Highlights

14 february 2013

Canada's National Flag Day

Picture

(Dan Kitwood/AFP/Getty)
A canoe flies the Canadian flag on the Thames River in London during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant on June 3, 2012.

This week marks an important national anniversary for Canada.  On February 15th, 1965, the first distinctly Canada official national flag was raised in the cold air on Parliament Hill, in the national capital, Ottawa.

The idea was first proposed, to unappreciative even hostile reception, in the late 1950's.  Remaining fairly quiet at first, the debate began to heat up as the 1960's progressed.  The final design came after a long and often extremely bitter national debate on the political scene between the Liberal Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, seeking a new distinctly Canadian flag, and the Conservative opposition leader John Diefenbaker who staunchly supported the old Canadian Red Ensign of British Naval heritage.  

At the same time, the debate was also raging across all of Canada, and it too was at times very bitter, and yet it was an extremely exciting debate about creating a distinctly Canadian symbol, and to have it in time for Canada’s centennial year, when Canada would host the world at the international world fair, Expo 67.
Until the creation of the new official Maple Leaf flag, there had been some degree of confusion in the general population.  Many thought the Canadian Red Ensign was the official flag as it was widely used, while in fact the British Royal Union flag (Union Jack) was actually the official Canadian flag.  Even the Canadian Red Ensign however was an adaptation of the British Naval Red Ensign.


A design initially favoured by the then Prime Minister Lester Pearson, but which was derisively labelled as the Pearson Pennant by opposition leader John Diefenbaker. It was later pointed out to Mr Pearson that only red and white were designated as the official colours of Canada

With Canada’s 100th birthday looming, and with Prime Minister Pearson still thinking of how Egypt refused a peacekeeping force from
Canada due to its “British” uniforms and flag, an effort was begun in the late 1950's towards creating a distinctly Canadian flag. In his 1958 speech to over 1000 members of the Royal Canadian Legion, (former war veterans) Mr Pearson was often booed at suggesting the Red Ensign was the past, and Canada needed a new symbol.


Another of the literally thousands of designs for a new national flag submitted by Canadians from across the counrry


Contests were held and Canadians from coast to coast to coast submitted designs for what they thought should be the new Canadian flag, while on the other side, traditionalists- rightly or wrongly- said the Canadian Red Ensign should remain Canada’s flag.


Designs submitted by Canadaian were often colourful and imaginative.


In the end, a final simple design was selected using the official colours red and white and with a symbol that was easily recognized by all Canadians, and which would also be recognizable from a distance.

After its debut on February 15, 1965, this design has proven to be an enormous success, as one of the most recognizable flags in the world, and a source of immense pride for almost all Canadians


In the end, the final Canadian flag took its inspiration from the flag of the Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario.


CBC archive video on the Canadian Flag

Canadian Heritage story of Canadian flags

Prime Minister Pearson 1958 video archive proposing a new flag

Archival film showing several proposals

RCI’s Marc Montgomery spoke to Rick Archbold about the flag and the debate leading up to its final acceptance. Mr Archbold is the author of “A Flag for Canada”.
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