“Yesterday They All Went Gathering Maple Leaves” – The National Flag Turns 50

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Today, it is so synonymous with Canadian identity – wearing a maple leaf immediately identifies you as a Canadian.  It flies from sea to sea on flag poles, from masts, even on the sides of cars, and it has been sewn, adorned, and even tattooed.  It flies proudly in celebration, and is respectfully lowered in mourning.

From the Oshawa Times, February 15, 1965, page 1

From the Oshawa Times, February 15, 1965, page 1

The implementation of the Maple Leaf as the National Flag was not without controversy.  Canada had been a country for almost a century before we officially had a unique emblem of our own.  The flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965, after years of heated and passionate debates.  Talks of a distinctive flag for Canada had been taking place for decades before Prime Minister Lester Pearson made it a priority, promising in the 1963 election to have a new flag for Canada within two years.  This promise placed a certain urgency on the issue, as no one before had placed a timeline on establishing a new flag.  John Diefenbaker, ousted as Prime Minister by Pearson in the ’63 election, was adamantly against the issue and proved to be the chief opponent throughout the Flag Debate.

PM Lester B. Pearson at a press conference for the flag, December 1964; from Library & Archives Canada

PM Lester B. Pearson at a press conference for the flag, December 1964; from Library & Archives Canada

Prominence was placed on the issue in mid-1964, and by that autumn, a committee was established to debate the issue and ultimately decide on a course of action.  There were thousands of opinions on what should or should not be included in the design, and several options were put forth.  Ultimately, it came down to two options: the ‘Pearson Pendant’ featuring three red maple leaves on white, bordered by two bars of blue, and a design by historian George Stanley.  Stanley’s design featured a single maple leaf centred in a white square, with two bars of red on either side.  It was Stanley’s design that was chosen by the committee, and on December 15, 1964, Parliament voted 163 to 78 in favour of adopting the red and white flag.  After Official Royal Proclamation on January 28, the new flag was raised for the first time at the Peace Tower at noon, February 15, 1965.

The Union Jack (above), and the Canadian Red Ensign, 1957-1965 (below), from Library & Archives Canada

The Union Jack (above), and the Canadian Red Ensign, 1957-1965 (below); from Library & Archives Canada

The Royal Proclamation described the new flag as such:

 “a red flag of proportions two by length and one by width, containing in its centre a white square the width of the flag bearing a single red maple leaf, or, in heraldic terms described as gules on a Canadian pale argent a maple leaf of the first”

As would be expected, the flag debate saw many come out in favour of the new design, and others were opposed to the change.  One of the strongest opponents, besides Diefenbaker, was the Royal Canadian Legion, who placed high regard on the traditions that were established with the Red Ensign design.

In Ottawa, at the official inauguration, Prime Minister Pearson expressed the following sentiments about the new flag, saying, “Under this flag may our youth find new inspiration for loyalty to Canada; for a patriotism based not on any mean or narrow nationalism but on the deep and equal pride that all Canadians will feel for every part of this good land.”

The first raising of the Canadian Flag at Parliament Hill, from Library & Archives Canada

The first raising of the Canadian Flag at Parliament Hill; from Library & Archives Canada

On February 15, while the new flag was being raised with the proper pomp and circumstance in Ottawa, similar ceremonies took place at provincial parliaments and local governments, Oshawa not excluded.  However, the ceremony at Oshawa did not go smoothly; it was unclear if there would even be a new flag to raise!  Due to high demand and low stock from suppliers, Oshawa did not receive its flag until 17 minutes before it was supposed to be raised!  In fact, due to the rush and uncertainty, two councillors were unintentionally uninvited to this ceremony.  Alderman Hayward Murdoch, Property Committee Chairman, took responsibility for this oversight, saying councillors were not notified on the Friday before because the flags had not arrived, and if there were not flags, there would not be a ceremony.  Ultimately, the flags arrived and were unfurled at noon.

Many schools and businesses may have been flying the Ensign or Union Jack on February 15 simply because the Maple Leaf flag was so difficult to attain because demand was so high.  Many banks commented that they were simply waiting for their flag to arrive and were flying the Ensign/Union Jack or leaving their poles bare until it did.  The Oshawa Times reported on who was flying what, and they remarked at the end of the article that the Oshawa Yacht Club at the lake had no flag flying, “nor did the Henry House Museum just up the street.”

The Union Jack flying in Memorial Park on February 15, 1965.  From the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965

The Union Jack flying in Memorial Park on February 15, 1965. From the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965

Perhaps the most endearing local story from February 15, 1965 came from Donovan Collegiate.  The art department ‘hastily put together’ a maple leaf flag that was proudly hoisted on the school’s flag pole; the following day, they were again hard at work, manufacturing a more sturdy flag that could replace the ‘rather flimsy original.’  Flimsy or not, instead of flying the Union Jack or flying nothing at all, Donovan students displayed the national spirit that Prime Minister Pearson hoped this new symbol would bring about.

Students at Donovan Collegiate raising their handmade flag, from the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965

Students at Donovan Collegiate raising their handmade flag, from the Oshawa Times, February 16, 1965

As our flag turns fifty years young, it has given Canadians a chance to reflect on our country and what being Canadian means and represents.  The Maple Leaf is symbolic of so many things, including our history and heritage. Happy birthday National Flag!

Within my heart, above my home,
The Maple Leaf forever!

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