Canada’s Flag: The Maple Leaf Forever

Lester B. Pearson’s press conference concerning the new flag, December 1964018: Canada’s Flag: The Maple Leaf Forever
February 12, 2015

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Our flag, with its distinctive maple leaf and bold red-and-white colour scheme has become such a potent symbol for our country that it’s hard to believe it has only been around for 50 years. On February 15, 1965, the new flag flew for the first time on Parliament Hill for all to see, but unveiling the new design was anything but easy. In this episode, we speak to retired LAC archivist Glenn Wright about the history of the flag, and the controversy that almost kept it from coming into being.

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Podcast Transcript

Canada’s Flag: The Maple Leaf Forever

Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

Our flag, with its distinctive maple leaf and bold red-and-white colour scheme has become such a potent symbol for our country that it’s hard to believe it’s only been around for 50 years. On February 15, 1965, the new flag flew for the first time on Parliament Hill for all to see, but unveiling the new design was anything but easy. In this episode, we speak to retired LAC archivist Glenn Wright about the history of the flag, and the controversy that almost kept it from coming into being.

If you are interested in viewing images associated with this podcast, you can follow along by viewing our Flickr gallery. You can access a direct link at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

Hi Glenn, thank you for being with us today. Could you tell us a bit about your background and your involvement with Library and Archives Canada?

Glenn Wright: Well, I’ve had two careers at Library and Archives Canada. I first joined the staff in June 1975 when it was Public Archives of Canada and I remained here until about 1991. I then went off and did some work at National Defence and at the RCMP. In 2000, I came back and remained on staff until I retired in 2006.

JO: So you’ve been an archivist here for a long period of your career.

GW: Yes.

JO: What prompted the decision to seek out a new flag to represent Canada?

GW: Well, it wasn’t new in the 1960s. There had been an effort after the First World War, in the early 20s, to come up with a flag that would represent Canada and it didn’t really get anywhere. There was a further attempt after the Second World War. Again, there was a committee set up to look at flag possibilities, but again no decision was reached at all. Where we are today though, probably started in the 1960s when Lester Pearson, who was leader of the Liberal party and opposition, said that one of his promises upon becoming Prime Minister would be to have a distinctive flag for Canada. So actually, point to Lester Pearson… and there are so many people involved in this story, but Pearson I think is a very important place to start.

JO: Was there any opposition to the idea of a new flag?

GW: Well, there certainly was. When he did become Prime Minister, he wanted to move forward with having a flag for Canada. It was a promise and [he] even put a time limit on it, which is always probably a nervous time for a politician. But there was opposition. In fact, there was a very famous event in May of 1964. He went to speak to the National Convention of the Royal Canadian Legion and the legionnaires really did oppose him. There was cat calling and it was almost a chaotic meeting, but he stuck to his speech and said, ‟No we are going to have flag,” and again he just emphasized that he wanted something distinctive. Clearly, there was opposition in the country. People generally are tentative about change and this was fairly significant. Of course there was opposition in the House of Commons, which led to a whole series of events around the flag. The House of Commons got into a debate in the summer of 1964, where virtually nothing got done because of the filibustering and the constant debate and argument over a flag, so on and so forth. This lead, in the fall of 1964, to a special committee being set up because something had to be done—certainly the leader of the New Democratic Party, Tommy Douglas; and to a lesser extent the leader of the Conservatives, John Diefenbaker, who opposed any kind of new flag. The three leaders agreed that something had to be done and so they set up a special committee and from that committee comes the flag.

JO: Okay. And where did the new design ideas come from?

