It seems like it has always been there — flying above government buildings, pinned to backpacks of travellers, waved unabashedly at the Olympic Games. If you were born after 1965, the maple leaf is likely your Canada. Before then, our national identity, at least as it relates to our flag, was a little murkier.
We didn’t have a flag for the first 98 years after Confederation. And, to get one it took decades of debate, election promises and some clever filibustering.
“The search for the flag was really the search for a country,” said John Matheson, a Liberal Member of Parliament who sat on the flag committee in 1964.
Consider this: Before the maple leaf, the Red Ensign with a Union Jack and the coat of arms of our four founding provinces flew above Parliament Hill. It was occasionally replaced by the Union Jack. Neither were recognized by parliament as official flags and both heavily favoured Canada’s British roots.
Enter the sugar maple leaf and Lester B. Pearson. He wasn’t the first Prime Minister to propose a new flag, but Pearson was the only one to include it in his election platform and put a deadline on getting a new flag. He saw it as a way to promote national unity and a new identity that was inclusive of all Canadians and not just those with British roots.
Pearson’s Liberal party was in power, but only with a minority government and his plan was challenged by John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives. Pearson first pitched a Canadian flag with two blue panels flanking three maple leafs coming out of a single stem. Diefenbaker would not relent on making the Canadian Red Ensign our official flag.
And, the great debate began. Are we a country with an identity that is separate from our British roots and more diverse? Or, should we remain loyal to Great Britain? Parliament talked and talked about it in the spring of 1964, so much so that it pushed into what would be its summer break. Pearson finally established a flag committee to report back in the fall.
The committee considered Pearson’s design as well as thousands of submissions from Canadians (2,136 of those had maple leaves, 369 had beavers). Keeping the Union Jack was also on the table. And, Matheson managed to slip another design that he had worked with George Stanley into the mix. Six weeks and 35 meetings later, the committee voted unanimously to go with Stanley’s simple sugar maple leaf with a red stripe on either side.
It just had to get through parliament. Herein lies the maple leaf as symbol of how minority governments can work in Canada.
Diefenbaker wouldn’t relent and a filibuster ensued starting on September 15, 1964.
It took 37 sitting days in parliament and 210 speeches by the Conservatives (plus 50 by the Liberals, 24 by the NDP, 15 by the Social Credit and 9 by the Créditistes) before the new flag was put to a vote.
At 2:15 a.m. on December 15, 1964, Stanley’s flag was adopted as the National Flag of Canada with the caveat that the Union Jack will fly alongside it on days of significance to the Commonwealth.
Two months later, on February 15, 1965, Canada raised its national flag on Parliament Hill for the first time.
During the ceremony Speaker of the Senate, the Honourable Maurice Bourget said: “The flag is the symbol of the nation’s unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion.”