Canada's flag debate flaps on, 50 years later

Canada's red maple leaf flag celebrates its 50th anniversary today, the acrimony of its birth long behind it. But historian Rick Archbold grumbles that the Harper government is not spending enough to mark the anniversary because it was a Liberal idea.

Now the question is whether Ottawa is spending enough to mark the flag's anniversary

Travel up the Peace Tower to change the flag. 3:07

For Robert Labonte, there is no flag debate.

Labonte, who proudly wears the title of Flag Master on Parliament Hill, slogs up the steps inside the Peace Tower every weekday to make sure a fresh flag flies straight and true. No wrinkled or tattered flags allowed.

"It's an honour," he says. "It's the shot you will see everywhere: the Peace Tower with the flag on top. Coast to coast, people will identify themselves with it."

Don't tell John Diefenbaker. As opposition leader, Diefenbaker fought long and hard to stop his Liberal rival, Prime Minister Lester Pearson, foisting the new-fangled Maple Leaf upon the nation.

But Dief didn't have enough votes. The battle ended on Feb. 15, 1965, when Gov.Gen. Georges Vanier, elegant in tails and covered with medals, urged Canadians to take the new flag to heart. 
The Red Ensign comes down at the flag inauguration ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to make way for the raising of Canada's new red maple leaf flag on Feb. 15, 1965. (Canadian Press)

"Our flag," said Vanier, "will symbolize to each of us — and to the world — the unity of purpose and high resolve to which destiny beckons us."

Pearson was up next. He'd won the vote, but the wounds were still fresh. He announced that, on that frigid day, "Our new flag will fly for the first time in the skies above Canada."

Then, glancing at the well-dressed crowd seated in the Centre Block beneath the Peace Tower, Pearson went magnanimous.

"There are many in this country who regret the replacement of the Red Ensign by the red maple leaf, and their feelings and their emotions should be honoured and respected."

Debate lingers

In the years since, of course, those emotions did subside. Young Canadians sewed the maple leaf onto their backpacks and the red maple leaf came to be one of the most recognized flags in the world. 

And yet, something lingers. The man who wrote the book on the flag has no doubt about it.

Rick Archbold detects a lack of enthusiasm in the present government for the 50th anniversary of the supposed end of the flag debate. Actually, he says, it's still on.

"I'm actually saddened by what the government isn't doing — which is celebrating, in a meaningful way, one of the great accomplishments of nation-building that we can look back on," says the historian.

Archbold says the government has poured money into ad campaigns about the War of 1812 and the 200th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald. The 1812 campaign cost more than $5 million; the Sir John A. ads cost more than $4 million. For the celebrations of the flag's 50th, there's a much more modest $50,000, plus another $200,000 for provincial celebrations.

Archbold says, "One can only conclude that it's for purely partisan reasons that they are ignoring the flag anniversary — and it's just because it was brought in under a Liberal administration."

A symbol for Canada

The heritage minister, Shelly Glover, scoffs at the charge.

"The flag doesn't belong to any party," Glover insisted. "In fact, the flag is a symbol for Canada that all of us are proud of ... whether they are Conservative, Liberal or NDP, I know they're celebrating. That doesn't have to cost money. I don't think who we are as Canadians, and our pride in the flag has anything to do with how much money is put out."
The maple leaf flag has succeeded in large part perhaps because its unique iconography arrived just as Canada was coming into its own as a country. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

At least one Liberal MP agrees. Mauril Belanger, MP for Ottawa Vanier, has been going around to schools and talking up the importance of the flag and its history — but he is reluctant to accuse the government of playing political games.

"Some people have said they are not doing enough," says Belanger, "but I think the community is picking it up. I've seen it in schools now, I've seen it in the media. It's happening, I think, because Canadians realize this is our flag, we should be proud of it.

"Perhaps the government could have done some more, but, you know, things are what they are and we just move on."

So it's not exactly a five-alarm fiesta of rabid partisanship. Rather, the parties seem unwilling to do battle over this — and united in using the flag any way they can.

Does Stephen Harper use a huge flag as a backdrop for his political rallies? Of course he does. And does the Liberal Party have a handy "Donate" button on its web page promoting the anniversary? Of course it does. Does the maple leaf find its way into all the party logos? Oh, yes.

So call it a unifying influence. And Happy Flag Day!

About the Author

Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.