Top: The Canadian Red Ensign, which was the unofficial Canadian flag until the current flag was adopted on Feb. 15, 1965.
Middle: The design initially favoured by Prime Minister Lester Pearson, dubbed the “Pearson Pennant”.
Bottom: The Canadian flag recommended by a parliamentary committee tasked with finding a new, distinctive Canadian design, and later approved by Parliament as the official flag of Canada.
Almost fifty years after it flew over Parliament Hill in Ottawa for the first time on Feb. 15, 1965, the Canadian flag is one that the vast majority of us cannot imagine being replaced by any other design.
But the months leading up to its creation, from Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s announcement in Winnipeg in May 1964 that a new Canadian flag was on its way to the final parliamentary vote on the new design that December, were some of the most politically divisive months in Canadian history.
For nearly a full century after Confederation in 1867, Canada had no official flag of its own aside from the British Union Jack. The federal government improvised, however, by treating various versions of the British Red Ensign over the years (the final version of which is shown above) as the unofficial Canadian flag.
This was a comfortable arrangement for many Canadians, who even into the ’60s continued to view Canada as a culturally British country within North America, and particularly for many of those who had fought under the Red Ensign as the de facto Canadian flag during World War II. For others, however, the Red Ensign was seen as a colonial holdover that ought to be replaced with an unambiguously Canadian flag.
Prime Minister Pearson, a World War I veteran who came to office in 1963 vowing to pursue a new flag, was one of those Canadians who felt the time was right for such a change. Speaking at the Royal Canadian Legion’s national convention in Winnipeg on May 17, 1964, Pearson announced that he intended to push ahead to legislate “a flag designed around the maple leaf [that] will symbolize, will be a true reflection of, the new Canada.”
As Rick Archbold described in A Flag for Canada: The illustrated biography of the Maple Leaf, Pearson faced a hostile reception from his audience:
Pearson tried valiantly to stay with his text and on his message. “Would such a change mean disrespect for the Union Jack?” “Yes!” the crowd roared back, drowning the prime minister’s answer. He plowed forward, vowing not to abandon the Union Jack but arguing that it should become “a symbol of our membership in the Commonwealth of Nations and of our loyalty to the crown.”
The audience had now reached a pitch of rowdiness that made it difficult for the prime minister to be heard. “You’re selling us out to the pea-soupers,” someone shouted. Came another: “God save Diefenbaker.” And another: “Keep the Red Ensign.” And yet another: “Go home!”
It was a taste of what was to come in the following months. Though it might be difficult to believe today, both Pearson’s proposed design of three red maple leafs and two blue bars at the side (see above), and the red-and-white design adopted later in 1964 by a parliamentary committee, were greeted with a torrent of hateful comments.
“The new flag looks like a fancy dish rag,” one North End resident wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press. “I suggest that [the prime minister] have the Houses of Parliament moved from Ottawa to Montreal to complete the picture of ‘surrender’ as the flag indicates,” wrote a reader from Winnipeg’s West End.
The heated comments that appeared in newspapers around the country were, at least, fit enough to print by the standards of the time. Many other letters containing more crude comments flooded the prime minister’s office, as well as those of every Member of Parliament.
In 1986, John Ross Matheson, an Ontario Liberal MP who led the 1964 parliamentary committee charged with finding a new Canadian flag design from among the many serious and not-so-serious public submissions, included in his memoirs* a selection of letters the public sent to Parliament Hill, illustrating how controversial the idea of a new flag was.
From Victoria, B.C.: “Please discard the new flag and do it quickly. When the flag is in a drooping position it (especially in the large sizes) will look like a bed sheet with menstruation stains on it, and our Canadian flag will be laughed at all over the world.”
A June, 1964 letter: “Your ‘pushing’ of that three maple leaf abortion is, I feel, just another of your efforts to play up in any way you can to that narrow-minded, ignorant, impossible bunch of crazy Quebec extremists . . . The more those ignorant, priest-ridden Quebec extremists get, the more they want and will want.”
From a Presbyterian minister in Montreal: “. . . I earnestly deplore design of projected new flag as pagan and a flat rejection of Canada’s Christian heritage. The glory of the Union Jack is the union of three Christian Crosses. How unworthy, how unfeeling to replace so inspiring a symbol with one reminiscent of a hockey team or an Indian tribe.”
From Val Caron, Ont.: “I will never salute a flag forced upon me. I am not a worm but a teacher.”
From Orillia, Ont.: “You have turned us in on ourselves like an onion growing in a paper bag, puny and smelly. You have yielded our heritage to a rabid minority. The dreadful indictment I lay on you as a mother of Canada. You are a Judas and, like Judas, the sooner you retire the better.”
From Toronto: “Your new Canadian Flag is just a disgusting, disgraceful disguise. It is a disgrace to the country. As you, Pearson, are known as a communist sympathizer — so is your new flag — it stinks from communismus — Moskow [sic] is the place for you and your flag.”
Yet despite the rancour of the time, the flag quickly grew on Canadians, rendering the passionate feelings of 1964-65 little more than a faded memory. Whether they preferred a new design in 1964-65 or wanted to retain the Red Ensign, life just calmly went on for Canadians once the decision was made — as it so often does after the conclusion of a brutal political battle, no matter how loud the cries of impending doom by partisans on both sides.
Fifty years on, it is safe to say that the flag that some vowed never to salute turned out to be a flag that has served us well — and will continue to do so for many years to come.
* – John Ross Matheson, Canada’s Flag: A Search for a Country (Belleville, Ont.: Mika Publishing, 1986)