Flag Day passed with little fanfare, but Louis Riel Day will undoubtedly be uppermost in Manitobans’ minds. Most Manitobans will not be celebrating the contributions of the Métis leader to the province, but the fact that they get a day off from work and school this coming Monday (February 20).
As a provincial holiday to break up the humdrum of the winter — there was previously no holiday between New Year’s Day and Easter — Louis Riel Day was first celebrated on Monday, February 18, 2008. The holiday is held annually on the third Monday during the shortest month of the year. The day actually has no association with Riel, but his is a convenient name for a convenient holiday.
Yet, Riel does deserve official recognition for his efforts that led to Manitoba becoming the fifth province in the Canadian Confederation in 1870. Still, it is hard to associate the third Monday in February with Riel, when the Manitoba Act was passed in the Canadian Parliament on May 12, 1870, and came into effect on July 15 of the same year.
But as Manitoba Labour Minister Nancy Allen said, when the provincial government announced the new Manitoba holiday: “It’s very, very tough to make all of the people happy all the time, but at the end of the day, this is the name that was chosen, and I think that Manitobans wil be happy with it.”
On the other hand, there is no question that Flag Day, which is not a Canada-wide holiday, is associated with February 15. On that day in 1965, the Maple Leaf flew for the first time over Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
But what happened this Flag Day? Well, virtually nothing. While the Conservative federal government is quite willing to trumpet the nation’s British connection by adding the “Royal” prefix to the Canadian navy and airforce, as well as celebrating the War of 1812 and Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee with great enthusiasm, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided an hour-long photo-op at the Centre Block to “honour the national Flag of Canada” was all that was appropriate. Across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Heritage Minister James Moore went to the Canadian Museum of Civilization for a Flag Day swearing-in of new citizens. Not much for a day of such national significance.
Maybe it’s because former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who the present Harper government is striving to honour by renaming buildings in the nation’s capital after him, was not a big fan of the new flag. And similar to Harper, Diefenbaker added the “Royal” prefix to what had just been the Canadian Legion.
Liberal Prime Minister Lester “Mike” Pearson announced the government’s decision to create a national flag during a Royal Canadian Legion national convention in Winnipeg on May 17, 1964. He was soundly booed just as he said, “I believe that today a flag, designed around the Maple Leaf, will symbolize and be a true reflection of the new Canada.”
The Legionnaires had fought under the old Canadian Ensign during the Second World War and they felt a new flag would be a betrayal of their sacrifice, something federal Conservative Opposition Leader Diefenbaker continually reminded them of whenever he had the chance.
“Pearson was probably more determined to go forward after that meeting, because he saw that the thing had been politicized and that people had worked on these people, or they’d worked on themselves, to sort of divide the country into old and new, and he thought this was wrong,” said Jim Coutts, a Pearson government staffer.
“Flags cannot be imposed, the sacred symbols of a people’s hopes and aspirations, by the simple, capricious, personal choice of a prime minister of Canada,” countered Diefenbaker. He brought personal animosity to the debate because he loathed Pearson.
The Opposition Leader appeared on October 28 on CBC-TV where he was asked about the flag agreed upon by a parliamentary all-party committee that had a single red maple leaf on a white background flanked by two red bars. Diefenbaker mockingly called it a “Peruvian flag” that Canadians would be saluting. However, the Peruvian flag does not have a maple leaf as its centrepiece. On another occasion, he called the flag similar to a beer bottle label.
Diefenbaker should have paid more attention to his own caucus. His Quebec members favoured the new flag and a palace revolt among other MPs was being orchestrated by Dalton Camp, who headed the “Dump the Chief” campaign.
When the committee’s recommended flag was to be voted upon in the House, Conservative deputy leader and Quebec MP Leon Balcher rose and said: “For weeks, and even months, the House of Commons has been witnessing an unparalleled debate which is completely paralyzing the business of this House ...”
Balcher then proposed that the Liberal government evoke closure and get on with the vote. This stunned Diefenbaker who had hoped to initiate a filibuster, but he was effectively silenced by an MP from his own party.
When Pearson proposed a free vote to restore some harmony in the House, he said: “The past can and must be honoured, but surely the past must not be permitted to prevent the changes that are necessary to adapt to the future ... We do not ignore the lessons of history when we support Canadian symbols for Canadian unity.”
He told MPs that British Prime Minister Lloyd George said about the Canadian troops’ contribution, during the Second Battle of Ypres, “(that) the maple leaf was embroidered forever on the silken folds of the banner of human history!” The reality was that Canadian soldiers during both wars prominently displayed the maple leaf on their uniforms. And, Canadian war graves from both world wars — and now — are identified with a single maple leaf engraved on their headstones.
Canadian soldiers during the world wars fought under two foreign banners — first under the British Union Jack and then the British Admiralty’s Red Ensign, neither being a true national flag. The Red Ensign was chosen on January 26, 1924, to fly only over government buildings as a temporary measure.
Diefenbaker’s arguments mostly fell on deaf ears and Canada had a new flag.
When the Red Ensign was lowered on Parliament Hill, Diefenbaker wiped tears away with a handkerchief. But a “mighty cheer” arose “just as the Maple Leaf reached the top (of the flag pole) for the first time.”
Canada came of age with a new national symbol that is readily recognized around the world. Why not create a true national celebration to mark this momentous occasion?