Happy Birthday to the Maple Leaf!

Maple Leaf Flag 1

Yup, our flag turns 50 today.

Fifty is kind of a big deal. We should ―

Wait ― what? How come our national flag is only 50 years old when our country is almost 150?

A reasonable question, isn’t it? Well, let me put on my history geek hat and tell you the story, because it’s a good one and (dare I say it?) a typically Canadian one.

For decades prior to 1965, the Canadian Red Ensign had served as Canada’s de facto flag. The Canadian Red Ensign was a British Red Ensign with the addition of the shield of the Canadian Coat of Arms. (Just to clarify: the British Red Ensign is a red flag with a Union Jack in its top left corner. For comparison’s sake, the British Blue Ensign is a blue flag with a Union Jack in its top left corner ― the Australian and New Zealand flags are based on the Blue Ensign.)

With Canada’s Centennial fast approaching, then–Prime Minister Lester Pearson wanted Canada to have its own flag, unique and separate from the Union Jack. And thus ensued what is known as the Great Canadian Flag Debate. Pearson proposed a new flag consisting of three maple leafs in a white centre, bordered by two blue bars to represent the two oceans on our east and west coasts. It became known as “Pearson’s Pennant.” The Leader of the Opposition and former prime minister John Diefenbaker preferred that the Canadian Red Ensign become Canada’s official flag. The parliamentary debate dragged on for months. There was filibuster after filibuster, and eventually the issue was referred to committee, which was instructed to come up with a new design. In ― wait for it ― six weeks.

The 15-member committee was sent thousands of suggestions and sketches. Most included some form of a maple leaf. A much smaller number wanted some representation of the Union Jack (to represent our British heritage). An equal number wanted the fleur-de-lys (to represent our French heritage). And yet another equal number wanted ― oh, horrors ― the beaver (our national animal ― essentially an oversized rodent) represented somehow on our new flag.

After months of meetings, the committee was getting nowhere. Finally, one of the members slipped in a design by George Stanley, a Canadian soldier, historian, and author who, many years later, would became Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. Stanley based his design on the flag of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. He believed that a new flag based on either the Union Jack or the fleur-de-lys (or both) would ultimately be divisive and therefore suggested something that was neither: a single red maple leaf in a white centre, bordered on both sides by red bars. The committee voted 15–0 for the Maple Leaf design.

The committee’s proposed flag still had to be passed by a vote in the House of Commons, and so debate ensued once again. Diefenbaker continued with the filibusters. Eventually, Pearson invoked closure and the flag was put to a vote on December 15, 1964. It passed and the Maple Leaf flag was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965.

Heh, heh. As they say, “only in Canada, eh?” I remember first hearing about the Great Canadian Flag Debate from my Canadian history prof, who summed it up as one of the longest and most divisive debates the House of Commons had ever seen.

But I wonder if the long, hard-fought political battle is why the Maple Leaf is so successful. It is truly our own flag ― not some variation on the British or French flag. It’s simple, and it’s distinct from any other flag on the planet.

Maple Leaf Flag 2

When I did my first backpacking trip outside of Canada, I sewed the obligatory Canadian flag onto the back of my backpack. How many conversations were initiated by that flag! One of them was with a fellow Canadian in the Venice train station. He caught my eye, then I watched as he casually circled behind me ― I knew exactly what he was doing; he was checking for a flag on my backpack ― and only then did he approach me. He needed to see my flag to confirm before speaking with me that I was one of those two Canadian girls he had met a few weeks earlier in a German youth hostel.

At that same hostel in Germany, my friend and I met two other Canadian women who were fresh off the plane from Canada. They were, in our oh-so experienced backpacker opinion (we’d been travelling for a whole month by that point), overdoing it with the flags. There were Canadian flags sewn to their backpacks, Canadian flags on their camera straps, Canadian flag pins on their shirt lapels….

My friend and I tried to avoid them ― they were embarrassing us. But a few weeks later, when a Greek waiter asked me why Canadians all sewed flags to their backpacks, I didn’t have an answer. It seemed so lame to say, “We don’t want you to think we’re Americans.” But that was the true reason. It’s the first bit of advice every Canadian backpacker is given before setting off for foreign shores.

The urban legend about Americans wearing Canadian flags to get better treatment while overseas? Although I never met these people myself, I did endure a long bus ride from New York City to Baltimore beside a hyper-talkative American girl who told me that when she travels in Europe she always tells people she is Canadian. I looked at her and quietly said, “You should stop doing that.” She didn’t seem to notice my frown. (To be honest, what truly amazed me is that she would actually ’fess up to impersonating a Canadian while talking to a Canadian on a bus in the United States. I mean ― really?)

When Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics five years ago this month, Canadian flags were everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Massive ones on the sides of buildings throughout the downtown core, little ones in condo windows throughout my neighbourhood, flags on the clothing we wore ― flags even on our faces. (Yes, even I, with my brother’s help, had a red Maple Leaf painted on my face before I headed off to watch the Canada–Germany men’s hockey game. Itchy stuff, that face paint.)

So, yeah, we Canadians proudly wear our Canadian flags on our sleeves when we want to. I may have been embarrassed to tell a Greek waiter that I wore my flag to identify myself as a non-American, but that was a long time ago and I was very young. If I met that waiter again, I would tell him, “Because it tells the world I’m Canadian.”

Maple Leaf Flag 3

3 responses to “Happy Birthday to the Maple Leaf!”

  1. Barbara Kuhne says :

    There was an interesting clip on CBC radio this morning about the flag controversy. When PM Pearson addressed a gathering of veterans, many of them were downright rude because they were so opposed to the proposed new flag. They felt so committed to the flags under which they had fought, some in two world wars. Definitely an emotional time for many. And, unlike you, E, I’m old enough to remember that time.

    • Elizabeth says :

      Yes, there’s a lot more to the story that didn’t make it into the post, Barbara. (One of the problems of writing a short summary about a long story.)

      One of the reasons the veterans have such strong feelings about the Canadian Red Ensign is because the soldiers fighting at Vimy Ridge carried with them an earlier version of it (one with a shield containing the arms of the first four provinces of Canada). And we’ve all learned in school what a pivotal event in Canada’s history Vimy Ridge is considered to be.

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