quote:

“an elixir that might transform followers, wearied of the parliamentary battles and sad at heart as their heroes fell. Moreover, in the races against national division, a new flag might be a rallying symbol.”

John Matheson, the Parliamentary Secretary, made the flag his own passion project and would even learn about the principles of flags to better understand the issue of flags.

In February 1963, a three-leaf design was leaked to the press, which was the design Pearson preferred. It would eventually be nicknamed The Pearson Pennant by the Conservatives. On one day, Matheson came to the home of Pearson to look at the sketches of the three-leaf flag, bringing designer Alan Beddoe with him. Matheson would say quote:

“The prime minister studied the sketches produced. Then without any prior advice or warning to me, Beddoe extracted from his briefcase 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.”

Not everyone was in favour of that flag design. One newspaper in Alberta published a letter from a 10-year-old in the community who said, quote:

“I don’t like the three maple leaves on the white background, the single maple leaf looks better. As I am only 10, I will have to look at it longer than Mr. Pearson.”

On May 17, 1964, at the Royal Canadian Legion Convention in Winnipeg, Pearson spoke to a hostile crowd, who were not in favour of changing the flag from the Red Ensign to a new design. In fact, the cover of the recent Legionary magazine had an image of the Canadian Red Ensign on it with the caption “This is Canada’s Flag: Keep It Flying” The men in the audience had fought with the Red Ensign on their uniforms, and it held a special place for them. Both the Royal Canadian Legion and Canadian Corps Association wanted a flag that included the Union Jack, to show the ties of Canada to the other Commonwealth nations.

Going to the convention was an excellent tactic by Pearson to not only bring the issue of the new flag to national attention, but to also win over a critical audience. He would write in his memoirs, quote:

“I chose this occasion deliberately, though I might easily have arranged to speak to an audience which would have given my views a friendlier reception. I thought, however, that, outside of Parliament, the Legion had the right to be the first to hear my statement. I had no illusions about their reaction for I knew their official views. But I got a fair, if somewhat hostile, hearing. It was naturally a difficult speech to make in the circumstances.”

This began, what today has become known as The Great Canadian Flag Debate. It was an issue that divide people across Canada, although in Quebec it resulted in little more than apathy. As a professor would say, one year before he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal, quote:

“Quebec does not give a tinkers dam about the new flag. It is a matter of complete indifference.”

That professor was named Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

On June 1, 1964, supporters of the red ensign gathered at Parliament Hill to demonstrate over the decision to create a new flag. The RCMP were also on hand as another group was at Parliament Hill in support of a new flag.

Pearson would meet with eight Ottawa journalists to get their opinions on the new three-maple-leaf flag in what was supposed to be an off-the-record meeting. Walter Stewart of the Toronto Star broke the protocol and wrote an article about the new flag, while his colleague wrote a piece that said Pearson had already chosen the new flag. These articles served as fuel for the fire that John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives would lob at the Liberals, stating that Pearson had subverted Parliament by personally selecting a flag.

On June 3, 1964, the Globe and Mail published a letter to the editor that had a different solution to the flag issue. Paul Ludger of Guelph stated quote:

“Consider the possibility of declaring that Canada will be the world’s first nation to commit itself to rationality and be officially flagless. Think of the hope we could offer to the weary millions of the world who are simply sick and tired of nationalism and all the bleating stupidity it entails.”

On June 15, 1964, Pearson opened the debate in Parliament with a resolution that would, quote:

“Establish officially as the flag of Canada, a flag embodying the emblem proclaimed by His Majesty King George V on Nov. 21, 1921, three maple leaves conjoined on one stem, in the colours of 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.”

Pearson hoped to create a flag that had history and tradition, but without the Union Jack. John Diefenbaker, now the Leader of the Opposition, wanted to keep the Red Ensign and a filibuster was mounted, causing the debate to seem endless, with no side giving an inch. Diefenbaker wanted a referendum to be held on the flag, something Pearson was not willing to do.

Throughout the entire summer, the debate continued with the stalemate continuing.

Finally, on Sept. 10, 1964, Pearson yielded to a suggestion of the creation of a special flag committee. A 15-person panel was created with the task of creating a new flag in six weeks. The committee was made up of seven Liberals, five Conservatives, and one member from the other three minor parties. Herman Maxwell Batten, a Liberal MP from Newfoundland, was chosen as the chair.

John Matheson would say quote:

“We are going to have a new flag by Christmas. It is going to be a distinctive national flag and it will be based on this historic and proud emblem of Canada, the maple leaf.”

Over the next six weeks, the committee held 35 meetings, as 3,541 entries came in. Of the entries, 2,136 featured maple leaves, 408 featured Union Jacks and 389 featured the beaver.

