Great Canadian flag debate

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An exhibit on the Great Canadian Flag Debate at the Canadian Museum of History

The Great Canadian flag debate (or Great Flag Debate) was a national debate that took place in 1963 and 1964 when a new design for the national flag of Canada was chosen.[1]

Although the flag debate had been going on for a long time prior, it officially began on June 15, 1964, when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson proposed his plans for a new flag in the House of Commons. The debate lasted more than six months, bitterly dividing[2] the people in the process. The debate over the proposed new Canadian flag was ended by closure on December 15, 1964. It resulted in the adoption of the "Maple Leaf" as the Canadian national flag, which remains the official national flag of Canada.

The flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965, a date that has been commemorated as National Flag of Canada Day since 1996.


Union Jack and Red Ensign[edit]

A postcard for the 1911 coronation of George V, with the Canadian Red Ensign and the Union Jack.

The Union Jack served as the formal flag for various colonies in British North America, and remained as the formal national flag of Canada from Confederation to 1965. However, from the late-19th century to 1965, the civil ensign for Canada, the Canadian Red Ensign, was also used as an unofficial national flag and symbol for Canada.[3]

The first Canadian Red Ensigns were used in Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald's time. The Governor General at the time of Macdonald's death, Lord Stanley, wrote to London in 1891:

... the Dominion Government has encouraged by precept and example the use on all public buildings throughout the provinces of the Red Ensign with the Canadian badge on the fly... [which] has come to be considered as the recognized flag of the Dominion, both ashore and afloat.

Under pressure from pro-imperial public opinion, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier raised the Union Jack over Parliament, where it remained until the re-emergence of the Red Ensign in the 1920s.

William Lyon Mackenzie King tried to adopt a new Canadian national flag in 1925 and 1946,[3] having received a recommendation that came back as a Red Ensign design that replaced the coat of arms of Canada with a gold maple leaf in 1946. However, ongoing fears that the change might lead to political instability resulted in Mackenzie King shelving the project. A compromise was reached where the Canadian government would fly the Canadian Red Ensign as a "distinctive Canadian flag" on government buildings, but maintain the Union Jack as the national flag.[3]

In 1958, an extensive poll was taken of the attitudes that adult Canadians held toward the flag. Of those who expressed opinions, over 80 per cent wanted a national flag entirely different from that of any other nation, and 60 per cent wanted their flag to bear the maple leaf. [4] In April 1963, an opinion poll of 2,262 Canadians found that 52% supported a new national flag for Canada of its own, while 30% preferred using the Union Jack and 18% preferred using the Canadian Red Ensign.[5]

Lester B. Pearson[edit]

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in 1963. Pearson made the adoption of a new national flag a party platform during the 1963 federal elections.

From his office as leader of the opposition, Lester Pearson issued a press release on January 27, 1960, in which he summarized the problem and presented his suggestion as:

... Canadian Government taking full responsibility as soon as possible for finding a solution to the flag problem, by submitting to Parliament a measure which, if accepted by the representatives of the people in Parliament, would, I hope, settle the problem.

The Progressive Conservative government of the time, headed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, did not accept the invitation to establish a new Canadian flag, so Pearson made it Liberal Party policy in 1961, and part of the party's election platform in the 1962 and 1963 federal elections. During the election campaign of 1963, Pearson promised that Canada would have a new flag within two years of his election. No previous party leader had ever gone as far as Pearson did, by putting a time limit on finding a new national flag for Canada. The 1963 election brought the Liberals back to power, but with a minority government. In February 1964, a three-leaf design was leaked to the press.

At the 20th Royal Canadian Legion Convention in Winnipeg on May 17, 1964, Pearson faced an unsympathetic audience of Canadian Legionnaires and told them that the time had come to replace the Canadian Red Ensign with a distinctive maple leaf flag.[6] The Royal Canadian Legion and the Canadian Corps Association wanted to make sure that the new flag would include the Union Jack as a sign of Canadian ties to the United Kingdom and to other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, that use the Union Jack in the quarter of their national flag.

Lester Pearson's preferred choice for a new flag was nicknamed "the Pearson Pennant". Pearson's first design featured the three maple leaves on a white background, with vertical blue bars to either side. Pearson preferred this choice, as the blue bars reflected Canada's motto, "From Sea to Sea".

Parliamentary debate begins[edit]

Opening resolution[edit]

Pearson's preferred choice for a new flag was nicknamed "the Pearson Pennant".

On June 15, 1964, Pearson opened the parliamentary flag debate with a resolution:

… to establish officially as the flag of Canada a flag embodying the emblem proclaimed by His Majesty King George V on November 21, 1921 — three maple leaves conjoined on one stem — in the colours red and white then designated for Canada, the red leaves occupying a field of white between vertical sections of blue on the edges of the flag.