GW: Well, is it a new design? Okay, the maple leaf has been a symbol for Canada and Canadians for a long, long time prior to the 1960s. In fact, I suspect one could probably go back to symbols pre-Confederation. In fact, I believe the very first stamp we had, the three-penny beaver, there is actually some maple leaves under his feet I think. The leaf itself was certainly used by our sporting team way before the 1960s. The Olympics, athletes wore a maple leaf on their sweater, this kind of thing. So I think the other part of this is the fact that Pearson and the people that he brought into this… I mean he turned to a Member of Parliament, John Matheson, who was a member for Leeds, was a war veteran (Second World War) and he sort of gave it to John Matheson. He said, ‟Okay go get me a flag, go and solve this issue.” Now Pearson himself wanted some kind of maple leaf and I think a lot of the people involved with the flag were looking at our coat of arms, which we had had since 1921, and there was a spray of three maple leaves on the coat of arms. In fact, Pearson was quite fond of the three maple leaves and of course there is that famous blue-bordered flag. The opponents called it the Pearson pennant, for example, and it had three maple leaves. John Matheson himself, who was really credited with bringing this to fruition in 1964/65, also favoured three maple leaves on a flag, so the maple leaf idea was always there. I think what happened in the committee was that the Pearson flag, even he came to understand that it was unacceptable, this blue-bordered thing. For other reasons, the blue colour wasn’t acceptable and so there was a lot of toing and froing about what might happen. John Matheson was open to ideas and it was suggested to him that perhaps they might look at a single maple leaf;    and George Stanley, who was a historian at the Royal Military College, well known in his own right as a historian, was one person who suggested that perhaps a flag with a single red maple leaf would…

JO: Would resolve the…

GW: do the trick. Yep, would resolve the issue. Even the committee itself, I mean it met for six weeks, in camera, and it wasn’t getting anywhere by the fourth or fifth week so they really had to do something—and that’s when the flag we have was actually sort of a bit of a compromise. Matheson made sure it got into the room itself, and I hope we can see a photograph of it, but it was just festooned with hundreds and hundreds of different designs because they had welcomed ideas from the public and so there was all kinds of crazy designs. It’s fun to look at that and say, well look at… these 15 men and women on this committee had an enormous task in trying to whittle this down into something that was distinctive for Canada.

JO: Can you tell us a bit about the crazy designs?

GW: Well, I think if you look at them, and actually the real joy here is that a lot of the designs here are in in the LAC collection and certainly have been used in various books on the history of the flag, but they are interesting to look at. I mean they range from everything... from not only the maple leaves and beavers all the way to hockey players and all kinds of strange things. I’m not sure exactly where the idea came to solicit examples from the public, but in retrospect it was probably a dandy idea just to get people thinking about it.

JO: What would represent…

GW: What would represent Canada? It’s something that we probably take for granted today… because I do want to talk about the impact of the flag, and at the time there still was a lot of controversy over replacing the red ensign with this new flag. Pearson certainly had his day and certainly someone like John Matheson deserves a lot of credit for seeing it through because when it comes right down to it, it’s sort of a political thing. I mean this wasn’t people from all parties sitting around saying, ‟You know, we’ll have a new flag and here is what it’s going to be.” It was very divisive, but once it was achieved Pearson moved on to other things. In the last couple of generations of course, you could ask younger people today how long we’ve had the flag and they probably don’t know. It’s not important that people know that there was controversy, what’s interesting is that people don’t realize it’s only 50 years old, and we’re going to learn that certainly in the new year. The flag is everywhere now and a lot of people, of course, in my generation… if we went down to Parliament Hill in the 1970s, or even in the 1980s, on Canada Day it was almost a subdued celebration. There was a bit of music, not the big production they have today and there were fireworks and everybody went home happy. If you go there now, certainly in the last ten years, people are decked out in red and white. Their clothing, flags…

JO: Face painted…

GW: painted faces, the flag is everywhere. At sporting events, be it Olympics or whatever, the flag is there now and so people, generally speaking, love our flag because it is distinctive. I think that’s what Lester Pearson really wanted, something that said this is Canada and it can’t be confused with something else. Of course at the time, when you’re right in the middle of the debate, when you’re trying to achieve this, some of that perspective is simply not there. I think looking back now we can see what a great achievement it was.

JO: Yeah, because it’s just so iconic.

GW: Yes.

JO: So I understand you actually stumbled upon the first conceptual design of the flag in an archival container. Is that correct?

