The Great Canadian Flag Debate: the Maple Leaf's Origin Story

by      February 14, 2015

Canada celebrates their national flag day on February 15 each year—and this year is particularly special. It’s the Maple Leaf’s 50th anniversary as Canada’s national flag, and an apt time to remember the events surrounding its inauguration.

It’s hard to imagine the Maple Leaf’s adoption as a force that divided the nation, but that’s the truth. The Maple Leaf is the result of a the Great Canadian Flag Debate, a six-month back and forth on flag design that caused a controversy in the Great White North. Let’s look into the Great Canadian Flag Debate—the event that preceded the Maple Leaf’s adoption.

Wooden replica of the Maple Leaf flag

THE FLAG PROBLEM

Canada had been a completely sovereign nation since 1931, but for many years they had no distinct national flag. Instead, the official flag was the Grand Union—Great Britain's national flag.

The Canadian Red Ensign—a commonly flown flag—also featured the Union Jack. Many believed this an inappropriate suggestion of subservience. Their feelings were made clear in a 1958 poll of Canadian adults that showed 80% in favor of a national flag completely distinct from any other nation, and 60% in favor of a flag containing a maple leaf.

Two years after the poll, Leader of the Opposition Lester Pearson issued a press release summarizing the flag problem, but it was brushed off by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who took no action.

PEARSON’S PLAN FOR A NEW FLAG

Pearson proceeded to make the flag a central part of his party’s election platform, promising a new flag within two years of election. The campaign was successful, and his Pearson’s party came to power in the 1963 election.

Now prime minister, Lester Pearson drove forward his plan to create a new Canadian flag. Included in his plan was a proposed flag design—later known as the Pearson Pennant—that featured three connected maple leaves on a white background with blue bars on each side. Little did Pearson know that it would spark a six-month, nationwide debate.

The Pearson Pennant

The controversial issue wasn’t whether or not Canada needed a new flag; it was a question of its design.

The debate centered around the inclusion (or exclusion) of the Union Jack. Like many others, Pearson believed it should be completely removed from the flag. But former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker opposed Pearson’s plan, arguing it was important to honor the nation’s founders. He maintained that the Union Jack must be included in the flag’s design.

Diefenbaker led a filibuster that lasted for months. Neither side would budge, and no progress was made. Eventually, the issue was resigned to a special committee. This committee, comprised of 15 people from various parties, was tasked with creating a new flag for Canada in just six weeks.

The committee went through 35 grueling meetings and received more than 3,500 design suggestions from the public. It was clear that the issue had grown larger than just the flag: it had become an issue of national identity.

They eventually narrowed down the choices to just two: Pearson’s initial design, and a simple design from George Stanley. Stanley’s familiar design featured a maple leaf on a white background, with two red bars to either side. After some political maneuvering, it emerged victorious with a unanimous vote of 15–0.

Details of the wooden replica of the Maple Leaf flag

Diefenbaker wasn’t ready to give up, however. His party continued the filibuster for six more weeks in the House of the Commons, but their efforts were ultimately in vain. Pearson applied closure and the final vote took place after a round of speeches. The vote was successful, with 163 to 78 accepting the committee's recommendation. George Stanley’s maple leaf flag had become the national flag of Canada.

The flag was inaugurated fifty years ago, on February 15, 1965. Stanley’s design has become iconic, and it has served Canada well ever since.

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