21 February 2005
Summary prepared, February 2005, by Ian Prior from, Jack L. Granatstein,
"A New Nationalism? Symbol versus Reality," in his Canada, 1957-1967.
The Years of Uncertainty and Innovation, pp. 200-05.
In 1956 Lester Pearson, the liberal leader believed the country needed
a flag of its own during the Suez crisis. Pearson himself favoured the
maple leaf as the central motif of a distinctive flag. In 1959 the Conservative
party also recognised there was considerable sentiment for a new flag.
That year their national association passed a resolution that urged the
Diefenbaker to adopt a flag and anthem as soon as possible. Pearson’s
liberals came to power in 1963 with a pledge to introduce a distinctive
flag within two years.
The House of Commons had discussed it on occasions in the 1930s and
in 1945 MacKenzie King had set up a joint Senate House Committee to study
the subject. Academics and historians argued that a new flag was necessary
but there was wide debate as to what it should be. The Debate in Parliament
of the government’s proposal for a Canadian flag went from June 1964 to
Once the basic positions had been staked out there were few new arguments
to be made. A Red Ensign (the old flag) supporter could go on about how
the Canadians in the Second World War had fought and died under the Ensign.
But the gravestones of Servicemen all featured the Maple Leaf. Traditionalists
insisted that the Jack and the Fleur de Lys should be on the flag, perhaps
with a maple leaf as well. Many who wanted a new flag preferred one that
represented Canada and not "one country of origin of Canadians." The Conservatives
lead by Diefenbaker continued to advance the Red Ensign and were willing
to divide Canada on the issue. Prime Minister Pearson chose to appoint
a committee to study the flag question. Pearson’s mind was made up "We
are going to have a new flag by Christmas. It is going to be a distinctive
national flag and it will be based on the historic and proud emblem of
Canada - the Maple leaf. Pearson was correct, but it was a narrow squeak.
The Committee sat for 45 sessions and the members wrangled over symbols.
A long difficult period of decision making ensued. Finally the committee
voted for the red Maple Leaf and presented this to the House of Commons.
The struggle in the House began anew. Debates continued from November
30th. On December the 15th, the Maple Leaf flag was adopted by 163 votes
to 78. Two days later the Union Jack was adopted as the Commonwealth flag.
There had been 308 speeches in all. The flag question had exhausted the
When the new flag was flown for the first time in February 1965, there
seemed to be a new mood. Paul Hellyer wrote in his diary that "there were
thousands of people on the Hill. The most since the end of the war." At
12 noon the Red Ensign was lowered with appropriate ceremony and a the
new flag rose. When the flag went up on the tower a cheer went up from
the crowd. This, he included "will be Pearson’s greatest achievement."
Perhaps his assessment is correct. The flag marked a new direction for
Canada, a step into independence that ranked with the Statute of Westminster
and the later patriation of the Constitution. The Maple Leaf was a deliberate
gesture to Quebec that its aspirations would be accommodated within the
Confederation and a signal to the rest of the country that great efforts
were necessary to keep the nation together.
Within a few years, the flag was everywhere, accepted and honoured.
The Maple Leaf flag quickly became the Canadian symbol and the divisiveness
of the debate that gave it birth was largely forgotten.
This paper has been abstracted from a publication in Canada - Canada,
1957-1967. The Years of Uncertainty and Innovation, by Jack Granatstein.
It was made available to Ian Prior on OE in Toronto on 15 February by
Professor Craig Heron while he was staying with Professor Bettina Bradbury.
21 February 2005
Read another essay by Dr Ian Prior: A
Look Back and a Look Forward