The Story of the Canadian Flag

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The Great Canadian Flag Debate

The Canadian flag debate took place in 1964, when a design for a new Canadian flag was selected in the mid-1960s.

The so-called Great Canadian Flag Debate began on June 15, 1964 when Prime Minister Lester B Pearson proposed the design and selection of a new Canadian flag, to the House of Commons. The debate lasted for six months and bitterly divided both the government and the Canadian people in the process. The debated ended with the invocation of closure on December 15, 1964 and resulted in the adoption of the maple leaf flag, which was unveiled on February 15, 1965.

The Canadiand Red Ensign

For much of Canada’s post-Confederation history, Canada flew the British Union Jack as its national flag, along with the Canadian Red Ensign as an unofficial Canadian flag. The Canadian Red Ensign, which consisted of the Canadian Coat of Arms with the Union Jack in the upper left corner, was first adopted during the second term of Sir John A Macdonald, in 1891.

The Red Ensign saw periodic use in the 1920s and 30s, depending on the public mood. In 1945, at the end of World War II, William Lyon Mackenzie King replaced the Union Jack, which had flown over Parliament during the war, with the Red Ensign. He also declared the Canadian Red Ensign to be Canada’s official flag through Order-in-Council. In addition, Mackenzie King also ordered the formation of a committee charged with designing a new flag. The committee was dissolved, however, when it brought back a recommendation of keeping the Red Ensign, but replacing the Canadian Coat of Arms with a gold maple leaf.

In 1958, an extensive survey was taken of Canadian attitudes toward the possibility of designing a new flag. Of all the people polled, an overwhelming majority, more than 80% approved of designing a new flag for Canada. Of those, 60% wanted the new flag to bear the maple leaf.

The Flag Debate in Parliament

However, the Conservative Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, favoured retaining the Red Ensign. In response to this, Pearson made the flag question Liberal Party policy in 1961. The design of a new flag also became a campaign issue in the 1962 and 1963 Federal elections. During the election campaign in 1963, Pearson promised to produce a new flag within two years, if elected. No previous party had ever promised a new flag within a set time period. The Liberals won the election, but were only able to form a minority government. Following the election, pressure to follow through on the campaign promise of a new flag began build. In May, 1964, Pearson faced a group of unsympathetic Canadian veterans and told them that the time had come to replace the Red Ensign with a flag that was distinctly Canadian.

Pearson’s intention was to produce a flag that embodied tradition and history, but also excised the Union Jack as a reminder of Canada’s British colonial past. The debate came down to whether or not the nation should exclude this British component from its heritage.

In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Diefenbaker led the fight against the adoption of a new flag. On September 16, 1964, a special flag committee was formed, composed of representatives of each party. Over the next six weeks, the flag committee met 35 times and thousands of suggestions poured in from all over the country as the public became engaged in the debate about Canadian identity.

At the last minute, Liberal MP John Matheson, slipped a flag designed by historian George Stanley into the mix. Stanley is said to have been inspired by a visit to the Royal Military College in Kingston. The final vote was held on October 14, 1964. Support for the maple leaf flag was unanimous.

Even though the flag committee had made its recommendation to the House of Commons, Diefenbaker was not willing to give in. Finally, at the suggestion of Conservative MP Leon Balcer, the debate was ended by invoking closure. The final vote was taken early in the morning on December 15. 1964. The House of Commons also recommended retaining the Red Ensign, now called the Royal Union Flag, for moments of Commonwealth significance.

The Adoption of the Canadian Flag

Queen Elizabeth II authorized the use of the new flag through the signing of a royal proclamation in January, 1965 while Diefenbaker and Pearson were in London, attending the funeral of Winston Churchill.

The new flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965 on Parliament Hill, in the presence of the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the Member of Parliament.

In 1996, February 15 was designated Flag Day. Since the adoption of the flag, some observers have pointed out that if the colours of the flag are inverted, the flag’s design reveals two faces in profile, arguing. These figures have been nicknamed Jack and Jacques, in allusion to Canada’s cultural and linguistic duality.

Sources

Diefenbaker, J.G. (1977) The Tumultuous Years 1962–1967 in One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker. Scarborough, ON: Macmillan. V.3.

Granatstein, J.L. (1986) Canada: 1957–1967: The Years of Uncertainty and Innovation. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart.

Stanley GFG(1965) The Story of Canada’s Flag: A Historical Sketch. Toronto: Ryerson Press.

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