On February 15, 1965, at hundreds of ceremonies across the country and around the world, the red and white Canadian maple leaf flag was raised for the first time.
In Ottawa, 10,000 people gathered on a chilly and snow-covered Parliament Hill. At precisely noon, the guns on nearby Nepean Point sounded as the sun broke through the clouds. An RCMP constable, 26-year old Joseph Secours, hoisted the flag to the top of a specially-erected white staff, and a sudden breeze snapped the maple leaf to attention.
The day caught Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and the Conservative Leader of the Opposition, John Diefenbaker, in very different moods. Diefenbaker dramatically pushed away his tears. He had fought the arrival of this moment every step of the way. Pearson was sick with a bad cold, leaving his bed to attend the festivities and returning there immediately afterward, but he was triumphant. He had his flag, calling it “a new stage in Canada’s forward march.”
Defeating Diefenbaker in the April 1963 election, Pearson had been full of promise and promises. During his first year in power, however, the Liberal leader had stumbled often and badly, and Diefenbaker grabbed Parliament by the throat.
The Prime Minister seized on the flag as a political weapon. He wanted to reclaim the legislative initiative, rejuvenate a wounded Liberal Party and heal divisions in a country that had been knocked off balance by the assertive nationalism of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.
Without asking or telling his Cabinet colleagues, Pearson put on his war medals and marched off to the mid-May 1964 national convention of the Royal Canadian Legion in Winnipeg. There, before an angry crowd of veterans, he announced his determination to give Canadians a flag with the maple leaf as its dominant design. The vets had fought under the Red Ensign, which combined the British Union Jack and the Canadian coat of arms. It had long been the unofficial Canadian flag. “Keep it Flying,” the Legion insisted.
In Winnipeg Pearson had been given a taste of what Diefenbaker was about to deliver in Ottawa. When the Prime Minister put his proposal before Parliament in June, the Opposition leader shamelessly wrapped himself in the Red Ensign and demanded that the people be consulted in a plebiscite. He claimed that the Prime Minister’s design, which joined three red maple leaves and centred them on a white background with blue edges, had nothing of Canada’s majestic traditions, its British and Christian past. “Pearson’s pennant,” Dief huffed.
Diefenbaker and his traditionalist lieutenants mounted a filibuster. Pearson forced members of Parliament to stay over the summer, but that did not help. Finally, in September, the issue was shuffled off to a parliamentary committee. “With a gun at our heads,” recalled Liberal MP John Matheson, the key member of the 15-person panel, “we were asked to produce a flag for Canada and in six weeks!”
The committee held 35 bruising meetings. Thousands of suggestions poured in from a public fully engaged in what had become a great Canadian debate about identity and how best to represent it.
At the last minute Matheson slipped a flag designed by historian George Stanley into the mix. It had a single red maple leaf on a white plain, flanked by two red borders. The committee’s final contest pitted Pearson’s pennant against Stanley’s streamer. Assuming that the Liberals would vote for the Prime Minister’s design, the Tories backed Stanley. They were outfoxed. The Liberals voted for the red and white flag too, making the selection unanimous.
The committee had made its decision, but not the House of Commons. Still Diefenbaker would not budge, prolonging the debate until one of his own senior members, Léon Balcer, advised the government to cut off debate. Pearson did so, and the final vote adopting the Stanley flag took place at 2:15 on the morning of December 15, with Balcer and the other francophone Conservatives swinging behind the Liberals.
The Monday crowd on the initial Flag Day in Ottawa welcomed their new symbol of sovereignty politely but not exuberantly. It was a committee’s compromise reached after a six-month parliamentary train wreck that threatened national unity and diminished almost everyone who touched the prickly issue.
Yet there was, from the very beginning, a broad and instinctive acknowledgement that members of parliament had chosen well even if they had chosen chaotically. As journalist George Bain wrote the morning after the first flags had flown, Canada’s maple leaf emblem “looked bold and clean, and distinctively our own.”