The Great Flag Debate
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The Great Flag Debate
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The Great Flag Debate
Canadians respond with passion and dissension as the country seeks a new national symbol
In 1963, Canada embarked on a seemingly harmless attempt to create its own flag but the issue revealed a nation hotly divided on what symbol should unite the country.
The parliamentary debate on Canada's proposed flag was lengthy and ugly. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson eventually used the rules of closure to limit speeches to 20 minutes and force a vote on December 15, 1964.  Pictured here, members of Parliament wit
The parliamentary debate on Canada's proposed flag was lengthy and ugly. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson eventually used the rules of closure to limit speeches to 20 minutes and force a vote on December 15, 1964. Pictured here, members of Parliament with the proposed flag. (National Archives of Canada, PA-142624)

At the time, Canada had existed for 96 years and still did not have a flag to call its own. Since Confederation, the Canadian national flag had been the British Union Jack - a symbol of Canada's former colonial status. The Red Ensign - a modified version of the flag of the British merchant fleet - also was used atop the flag poles of the nation.

In 1963, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson pitched his idea for a new flag during a speech to the Canadian Legion in Winnipeg.

"I believe that today a flag designed around the Maple Leaf, will symbolise and be a true reflection of the new Canada."

As boos resonated throughout the audience, Pearson got a glimpse of the controversy he'd unleashed. Instead of uniting the country, the flag became yet another divisive issue.

Support, laments and threats poured in to Pearson's office as the country debated its flag.

"If this is (Pearson's) idea of unity," read an article in the Vancouver Province, "it is doubtful whether the country can swallow much more of it."
In 1964, Canadians were deeply divided on the flag issue. Some Canadians felt a strong attachment to the British Union Jack and other wanted a new symbol for the country. One flag design proposed three maple leaves. Pictured here, student flag demonstrati
In 1964, Canadians were deeply divided on the flag issue. Some Canadians felt a strong attachment to the British Union Jack and other wanted a new symbol for the country. One flag design proposed three maple leaves. Pictured here, student flag demonstration on Parliament Hill. (National Archives of Canada, PA-151866)

Canadians were deeply divided on the flag issue. Some felt a strong attachment to the mother country and its Union Jack. Others disagreed on what new symbol should represent the country.

It was only in Quebec that the flag issue provoked little more than apathy.

"Quebec does not give a tinkers dam about the new flag," Liberal politician Pierre Trudeau said. "Its a matter of complete indifference."

It was in a charged atmosphere that Parliament began the flag debate, lead by Conservative leader John Diefenbaker. He insisted that the Union Jack be incorporated into the new flag to reflect Canadas British heritage. The Liberals and New Democratic Party wanted something with maple leaves.

Canadians were invited to use their imagination and talent and submit ideas for a flag. As many as 5,900 alternative designs were sent to Ottawa. A 15-member all-party committee was formed to review the suggestions and make a recommendation.

Pearsons preferred design of three maple leaves was finally rejected in favour of a design proposed by the historian George Stanley that featured a single leaf flanked by red bars. Diefenbaker dismissively said that it looked like the Peruvian flag.
Canadians were invited to use their imagination and talent and submit ideas for a new flag. As many as 5,900 alternative designs were sent to Ottawa. (National Archives of Canada)
Canadians were invited to use their imagination and talent and submit ideas for a new flag. As many as 5,900 alternative designs were sent to Ottawa. (National Archives of Canada)

The parliamentary debate on the flag was lengthy and ugly. It consumed 37 sitting days: the Conservatives made 210 speeches, the Liberals 50, the NDP 24, Social Credit 15, and the Créditistes 9.

Pearson eventually used the rules of closure to limit speeches to 20 minutes and force a vote. That vote was taken on December 15, 1964 and the committee's recommendation was accepted 163 to 78. Canada's flag was officially hoisted at the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965.

"You have done more to divide the country than any other prime minister," Diefenbaker charged.

When Diefenbaker died in 1979, his coffin was draped with both the Red Ensign and the new flag.

However, Canada's new flag was generally well received by the public. The large generation of Canadians born after the Second World War took to the country's new symbol. The government used Canada's 100th anniversary celebrations in 1967 to promote the new flag throughout the country.

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Canada welcomes the world but reveals a tear in its national fabric
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The October Crisis
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