The flag proposed by Pearson, referred to as "the Pearson Pennant", was designed by Alan Beddoe.[3] Pearson sought to produce a flag which embodied history and tradition, but he also wanted to excise the Union Jack as a reminder of Canada's heritage and links to the United Kingdom. Hence, the issue was not whether the maple leaf was pre-eminently Canadian, but rather whether the nation should exclude the British-related component from its identity.

Diefenbaker opposition[edit]

Diefenbaker led the opposition to the Maple Leaf flag, arguing for the retention of the Canadian Red Ensign. Diefenbaker and his lieutenants mounted a filibuster. The seemingly endless debate raged on in Parliament and the press with no side giving quarter. Pearson forced members of Parliament to stay over the summer, but that did not help.

On September 10, 1964, the Prime Minister yielded to the suggestion that the matter be referred to a special flag committee. The key member of the 15-person panel, Liberal Member of Parliament John Matheson, said that they "were asked to produce a flag for Canada and in six weeks!"[6]

Special flag committee[edit]

Flag promoted by the Native Sons of Canada.[7]
"Group B" finalist considered by Parliamentary committee
"Group C" finalist considered by Parliamentary committee
Proposed flags

On September 10, 1964, a committee of 15 Members of Parliament was announced.[6] It was made up of seven Liberals, five Conservatives (PC) and one each from the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Social Credit Party and the Ralliement créditiste.[6]

The Committee members were as follows:[8]

Member Party Electoral district
Herman Maxwell Batten (chairman)[6] Liberal Humber—St. George's, Newfoundland
Léo Cadieux Liberal Terrebonne, Quebec
Grant Deachman Liberal Vancouver Quadra, British Columbia
Jean-Eudes Dubé Liberal Restigouche—Madawaska, New Brunswick
Hugh John Flemming PC Victoria—Carleton, New Brunswick
Margaret Konantz Liberal Winnipeg South, Manitoba
Raymond Langlois Ralliement créditiste Mégantic, Quebec
Marcel Lessard Social Credit Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec
Joseph Macaluso Liberal Hamilton West, Ontario
John Matheson Liberal Leeds, Ontario
Jay Monteith PC Perth, Ontario
David Vaughan Pugh PC Okanagan Boundary, British Columbia
Reynold Rapp PC Humboldt—Melfort—Tisdale, Saskatchewan
Théogène Ricard PC Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, Quebec
Reid Scott NDP Danforth, Ontario

The Conservatives at first saw this event as a victory, for they knew that all previous flag committees had suffered miscarriages. During the next six weeks the committee held 35 lengthy meetings. Thousands of suggestions also poured in from a public engaged in what had become a great Canadian debate about identity and how best to represent it.

3,541 entries were submitted: many contained common elements:

George Stanley seated next to his spouse, Ruth Stanley. George's design was eventually selected by the special flag committee.

At the last minute, John Matheson slipped a flag designed by historian George Stanley into the mix. The idea came to him while standing in front of the Mackenzie Building of the Royal Military College of Canada, while viewing the college flag flying in the wind. Stanley submitted a March 23, 1964 formal detailed memorandum[9] to Matheson on the history of Canada's emblems, predating Pearson's raising the issue, in which he warned that any new flag "must avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are of a divisive nature" and that it would be "clearly inadvisable" to create a flag that carried either a Union Jack or a Fleur-de-lis. The design put forward had a single red maple leaf on a white plain background, flanked by two red borders, based on the design of the flag of the Royal Military College. The voting was held on October 22, 1964, when the committee's final contest pitted Pearson's pennant against Stanley's. Assuming that the Liberals would vote for the Prime Minister's design, the Conservatives backed Stanley. They were outmaneuvered by the Liberals who had agreed with others to choose the Stanley Maple Leaf flag. The Liberals voted for the red and white flag, making the selection unanimous (15–0).[10]

Parliamentary vote[edit]

While the committee had made its decision, the House of Commons had not. Diefenbaker would not budge, so the debate continued for six weeks as the Conservatives launched a filibuster. The debate had become so ugly that the Toronto Star called it "The Great Flag Farce."[6]

The debate was prolonged until one of Diefenbaker's own senior members, Léon Balcer, and the Créditiste, Réal Caouette, advised the government to cut off debate by applying closure. Pearson did so, and after some 250 speeches, the final vote adopting the Stanley flag took place at 2:15 on the morning of December 15, 1964, with Balcer and the other francophone Conservatives swinging behind the Liberals. The committee's recommendation was accepted 163 to 78. At 2:00 AM, immediately after the successful vote, Matheson wrote to Stanley: "Your proposed flag has just now been approved by the Commons 163 to 78. Congratulations. I believe it is an excellent flag that will serve Canada well."[11] Diefenbaker, however, called it "a flag by closure, imposed by closure."[12]

