Canadian Flag Day

Canadian Flag Day

By Robert Hawkes

We celebrate Canadian Flag Day on February 15 each year, but I imagine most of us do not think too much about it. You may wonder why we celebrate the flag on February 15 – it is because that was the day the flag was first officially flown.

How the design of the Canadian flag was chosen from many competing submissions is an interesting story.

Until the 1960s Canada used the Red Ensign, a flag strongly linked to the flag of Great Britain. In 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, a strong advocate for an independent Canada, introduced a bill to find a new Canadian flag. The flag debate lasted 15 days in Parliament and was one of the most emotional and longest debates in the history of the institution.

The flag issue was politically divisive, and an all-party committee was struck to try to find a consensus position. The committee got advice from experts as well as proposals from Canadians of all ages from every part of the country. A large committee room in Ottawa soon became filled with thousands and thousands of suggestions, sketches, letters, position papers, models, and more. These ranged from children’s crayon sketches to a submission from Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson. These submissions have been preserved in the Library and Archives Canada.

Before moving to James Bay, we lived in the small town of Sackville, NB, and the story of the Canadian flag was well known there. The creator of the flag design, the late Dr. George F.G. Stanley, started and ended his career at Mount Allison University in Sackville. He lived in retirement in Sackville and even very late in life answered countless letters from children about the Canadian flag.

While the majority of flag designs submitted to the parliamentary committee featured maple leaves, the details varied extensively. Prime Minister Pearson himself preferred a three maple leaf design with blue bars on either side.

John Matheson, a member of the flag committee, worked tirelessly to find consensus on a new flag design. It turns out he was friends with Dr. George Stanley, who was then teaching at Royal Military College in Kingston. On a visit to Kingston they discussed the flag, and shortly thereafter Dr. Stanley submitted a four-page brief and sketch for what was to become the Canadian flag design.

The heart of Dr. Stanley’s argument for the design is encapsulated in this quote from his submission: “The single leaf has the virtue of simplicity; it emphasizes the distinctive Canadian symbol; and suggests the idea of loyalty to a single country.” He argued that the design chosen should not in any way include English or French symbols. Use of maple products went back to first nations. Although Canada did not have its own flag, the maple leaf symbol had been used by Canadian Olympic teams and soldiers for many decades prior to the flag debate.

George Stanley liked the bold design with the red bars on either side the same colour as the single maple leaf, rather than invoking another colour in the flag. The shade of red was deliberately chosen to be distinctly different from that in both the British and United States flags. A government artist later reduced the number of points on the maple leaf in the flag to make it appear better when in motion.

Just before the final debate to choose the Canadian flag, Prime Minister Pearson secretly wanted a flag to fly privately so that he could see how it looked in the wind. After hours one Friday evening, Joan O’Malley, the 20 year old daughter of civil servant Ken Donovan, using her personal sewing machine sewed together the first Canadian flag in an Ottawa warehouse.

Each February 15 residents of Sackville adorn the Dr. George Stanley tombstone in the Sackville cemetery with Canadian flags in honour of his many contributions to Canada, in particular the design of our flag. The town also named a street in his honour.

On February 15 display your Canadian flag with pride, and remember the people who worked together to make our flag a reality.

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