About The Book
Did the adoption of Maple Leaf Flag save Canada from breaking up? A good case can be made. The Great Flag Debate of 1964 climaxed one of the most exciting episodes in Canadian history. While the country’s fate hung in the balance, two larger-than-life antagonists fought for their political lives. Passions ran high, old friends stopped speaking, and thousands upon thousands of Canadians sent homemade designs for the Flag Committee to consider. By some miracle, the elegantly simple winning design was quickly embraced by Canadians and almost as quickly came to identify Canada in every corner of the globe.
A Flag for Canada tells the whole fascinating story of the origins of the maple leaf symbol, its tension-filled victory in 1964, and what it has come to stand for in the 45-plus years since it was proclaimed into law.
Note: A Flag for Canada is a substantially revised edition of I Stand for Canada: The Story of the Maple Leaf Flag, which was originally published in the fall of 2002.
Chapter One: Identity Crisis (May-June 1964)
The book opens in May of 1964, when Prime Minister Lester Pearson travelled to Winnipeg to address the national convention of the Royal Canadian Legion—a group fiercely opposed to a maple leaf flag. Pearson’s remarks were sometimes drowned out by the boos and catcalls, but he gallantly stood his ground, gaining grudging respect from the veterans in the audience and earning admiration in the press. A few days later, he presented his proposal: three red maple leaves conjoined on a single stem and flanked by vertical blue bars. Leader of the Opposition John Diefenbaker derisively dubbed the PM’s design Pearson’s Pennant. The battle was underway. It was fought
not just on the floor of the House of Commons and in the media, but in classrooms,
at church picnics and around dinner tables from coast to coast. Thousands of individuals sent in proposed designs, some silly (“crossed hockey sticks on a beaver rampant”), many just plain bad, but the vast majority featured a maple leaf or leaves. The chapter ends with Pearson’s speech to the House of Commons on June 15, 1964, inaugurating the Great Flag Debate.
Chapter Two: Badge of Honour (1497-1964)
Who first used a maple leaf to stand for Canada? Maybe it was the St-Jean-Baptiste Societé, guardian of all things French Canadian, which adopted the maple leaf as
an emblem in 1834. Regardless, by the time of Confederation this native symbol was
already widely understood to stand for Canada and Canadians. However, the country’s
first home-grown flag was something called the Canadian Red Ensign
, a flag whose
primary symbol was the British Union Jack, but which was also adorned with a “Canadian” shield bearing the emblems of each province along with a sprig of three maple leaves.
Gradually, above all through two world wars, the maple leaf that was worn by every
Canadian soldier grew in emotional power and historical resonance. Yet as the 1967 centennial of Confederation approached, the old Red Ensign was still the leading contender for official status.
Chapter Three: The Great Debate (June-December, 1964)
By September of 1964, the parliamentary flag debate had reached a stalemate. So the task of crafting a compromise was handed to a committee of 15 MPs. If history was any guide, the committee’s prospects were dim. Previous attempts in 1925 and 1946 had ended in failure. Instead, a combination of good fortune and political guile (by the Liberals) yielded a unanimous choice: a flag featuring a single, red maple leaf flanked by vertical red bars. Predictably, Diefenbaker howled with outrage and orchestrated a parliamentary filibuster aimed at preventing the flag bill from ever coming to a vote. But many members of his own party chafed at the Chief’s intransigence. The stalemate was finally broken in early December when Diefenbaker's
Quebec lieutenant, Léon Balcer, broke ranks and urged the government to introduce closure—a rarely used way of forcing a vote. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning of December 15, 1964, the House of Commons voted 163-78 to adopt the red-and-white
maple leaf flag as Canada’s national standard.
Chapter Four: Maple Leaf Rising (1965-1982)
In no time, the new flag sprouted from flagpoles from coast to coast. Ontario and Manitoba soon adopted red ensigns as their provincial flags, thereby keeping the “old flag” alive. But by Centennial Year, 1967, it was becoming difficult to imagine Canada flying any other flag. Without the Maple Leaf flag, and the wave of national pride it helped unleash, one wonders how different Expo 67 would have been—certainly not the national coming-of-age party it turned out to be. But the task of nation-building would not be complete until April 17, 1982, the day Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth II signed the Constitution Act into law, including a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would become an indelible part of Canada’s 21st century identity.
Chapter Five: A Flag for the 21st Century (1982-the present)
What has the red-and-white maple leaf flag come to stand for as we near the end of the first decade of the 21st century? The answer lies in the fascinating series of compromises that have formed the modern state. Canada has always been an experiment in the accommodation of differences, always a country searching for ways that traditional antagonists and former strangers could live peaceably and profitably together. For much of our history, this has meant a delicate political dance between the so-called solitudes of English and French Canada. This experience seems to have prepared us better than almost any other nation to truly welcome the massive waves of immigration
since World War II. We’ve nurtured a society in which pluralism—the richness and variety inherent in cultural diversity—is the primary shared value.