02/15 – Canada’s Flag

The Maple Leaf, Canada’s current flag. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1965, Canada officially adopted its current flag design. When Canadian troops had deployed to Egypt in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, they wore the Red Ensign, Canada’s old flag design that contained a small British flag in the upper lefthand corner. Egyptian authorities complained (for the British were one of the belligerent forces during the Crisis) and Canadian peacekeepers were forced to remove their national flags from their uniforms. Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Nobel Peace Prize winner for his actions in defusing the Crisis in Egypt, was disturbed by the Egyptian demand. For the remainder of his term in office he committed to finding a new, distinctly-Canadian flag for his country.

Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (L) with American President John F. Kennedy. (NAOC)

Pearson, a Liberal, enjoyed a strong base of support in Quebec, Canada’s francophone province with a strong national identity of its own. The idea of a new, un-British flag was popular there; elsewhere in the country, however, loyalist sentiments remained strong and the idea of replacing the beloved Red Ensign was considered scandalous. Beginning in 1961, a team of experts began combing through nearly 4,000 designs submitted by Canadians. The debate over the flag grew intense (by Canadian standards) and threatened to lose Pearson his parliamentary support. In total, over 300 speeches were made in parliament during the “Great Flag Debate”.

The “Red Ensign”, the de facto flag of Canada prior to 1965.

By late 1964, however, several designs had been selected. A vote was held in the House of Commons on December 15th, 1964, and Canada’s current flag was selected by a vote of 163 to 78. The Maple Leaf, designed by George F.G. Stanley, was inspired by the flag of the Royal Military College in Kingston. The flag came just as Canada experienced a surge in patriotic sentiment: fresh on the heels of Pearson’s diplomatic victory in Egypt, the new “moral superpower” was finding a new place for itself in the world order. Although some argue that Canada will never have a truly cohesive identity (that may be its greatest strength, argued P.E. Trudeau, for it prevents harmful nationalist thinking), that era in Canadian society gave way to some of the country’s most distinct cultural and political achievements, like the Group of Seven, peacekeeping, and the Maple Leaf Flag.

The “Pearson Pennant”, the other strong contender for Canada’s flag and the design favoured by the Prime Minister. (Wikimedia Commons)

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