On the afternoon of December 15, the Commons also voted in favour of continued use of the Union Flag as an official flag to symbolize Canada's allegiance to the Crown and its membership in the Commonwealth of Nations.[13] Senate approval followed on December 17, 1964. The Union Jack, or the "Royal Union Flag", as it would be officially termed in the parliamentary resolution, would be put alongside the new flag at federal government buildings, federally-operated airports, military installations, at the masthead of Royal Canadian Navy ships within Canadian waters, and at other appropriate establishments on Commonwealth Day, Victoria Day (the monarch's official birthday in Canada), 11 December (the anniversary of the enactment of the Statute of Westminster 1931), and when otherwise instructed to do so by the National Defence Headquarters.[13]


The royal proclamation naming the Maple Leaf the country's new national flag.

Queen Elizabeth II approved the Maple Leaf flag by signing a royal proclamation on January 28, 1965, when both Prime Minister Pearson and Leader of the Opposition Diefenbaker were in London attending the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.

The flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965, at an official ceremony held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in the presence of Governor General Major-General Georges Vanier, the prime minister, the members of the Cabinet, and Canadian parliamentarians. Also throughout Canada, at the United Nations in New York City, and at Canadian legations and on Canadian ships throughout the world, the Canadian Red Ensign was lowered and the Maple Leaf flag was raised. As journalist George Bain wrote of the occasion, the flag "looked bold and clean, and distinctively our own."[14]

Attachment to the old Canadian Red Ensign has persisted among many people, especially veterans.

Provincial flags[edit]

After the debate, Manitoba and Ontario adopted versions of the Red Ensign as basis for their provincial flags.

The Canadian Red Ensign itself can sometimes be seen today in Canada, often in connection to veterans' associations.[15] In addition, the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario adopted their own versions of the Red Ensign as their respective provincial flags in the wake of the national flag debate.

On the other hand, Newfoundland used the Union Jack as its provincial flag from 1952 until 1980; the blue triangles on the new flag adopted in 1980 are meant as a tribute to the Union Jack.[16] British Columbia's flag, which features the Union Jack in its top portion, was introduced in 1960 and is actually based on the shield of the provincial coat of arms, which dates back to 1906.[17] Hence, both Newfoundland's use of the Union Jack and the adoption of British Columbia's flag are unrelated to (and, in fact, pre-date) the great flag debate.

National Flag Day[edit]

Since 1996, February 15 has been commemorated as National Flag of Canada Day in Canada.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Levine, Allan. "The Great Flag Debate". Canada's History.
  2. ^ Fraser, A.B. (1998). The Flags of Canada. Chapter V.
  3. ^ a b c d "The history of the National Flag of Canada". Government of Canada. February 4, 2020. Retrieved June 6, 2022.
  4. ^ "<odesi> Dataset: Canadian Gallup Poll, August 1958, #270". Retrieved January 21, 2018.
  5. ^ "<odesi> Dataset: Canadian Gallup Poll, August 1963, #302". Retrieved December 31, 2023.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Hunter, Paul (February 14, 2015). "Leader Lester Pearson wanted a flag to represent the new, multicultural Canada. John Diefenbaker was vehemently opposed. The battle was ferocious". The Toronto Star. ISSN 0319-0781. Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  7. ^ DePoe, Norman (December 28, 1958). "The Canadian Scene: A Special Report". CBC News Magazine. CBC. Retrieved February 17, 2014.
  8. ^ "October 29, 1964 - Browse the Canadian House of Commons". University of Toronto. Retrieved February 5, 2022.
  9. ^ "Full text of George Stanley's Flag Memorandum". Archived from the original on March 9, 2014. Retrieved March 19, 2014.
  10. ^ "How the vote on Canada's flag was 'rigged' | Toronto Star". February 13, 2015. Retrieved April 18, 2016.
  11. ^ "John Matheson's postcard to George Stanley, 15 December 1964, 2:00 AM, announcing the House of Commons' approval of Stanley's design for the new Canadian Flag". Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved March 19, 2014.
  12. ^ Hunter, Paul (February 15, 2015). "Canada's maple leaf flag born amid bitter debate". The Hamilton Spectator. Archived from the original on December 10, 2019. Retrieved December 10, 2019.
  13. ^ a b "The Royal Union Flag". Government of Canada. May 8, 2018. Retrieved March 5, 2020.
  14. ^ Hillmer, Norman (February 14, 2012). "The Flag: Distinctively Our Own". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 17, 2014.
  15. ^ "Royal Canadian Legion - Colour Party". Royal Canadian Legion. February 25, 2016. Retrieved February 25, 2016.
  16. ^ "Provincial Flag". Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Retrieved February 16, 2014.
  17. ^ "B.C. Quick Facts". Province of British Columbia. Archived from the original on February 16, 2014. Retrieved February 17, 2014.


External links[edit]