February 15, 1965, was the first time Canada’s Flag was raised on Parliament Hill. This is why we celebrate the National Flag of Canada Day every February 15th. This means the flag is only around 50+ years old.
Wait, what? Isn’t Canada more than 150 years old? Read on to find out why it took so long for Canada to have a national flag:
Canada used different flags prior to 1965
Canada was not “flagless” for nearly 100 years. Early national flags reflected Canada’s strong ties to its “founding races.” For instance, one of its earliest national flags were the Banner of France (a blue flag with three gold fleurs-de-lis), and the white flag of the French Royal Navy. Later on, it adopted the Red Ensign (flag of the British Merchant Marine) and the Royal Union Flag (also known as the Union Jack). Prior to the adoption of a national flag, Canada was using the Union Flag on land, as well as the Red Ensign with the shield of arms on federal buildings in Canada and abroad.
There were three failed attempts to create a national flag
The idea of creating a national flag for Canada had always been there, even as early as the 1800s, after Confederation. After several suggestions and submissions of designs, nothing was decided. The first government attempt came when, then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King established a committee to design a flag in 1925. A general outcry faced him as many have become attached to the Union Jack.
Mackenzie King tried again in 1945-46. A total of 2,409 flag designs were submitted to the National Flag Committee. Of those submitted, 67% or 1,611 featured maple leaves, 383 had Royal Union Flags, 231 featured stars, 184 had fleur-de-lys, 116 had beavers, 49 had crowns, and 22 featured crosses. But still, loyalty to the Union Jack remained strong.
Prime Minister Pearson promised a flag in two years
In 1961, Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester (“Mike”) Pearson brokered a deal to end the Suez Crisis. He also offered Canadian troops to become peacekeepers but was rejected because they carried a British symbol, the Red Ensign. Because of this, Pearson vowed to work towards the creation of a national flag. He consulted Member of Parliament of Leeds County, John Ross Matheson, who was a recognized expert on heraldry, flags, ensigns, colours and coats of arms. When Pearson became Prime Minister in 1963, he promised that Canada would have a national flag in two years. It became Matheson’s responsibility to fulfill Pearson’s promise. This is why Matheson is regarded as the Father of the Canadian Flag.
Of the 5,900 designs submitted to the Multi-Party Committee in 1964, the vote finally came down to two designs: the “Pearson Pennant” designed by Alan Beddoe (the design was three red maple leaves on a white background with blue bars on either side which was Pearson’s choice), and the present flag but with differently styled leaf designed by George Stanley. The decision was unanimous. The single-leaf design won the vote and was presented to the House of Commons for approval. After the House, the Senate approved it. Finally, the royal proclamation was signed by the Queen on January 28, 1965. The national flag, as mentioned earlier, was raised on February 15, 1965, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario.
The Great Flag Debate
This is not to say that Matheson had it smooth sailing. Just like in the 1800s, 1925 and 1946, the creation of the national flag was met with strong opposition, debates, and discussions. It was mainly because people were opposing change, as they had become emotionally attached to the Canadian Red Ensign, the Union Jack or the Fleurdelisé (Quebec’s provincial flag). For others, it might have been a question of maintaining the symbols of the founding nations or finding a symbol significant enough to show Canada’s unity. After two years of studies, consultations, call for designs, and elimination of thousands of flag ideas, the Committee finally presented one design (the single leaf design) to the House of Commons. This resulted in another six months of ensuing debates, involving 308 speeches. After putting it to a vote, it was finally approved with a result of 163-78.
Who designed the Canadian Flag?
While John Ross Matheson is the Father of the Canadian Flag, the actual design is attributed to Dr. George Stanley. Stanley was the dean of arts at the Royal Military College of Canada. He submitted two designs: one with half white, half red backgrounds with a red maple leaf in the centre, and another with the same colours and three maple leaves on one stem. Stanley’s design supported red and white as Canada’s official colours and the use of a well-stylized maple leaf. More significantly, he advocated for simplicity and traditional symbols (and did away with the Union Flag and fleur-de-lys). Matheson’s slight variation of Stanley’s design (choosing only one maple leaf with a background of a white box in the middle) unified the image, making the Canadian flag one of the most recognizable and respected national symbols in the world.
Respect and reverence for the flag
Did you know that one should not add elements to the flag or use it as a tablecloth?
The National Flag of Canada is an important national symbol. It should be used with respect and only in a manner that is appropriate. The National Flag takes priority over all other national flags (except for Flags of the Royal Family) when flown in Canada and should be flown on its own mast. When it is raised or lowered (or carried in a parade) everyone should face the flag, remain silent, and remove their hats. Those in uniform should salute.
Don’t use the flag as a tablecloth, seat cover, cover for boxes or as a stage or platform curtain. It should not be used to cover a statue, monument or plaque for an unveiling ceremony. You cannot pin or sew anything on the flag; don’t sign on it or draw on it in any way. You can pin it to your clothes or backpack, wear it on your shirt, or fly it proudly in your front yard, but remember to leave the design as it is. It is an image that many people worked hard for and fought over to symbolize the country. It deserves respect.
Adapted from the following sources: Auguste Vachon and John Ross Matheson, National Flag of Canada, The Canadian Encyclopedia, June 15, 2015; Rules for flying the national flag of Canada, Canada.ca. Both accessed on February 13, 2017.
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