Wavin’ Flags

“Your proposed flag has just now been approved by the Commons 163 to 78. Congratulations. I believe it is an excellent flag that will serve Canada well.”
John Matheson, Flag Committee member, writing to Maple Leaf flag designer George Stanley, December 15, 1964.

Happy Anniversary everyone!

Yes, that’s right. Our national flag, admired around the world and mostly loved at home, just turned 50. It was inaugurated on Feb 15, 1965, and for the past 20 years or so Canada has observed Flag Day on this date.

A good number of us (including me) were born after the Maple Leaf became our national flag, so it’s hard to imagine Canada having any other one. WPL has a number of resources that tell the story of the Maple Leaf and how it came to be our national flag and symbol.

Our Canadian Flag

Our Canadian Flag




This picture book by Maxine Trottier is written for a young audience, but Brian Deines’ soft pastel illustrations can certainly be enjoyed by all ages. It’s hard to not feel a wave of patriotism as you flip through this book.

The Story of Canada’s Flag: A Historical Sketch





This brief overview of the story behind Canada’s flag is written by historian George Stanley, who also happened to be the flag’s designer.

Canada’s Flag: a search for a country






Another version of Canada’s flag story, told by John Matheson. Matheson was a federal MP who sat on the “flag committee” (we’ll get to that later) and who was instrumental in making the Maple Leaf flag a reality. I quote him at the beginning of this blog post.


It’s a pretty interesting story, as far as flag stories go, so if you’ll indulge me I’ll paraphrase the exciting bits for you (and apologize to the historians if I cut a few corners for the sake of brevity).

The most recent version of the Red Ensign, used from 1957 to 1965.

The most recent version of the Red Ensign, used from 1957 to 1965.

From around the time of Confederation to the mid 1960s, Canada’s official flag was the same as Great Britain, the Union Jack. Informally, however, the Red Ensign was used whenever there was need for a distinct Canadian flag. The Red Ensign had the union jack in the upper left corner (the “canton” section of the flag for flag nerds) and the Canadian Coat of Arms in the lower right (or the fly if we want to get really precise).

Parts of a flag.

Flag parts. I’m not making this up.

The original Coat of Arms had symbols representing the four founding provinces of Canada (bonus points if you can name them!). The weird thing was that every time another province joined Confederation they would just redesign the coat of arms to include something special for that province. Depending on what part of the country you were in, you might see any number of “Red Ensigns”, each of which were purportedly “Canada’s flag” and yet none were standardized. It was chaos! There was even a “Blue Ensign” literally floating around out there (used by the Navy) but no one likes to talk about it so let’s say nothing more of it.

A version of the Red Ensign with the Coat of Arms altered to recognize Manitoba's entry into Confederation.

A version of the Red Ensign with the Coat of Arms altered to recognize Manitoba’s entry into Confederation.

The Red Ensign was finally standardized in 1921 and it stayed that way until 1957, and then with some minor changes remained our flag (NEVER OFFICIALLY),  until 1965.

So, now let’s talk about Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker and what has been come to be known as the “Great Flag Debate”.

When Pearson and the Liberals came into power, one of their priorities was to establish a new “Canadian” flag that was not tied to any of the old colonial symbols like union jacks or fleur-de lys. After being involved in the Suez Crisis (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Pearson remembered that having the Union flag in the corner of Canada’s Red Ensign compromised Canada’s perceived neutrality with the Egyptians, since Britain was one of the aggressors involved in the Crisis. In fact, in 1963, Pearson promised to have a National Flag for Canada within 2 years. It wasn’t long before a design was leaked to the press, supposedly based on Pearson’s preferred design. It became known as the “Pearson Pennant”.

The "Pearson Pennant"

The “Pearson Pennant”

John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives took the opposite side of the argument, supporting the continued use of the Red Ensign. The two sides finally met at Parliament, where the “Great Flag Debate” began on June 15, 1964. It might be difficult to imagine now, but for three months over the summer of 1964, the Conservatives filibustered and Pearson cancelled summer leave. Surely there was other stuff going on in the country and around the world, but for those three months, Parliament was obsessed with determining the symbol of our National Identity. Who doesn’t love a good filibuster?

Finally, on September 10th, Pearson agreed to refer the matter to a special “flag committee” made up of members of all parties in the House of Commons. The committee was tasked with coming up with a flag in six weeks. No pressure.

At this point, the committee began to receive submissions from regular citizens across the country. By the end of the six weeks, over 3500 designs were submitted. The vast majority of them used maple leaves, but a significant number focused on beavers, fleurs-de-lys, and union jacks. In addition to the “official” submissions to the flag committee, Diefenbaker’s office received many “fringe” submissions from Canadians who were worried the “Pearson Pennant” would win the day. The National Post ran a great article looking at some of the best “rejected” ideas sent to Diefenbaker.

The three finalists

The three finalists

The committee narrowed their options down to three designs. They were the so-called “Pearson Pennant”, the Maple Leaf, and the Maple Leaf with the Union Jack and Fleurs-de Lys, supposedly trying to make everyone happy. Amazingly, the committee unanimously voted for the Maple Leaf design, which was eventually inaugurated (with a slight change to the shape of the leaf) by Parliament on Feb 15, 1965. The unanimous choice of the committee didn’t deter Diefenbaker, who continued to filibuster for another three months, until Pearson said “Come on now. That’s enough.”

The final design.

The final design. Feeling patriotic yet?

There was enough support for the old Red Ensign, however, that Ontario and Manitoba adopted versions of it as their provincial flags in the aftermath of the “Great Flag Debate”. It’s curious that Saskatchewan didn’t adopt a version of the Red Ensign for their flag in 1969, since that was Diefenbaker’s home province. Maybe he was all tuckered out from all that filibusterin’ in ’64?

Our provincial flag. The Red Ensign lives on!

Our provincial flag. The Red Ensign lives on!




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