Monday, July 1, 2013

The Canadian Flag

Most Canadians take the maple leaf flag for granted today and are unaware of the Parliamentary battle waged between Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Leader of the Opposition John Diefenbaker in 1964. Pearson had promised a distinct Canadian flag if elected in 1963. Diefenbaker refused to replace the Red Ensign which had been in use since 1867. In May 1964, Pearson asked Parliament to adopt a Canadian flag. After months of Diefenbaker-led filibustering the maple leaf design became Canada's official flag. On February 15, 1965, the first distinctive banner in Canada's history, the red and white maple leaf flag was raised over the Peace Tower of the Houses of Parliament.

The Canadian Red Ensign

The maple leaf design replaced the "Red Ensign" which had been the flag used officially by the federal government though it was never adopted as official by the Parliament of Canada. It was a British Red Ensign (the identifying flag flown to designate a British ship), featuring the Union Jack in the upper left hand corner, and the addition of the shield of the Coat of Arms of Canada:

 Red Ensign 1965

It was informally adopted following Canadian Confederation in 1867 . The original Canadian Red Ensign had the arms of the four founding provinces on its shield:

Red Ensign 1868 - 1921

From 1892, the Red Ensign was the official flag for use on Canadian merchant ships. On land, however, the official national flag was the Union Jack. Despite its unofficial status, the Red Ensign was widely used on land as well. In 1924, the Red Ensign was approved for use on Canadian government buildings outside Canada, and from 1945 for those inside Canada as well.

The Promise of a New Flag

In 1958, a poll was taken of the attitudes that Canadians held toward the flag. Over 80% wanted a national flag entirely different from that of any other nation, and 60% wanted their flag to bear the maple leaf.

Leader of the Opposition Lester Pearson urged the government to resolve the flag issue but Prime Minister Diefenbaker had no desire to replace the red ensign. During the 1963 election campaign, Pearson promised that Canada would have a distinctive flag within two years of his being elected.

The Liberals won the 1963 election with a minority government and proceeded to implement Pearson's flag policy.

Royal Canadian Legion Opposition

The Royal Canadian Legion supported the retention of the red ensign and invited Prime Minister Pearson, a WWI veteran, to speak at their Winnipeg Convention on May 17, 1964. Pearson was booed and heckled by the Legionnaires. Pearson smiled and said the angry crowd did not bother him, quoting former U.S. president Harry Truman to the audience, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

The Royal Canadian Legion, Ontario Provincial Command correspondence February 13, 1964 with Red Ensign seal.

Pearson's Proposal : Three Conjoined Maple Leaves

On May 27, 1964, Pearson's government introduced a motion to Parliament for adoption of his favourite design of a "sea to sea" (Canada's motto) flag with blue borders and three conjoined red maple leaves on a white field. This motion led to weeks of acrimonious debate in Parliament, and the design came to be known as "Pearson's Pennant".

Pearson's Proposed Flag

Three conjoined maple leaves was not a new Canadian symbol as it had been an element of provincial coats of arms as well as the red ensign going back to 1868 when Queen Victoria assigned the coats of arms of Ontario and Quebec:



Three Conjoined Maple Leaves on Stamps

1959 Plains of Abraham stamp

1964 Maple Leaf Unity Stamp

On May 14, 1964 the Canada Post Office launched its floral emblem commemorative series leading up to Canada's centennial celebration in 1967. The first stamp in the series featured three maple leafs emerging from a node:

Parliamentary Debate
On June 15, 1964, Pearson opened the parliamentary flag debate. John Diefenbaker led the opposition to the Maple Leaf flag, demanding the retention of the Canadian red ensign. Diefenbaker and his Conservative members mounted a filibuster. Pearson forced members of Parliament to stay over the summer, but that did not resolve the matter. On September 10, Pearson agreed to the suggestion that the issue be referred to a special flag committee. The committee was given six weeks to agree on a flag design.

Flag Committee
The 15-member all-party parliamentary committee received over three thousand suggestions from Canadians. The post card below is representative of these suggestions:

Post card with flag design mailed to the House of Commons from East Angus, Que., December 11, 1963

On October 29, 1964, having held 35 meetings in a six week period the committee unanimously approved the maple leaf design created by George F.G. Stanley.
Mr. Stanley's Maple Leaf design was inspired by the flag of the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario:

Parliamentary Approval

John Diefenbaker, Leader of the Opposition,  refused to accept the committee's decision and mounted a   Parliamentary filibuster which lasted six weeks. It took the intervention of Quebec Conservative MP Leon Balcer to call on Prime Minister Pearson to cut off the debate by applying closure. Pearson did so and the final vote adopting the Maple Leaf flag took place at 2:15 a.m. on December 15, 1964.The committee's recommendation was accepted 163 to 78.

Inauguration of the Maple Leaf Flag : February 15, 1965

The flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965, at an official ceremony held on Parliament Hill. The letter below on House of Commons stationery was written at 10:15 a.m. on February 15, 1965:

Monday 10:15 a.m.

Dear Ab:
...There are crowds around the building, waiting to see the ensign come down. Poor John [Diefenbaker] is going to have a hard time today-the Grits [Liberals] have won this round, but just wait!
Kindest regards,
Mayone (?)

[Please contact me at if you can assist me in identifying the writer]

Canada Post Office Commemorative Stamp

On June 30, 1965, the Canada Post Office issued the Canadian Flag commemorative stamp honouring the inauguration of the maple leaf flag.


National Archives of Canada

First Day Covers

Chickering/Jackson: Overseas Mailers no embellishment


Canada Post Office Announcement Cover

Canadian Post Office first day cover. The CPO used "Rosecraft" envelopes to announce the release of the Flag stamp. This announcement was mailed to Portugal.

Canadian Bank Note Company, Limited

CKY Radio Winnipeg



Canada Envelope Company

From Minister of Mines and Technical Surveys

Fom the Hon. William Moore Benidickson to Doncaster, Engalnd
5 cents preferred surface letter rate to the United Kingdom
Benedickson retired from the House of Commons on July 5, 1965 and was appointed to the Senate

William Moore Benidickson


Domestic Forward Letter

Cudworth, Sask., to Edmonton, July 27, 1965
5 cents forward letter rate

Air Mail Letter to the United States

Downsview to New York, August 20 1965
8 cents air mail letter rate
Shortpaid 1 cents

Upsala to Fort Worth, August 10, 1965
14 cents 2 oz. letter rate   (8c 1st ounce + 6 cents next ounce)
Shortpaid 1 cent

International Air Mail Letter

Midland to Pembroke, Bermuda, July 27, 1965
10 cents air mail letter rate to Bermuda