GW: That’s the letter that George Stanley wrote to John Matheson in the spring of 1964 after they met at Royal Military College in Kingston. In the letter, Stanley explains why a single maple leaf would be symbolic of Canada. The letter actually is found in the papers or the fonds of a man named Alan Beddoe. Alan Beddoe was also involved in this, he was a heraldic expert and he was a friend of John Matheson. It’s interesting because Alan Beddoe actually designed the Books of Remembrance that are in the Memorial Chamber on Parliament Hill, and a number of other things during his career including a lot of the badge designs for Canadian ships during the Second World War. Anyway, Alan Beddoe was involved early on in the mid-60s and, in fact, he is the person who designed the blue-bordered flag that Pearson initially fell in love with. He and John Matheson, I understand, had a bit of a falling out over that, but be that as it may, Beddoe was still involved even when they got to the committee stage in the fall of ′64. Alan Beddoe was still hanging out and would often render designs for the committee and this kind of thing. What’s odd about it is, the letter from Stanley is addressed to Mr. Matheson, but it’s in Alan Beddoe’s papers. When I was doing the research ten or 12 years ago, like a lot of researchers you want to look at the different fonds that might be relevant and there was Alan Beddoe’s fonds, so I thought, well, we better look at Alan Beddoe. I was surprised as anyone to see the letter, and at the bottom of the letter Stanley actually took out a red pen and drew his rendition of the flag in order to explain its symbolic value and the design. Very, very interesting and coming, of course, months before a decision was made. John Matheson, even in his memoirs, you know, says it was a real contribution that Stanley had made. I think it would be a bit of [a] stretch to say that Stanley actually designed the flag. He was simply rendering it from what he saw at Royal Military College. Like I said earlier, there are a number of people who one could look at and say, okay, this person contributed this, this person contributed that; and I think it’s important not to sort of look at one person and say, okay, this person is the one who was responsible. It was a whole bunch of people who contributed in some way.

JO: Never mind the whole history of the maple leaf and Canadian history.

GW: Yeah, the maple leaf is there for sure. But it’s interesting, I think, when there is sort of a lesson when doing research too. It’s that it was important to look wherever there may be something related to the flag, because I need to remind you that the work I was asked to do had really nothing to do with the history of the flag, per se. It started when Sheila Copps was Minister of Canadian Heritage and she had a flag that she was to turn over to the Museum of Civilization at the time, and claimed it was the first flag to be raised on Parliament Hill. There is an absolutely fantastic video in the collection, the CBC coverage on February 15th, 1965 with no less than Lloyd Robertson doing the commentary. They created a dais, a stage in front of Centre Block, and they symbolically pulled down a red ensign and put up the new Canadian flag. Anyway, Minister Copps claimed that this was the first flag to fly from that dais. The flag was taken by the then National Archivist, Ian Wilson, and he involved the Canadian Conservation Institute here in Ottawa, [and] the director, a fellow named Bill Peters. He had asked Bill and his staff to look at this flag. Was there a way of confirming? Because first of all, the question was, where had the flag been for 30-odd years and was there any way we could look at this flag and say yes, it was one of the first to fly or the first to fly? Unfortunately, after the CCI people looked at it they decided that no, it looked like it had been made a little bit later than 1964 and there was some way of determining that. So that set us off, where was the first flag and what happened to it on February 15th, 1965? That led me into whatever records I could find in the collection. We spoke to a number of people, the most frightening thing that we found in the records of the Pricy Council Office was an exchange of correspondence between the Privy Council Office and the Museum, 1965 Museum of Man, where it appeared the Privy Council Office was sending all of the flag materials to the Museum and they were never located. The Museum turned itself inside out more than once and could never come up with these designs and samples and whatever else the Privy Council Office had sent them. That’s where it sort of was, and a number of people came forward and said I’ve got a flag, you know my father worked at the exhibition commission, I’ve got a flag. We looked at some of these flags. What’s interesting is that the first flags produced (and there were about 12,000 manufactured for February 15th, 1965)… the colour, the red lost its colour.

JO: Ah! It faded.

GW: Yeah, they would fade into a sort of an orange colour. We would look at these flags, and several were brought to our attention, and all we had to do… right away we could tell an old flag from a new flag, it was a lot of fun actually. Nowhere could we prove that the flag that was on the dais was brought down and preserved, which is hard to believe now. But at the time, remember what I said, it was very political. It was still controversial. Pearson was happy it was done! And I spoke with people who worked on the Privy Council at the time, and to them, the day it was approved, it was off the table, it was done! Let’s move on to something else… because it had held up Parliament for a long time. And so they were glad to have this thing signed, sealed and delivered… and let’s go on to other issues. Maybe there was no interest in grabbing that first flag. It does get wrapped up though in another first flag, and if you look at the video of that day, the CBC telecast that day, there are flags flying all over the place. The East Block, the West Block… flags were raised at the same time. On the Langevin Building, on the other side of Wellington Street, there was a flag going up there as well, and of course there is a flag on the top of the Peace Tower.

