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Flag anniversary embarassing
Feb 19, 2015

The 50th anniversary of our national flag, the Maple Leaf, on February 15,  passed with little fanfare and opinion pieces in major newspapers claimed this was a national embarassment. 

Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor wrote that there was no other way to describe the Harper government’s failure to adequately acknowledge the importance of the Canadian flag other than as “embarassing.”

The Conservative government paid more attention and gave significantly more money toward celebrating Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday and the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. While these celebrations warranted millions of dollars in funding, celebrating the 50th anniversary of what is easily the most recognized symbol of our nation across the world received a measly $50,000. But that should come as no surprise. Any celebrations arising from acts by past Liberal governments, such as the anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, have been ignored as inconsequential by the present government. The fact that the new flag was the brainchild of former Liberal Prime Minister Lester “Mike” Pearson didn’t bode well for 50th anniversary celebrations.

In a statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper left it to individual Canadians to devise their own celebrations to mark “this special day.”  In addition, the prime minister gave a Peace Tower flag to the Canadian Museum of History.”

MacGregor said the exhibit in the museum marking the flag’s 50th anniversary was scant and took “about five minutes to go through.” Two young visitors from Germany told the columnist the exhibit wasn’t “worth going to see.”

Not surprisingly, former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Justin Trudeau, the present Leader of the Liberal Party, joined forces to enthusiastically celebrate the anniversary of our flag. 

The lack of enthusiasm on the government’s side may have arisen due to the fact that the flag was viciously opposed by another Harper hero — former Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

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!” 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. 

To Diefenbaker’s chagrin, the bill making the Maple Leaf Canada’s new national flag easily passed in the House by a 163-78 vote. 

About 10,000 people gathered on February 15, 1965, to witness the raising of the Maple Leaf. It was a cold, gray day, but when the flag was raised by Joseph Secours, a 26-year-old RCMP constable, and a 21-gun salute rang out, the sky opened up, the sun shone through and an obliging breeze caused it to wave in the wind.

When the Red Ensign was lowered, 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.”

Jim Rae of the Ottawa Citizen wrote, “Emotions that had been pent up for more than an hour emptied in a mighty cheer just as the Maple Leaf reached the top of the mast for the first time.”

“If our nation, by God’s grace, endures a thousand years, this day ... will always be remembered as a milestone in Canada's national progress,” proclaimed then Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson. “It is impossible for me not to be deeply moved on such an occasion, or to be insensible to the honour and privilege of taking part in it.”

Canada came of age with its new national symbol, which is why it’s a pity that more attention wasn’t paid by the federal government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this landmark event in Canadian history.