As the six weeks were ending, committee member John Matheson submitted a flag designed by George Stanley, a historian, Rhodes scholar and Second World War veteran. Stanley had been standing outside the Mackenzie building of the Royal Military College of Canada, looking at the college flag in the wind. That sparked an idea in him, of a flag without national or racial symbols that would be decisive in nature. He put forward a design, based on the flag of the college, that featured a single red maple leaf on a white background flanked by two red borders. His original design featured a maple leaf with 13 points, that would be redesigned to 11 points. On Oct. 22, 1964, the committee held its final vote between the design Pearson liked and Stanley’s design. Several motions went through on that fateful day. The first motion was a Conservative motion to decide the flag question through a referendum, which was defeated 9 to 5. The next motion was that there should be a national flag, which passed 14-0. The third motion was that the Canadian Red Ensign should be the national flag, which was defeated 10 to 4. With the last vote, for which flag to choose, the Conservatives assumed that the Liberals would vote for Pearson’s design and therefore they would vote for the one-leaf design by Stanley. In fact, the Liberals agreed with the other non-Conservatives to choose the Stanley maple leaf flag, in a brilliant play on government strategy. As a result, the new flag was approved by the committee in a unanimous vote. The Conservatives were horrified by the result, so in the next motion that the chosen flag represented a suitable flag for Canada, they cast four votes against it.  

Diefenbaker was furious at being outmaneuvered by the Liberals, dismissed the flag as being too close to the flag of Peru. In a television interview he would say, quote:

“If we ever get that flag, we would have the Peruvians saluting it anyway.”

It now went to the House of Commons to approve the decision. Once again, John Diefenbaker would not budge on getting rid of the Red Ensign, resulting in a filibuster debate that lasted for six weeks. It has been described as among the ugliest debate periods in the House of Commons history. During that time, the Conservatives made 210 speeches, the Liberals 50, the NDP 24 and the Social Credit 15. By comparison, the 2012 budget bill was subject to 214 speeches, taking less than two months in all.

As the debate wore on, public opinion began to turn against the Conservatives, who Canadians saw as holding Parliament for ransom over the flag. One Conservative MP from Nova Scotia, George Nowlan, would state, quote:

“The Liberals have got to use closure, to get us off the hook. We can’t just quit; our people would never forgive us.

Finally, one of Diefenbaker’s own senior members and his Quebec lieutenant, Leon Balcer, invited the Liberals to invoke closure. This limited speeches to 20 minutes and forced a vote. Finally, a vote was taken on 2:15 a.m., Dec. 15, 1964. Balcer and the other Conservatives from Quebec voted in line with the Liberals. The recommendation of the committee passed 163 to 78.

Soon after the vote, Matheson wrote to Stanley stating quote:

“Your proposed flag has now been approved by the Commons 163 to 78. Congratulations, I believe it is an excellent flag that will serve Canada well.”

Diefenbaker, defiant to the end, stated quote:

“A flag by closure, imposed by closure.”

He would later write in his journal on Dec. 21, quote:

“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.”

In early 1964, Balcer, the man who put forward the closure, would leave the Conservative Party saying there was no place for a French Canadian in Diefenbaker’s party.

The flag was then approved on Dec. 17, 1964 in the Canadian Senate by a vote of 38-23.

Diefenbaker would say to Pearson, quote:

“You have done more to divide the country than any other prime minister.”

The House of Commons sat for 248 days, 60 per cent of the total 410 calendar days of second session of the 26th Parliament, double what Parliament typically sits for. A large portion of this time was devoted to dealing with the issue of the Canadian flag.

On Jan. 28, 1965, Queen Elizabeth II approved the Maple Leaf flag by signing a royal proclamation, which was done while Diefenbaker and Pearson were in London attending the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.

On Feb. 15, 1965, the flag was inaugurated at an official ceremony on Parliament Hill in the presence of the prime minister, the Governor General, cabinet members and other Canadian MPs. On ships around the world, at federal buildings throughout Canada, and at the United Nations, the Red Ensign was lowered, and the new Canadian flag was raised. According to Pearson’s wife Maryon, Pearson considered the flag being raised on Parliament Hill as his proudest moment as prime minister.

As the flag was raised, Pearson ensured he stood there wearing his medals from the First World War, to show the Anglophone war veterans who opposed the flag that he was indeed one of them.

At the flag raising, Matheson would say that the flag was, quote:

“the handiwork of many loving hands, extended over a long period of Canada’s history.”

Even with the new flag, many veterans still identify with the Red Ensign.

As for Diefenbaker, the man who fought the new flag tooth and nail, upon his death in 1979, his casket was draped in the Canadian flag, but was partially obscured by the Red Ensign he fought to keep as Canada’s flag.

On Feb. 15, 1996, Prime Minister Jean Chretien celebrated the first National Flag Day of Canada. Of course, that day was overshadowed by the Shawinigan Handshake, which I talked about last week.

In his speech on that day, Chretien would say, quote:

“The maple leaf flag pays homage to our geography, reflects the grandeur of our history and represents our national identity. Our flag thus honours Canadians of all origins who through their courage and determination, have helped to build and are continuing to build our great country, a dynamic country that is open to the future. Let us be proud of our flag. Let us recognize how privileged we are to live in Canada, this magnificent country that encompasses our history, our hopes, our future.”

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadas History, Wikipedia, CBC,,, Macleans, The Flags Of Canada,

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