There was a ceremonial lowering of the red ensign and putting the new flag up. Well of course, the flag that flies from the Peace Tower is much larger than the normal size flag. That flag ended up with the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Lucien Lamoureux, and when we were doing the research it got very confusing for a while, like was that the flag? It was eventually tracked down. Lucian Lamoureux died in the 1990s and the flag was actually resting on his coffin during the funeral. Then it sort of disappeared. To make a long story short, his widow had the flag and she now lived in Belgium, and it was, I believe, people from the Canadian Conservation Institute that actually went and accessed it. Somewhere along the line, someone convinced her to donate it to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. I know when we were doing our research on this first one that went up on the dais, there was quite a lot of crossover confusion about what flag we were talking about. It’s really important I think, for anyone interested in the history of the flag and what happened to it… is to watch that telecast because it’s really quite interesting. Lots of photographs are around of raising the flag, but the telecast itself is actually very interesting.

JO: You can probably see that in the CBC archives?

GW: I watched it here.

JO: Oh. Okay.

GW: Yeah, I watched it here.

JO: I’ll have to look. You’ve actually talked about quite a few of the resources that are related to the whole decision making for the flag. Is there anything else that we have here that you haven’t talked about?

GW: Well, I think after all this time, why don’t we talk about some of the odd things that happened? The committee that was set up in the fall of 1964 to resolve the issue was supposed to be in camera, it was supposed to be a secret committee. The leaders felt this was the only way that this thing could be resolved. Of course, like any parliamentary committee, the governing power had the majority, so there was majority Liberals on the committee. The question came up, if Pearson wasn’t going to get his flag, his little blue-bordered flag, could he be convinced to accept what we have? In John Matheson’s memoirs, which were written in the 1980s, he claims that the Prime Minister didn’t know what was going on, but of course in the early 2000s we can now look at Pearson’s papers. In his diary, kept by his secretary, obviously there was simply a single-line entry, sort of like a little calendar of who he was meeting and so on and so forth. While this so called secret committee was meeting, at least two people, unidentified, spoke to him about what was going on at the committee. It was a bit of an insight for us doing the research. Well okay, Pearson does know about the flag. The real winner in all of this was when he wrote his memoirs. It was ghost written by a man named John Monroe. All of the transcripts of the interviews are in the Pearson Papers, so we looked at that. In the published memoir he says clearly that he knew what was going on, someone had come to him and said, ‟Well, we’re going to get a flag and the vote is going to be 9 to 6 or 8 to 7,” and Pearson said, ‟No, I can’t turn around to the country and say we got a new flag by one vote, it’s got to be almost unanimous. It’s got to be a huge victory for whatever we choose.” That’s when the voting was manipulated. We won’t go into that, but it was manipulated to the point where the Conservatives actually voted with the Liberals, unknowingly, for the flag we have. In the transcripts of the interviews that Monroe did with Pearson, it’s a lot more explicit. Pearson really did know what was going on at that committee. I think it’s kind of interesting, and of course if it had ever come out at the time, that would have been the end of it. I mean if John Diefenbaker or anyone else had discovered that Pearson really did know what was going on, I think there would have been heck to pay.

JO: Yes, mutiny. Can these resources be consulted at LAC?

GW: Sure, all the records relating to the flag committee. The minutes are there, certainly the flag designs, probably two- or three- or four-thousand of them in all sizes, all colours. Certainly the political material, the Pearson material is certainly available. In the course of research, some other things have become available. There are a small collection of John Matheson’s papers in the archives and always have been. Alan Beddoe, who I mentioned… since this research in the early 2000s, it wasn’t anything that I did, but I understand that the Beddoe family have donated a diary to LAC that their father kept. A diary of all this, and certainly in reading some of the literature from the last five or six years, it’s clear that there was a Conservative member of the flag committee who kept a diary. I believe the diary is still held by the family, but it just shows that there is material out there.

I know we did a fairly thorough look at Government records and certainly there was nothing, unfortunately, in the Exhibition Commission records, but there was quite a bit in the Privy Council Office. Of course, the Privy Council Office is with the Prime Minister’s Office and there is actually quite a bit of material there. Fairly high-level correspondence after the flag was approved and voted on in December ′64, about the arrangements for having the ceremony in February. They had to have the proclamation signed by the Queen. Lester Pearson and his wife actually went to London for the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill and at the time had the proclamation signed by the Queen. That is in his calendar diary. At one moment he is getting ready to go to the funeral, and the next moment he is meeting the Queen to have this document signed, so it is rather interesting. Of course, that kind of record is available as well.

JO: What are some popular myths about the design of the flag?

GW: Well, I think one of the most outstanding sort of perennial stories is the story of Joan O’Malley and sewing the first flag. Joan O’Malley was 19 at the time and she had just been married. Her father worked at the Government Exhibition Commission. His name was Ken Donovan. The story goes that Joan was phoned one dark and stormy night in November 1964 to come over to the Exhibition Commission… and that I’ve got something for you to do. So Joan said, ‟Sure Dad, I’ll be right there with my husband.” Her and her husband went to the Exhibition Commission and she claims, to this day, that she sewed three flags. She sewed a version of what we have, she sewed one with the blue borders and she sewed one that was the third contender, which was sort of the red ensign with a maple leaf in one corner and a fleur-de-lis on the other, a very garish looking thing. Joan has always said that she did the three. When I did my research, I was puzzled because she has always claimed it was November 6th, but she sewed three flags and by that time the flag we have had already been approved. The question was, why did she do three at that stage of the game when it was essentially all over? Part of the story is that she sewed the flags so that Pearson could see them. That much she’ll say. She didn’t know that at the time, and when we talked to her ten years ago or so, we brought her and her husband to the Canadian Conservation Institute to look at a number of flags that they had. Of course nothing looked like what she had sewn and she said, ‟Well, there was [a] very good reason because it was like a bed sheet. It was like linen and it was very hard to sew.” Which was an interesting clue. Then the question is, whatever happened to them? She said, ‟Well, my dad said he had to destroy them.” Her and her husband were sworn to secrecy. Remember they are only teenagers, she is only 19 years old, and so for a long time she never spoke about it. When I looked at the evidence, or when we looked at the evidence here, it didn’t make any sense for her to sew the flags after October 29th when the flag committee actually tabled their final report and recommended the single maple leaf. We think she actually did it earlier and they were done for the Prime Minister. They were done so he could see what they looked like, which again I think plays into the secrecy aspect of it, the fact that these things were destroyed afterwards. Again, because if anyone knew that Pearson had seen the flags while they are supposed to be meeting, in camera, that would have been the end of it. It’s a neat story and Joan loves telling the story. It’s a great story the way she tells it. What we did, and this is no reflection on Joan at all, we actually looked at weather records. Weather records are here at LAC. You can go back quite a ways and actually determine what the weather was day to day, and so we did. She and her husband insist that it was a night in November and there was a bit of precipitation, a little bit of ice, that kind of night. Well, it wasn’t November. It wasn’t, according to the records, but there were a couple of nights in October that easily fit the bill. But Joan and I have agreed to disagree on this and that’s where it stands. It’s a great story.

JO: It is. I hear that it is possible for Canadians to get a decommissioned flag from Parliament, is that right?

GW: I understand that’s true. I understand the waiting list is long, but a lot of people do line up for a flag and why not?

JO: Yes, absolutely. Thanks so much for being with us today Glenn.

GW: Well, thank you. I hope that listeners will appreciate the history of the flag and know that we have a very distinctive flag, and that was the goal in the 1960s… was to have something that was Canadian.

JO: To learn more about LAC’s political resources, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On our homepage, select Discover the Collection and then choose Politics and Government. On this page you will find links to all of our political resources. Also, don’t forget to check our blog, thediscoverblog.com,for more content. You can find the content quickly by selecting Politics and Government from the category list on the right side of the Web page.

Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest today, Glenn Wright.

For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. If you would like to have a flag that has flown on Parliament Hill delivered to your door, click on “Flag Request” under related links on our episode page.

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