Published in the Montreal Gazette on February 15, 2013

When Stephen Harper and Pauline Marois finally agreed to hold separate news conferences at Levis on February 1 immediately following a common infrastructure investment announcement, many noticed, when Marois took the microphone, the rapid disappearance of the two Canadian flags that had earlier accompanied two Quebec fleurdelisé on the podium.

 

Once again, the Quebec premier may be in denial without being in Egypt!

 

Indeed, there is little question that the national standard is exceedingly popular amongst Canadians, including a significant majority of Quebecers. In fact, a recent survey by the Association of Canadian Studies reveals that two-thirds of Quebecers consider the Maple Leaf, or unifolié in French, to be either a   source of personal or collective pride, or both. The research was fairly extensive, with some 2,207 individuals being interviewed – a relatively high number of participants.

 

In the rest of Canada, the figure of satisfaction with regard to our red and white banner reaches an astonishing ninety percent. (“Majority of Quebecers proud of the Maple Leaf”, Gazette, November 29, 2012, page A-15). In short, Quebecers and other Canadians are by and large delighted with our national flag.

 

 

However, the near-universal popularity of the ensign, particularly in English-speaking Canada, was almost a totally   unexpected happening.

 

As one old enough to remember the Great Flag Debate of 1964, I can attest to the fact that the discourse was both acrimonious and divisive. Among other events, it saw Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson openly heckled and booed as he tried to present, and defend, his new flag initiative to a packed Royal Canadian Legion meeting in Winnipeg. However, Pearson, the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize winner and a World War I veteran himself, stood his ground.

 

The federal authority had sensed  pressure to move in the direction of a distinctive Canadian standard   ever since the Quebec Legislature adopted the fleurdelisé as our own provincial flag in 1948. Maurice Duplessis, the then premier of the province, had regularly baited Ottawa to adopt a truly unique Canadian ensign, failing which, he said, he would find one for Quebec.

 

In English Canada, the idea of a new particular national banner was a difficult sell. As a French Canadian, Louis St. Laurent (Liberal Prime Minister, 1948-1957) felt in no position to advance such an idea while his immediate successor, Conservative John Diefenbaker (1957-1963), was opposed outright to the very thought of changing any aspect to our then British connection.

 

In 1964, at the beginning of the parliamentary deliberations, Pearson proposed a design consisting of three red maple leaves on one stem in the centre and two relatively small blue vertical borders at each end, the latter representing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The curious motif proved highly contentious with opponents disparaging it as ‘Pearson’s Pennant’. Nevertheless, it was introduced into Parliament on June 15 of that same year but the debate got nowhere.

 

As is so often the case in government when disagreements abound, an all – party committee was formed to study the issue and submit recommendations. It was this same 15 – member committee that produced the flag we know today.

 

The final vote took place in the House of Commons on December 15, 1964, at 2:00 in the morning. With the exception of a few francophone party members, the Conservatives voted as a block against its adoption while the Liberals and NDP supported it.

 

The new flag was first raised on Parliament Hill in front of a teary-eyed Leader of the Opposition, John Diefenbaker, on February 15, 1965. And, as is so often said, the rest is history.

 

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Not that long ago, I found myself walking on a beautiful beach on the Italian Riviera. At the head of the beach, near the lifeguard’s chair, flew proudly, and quite alone, a rather large Canadian Maple Leaf.

 

I stopped and, with my limited Italian, asked him why it was there. He said that he had recently visited Canada, falling in love with both the country and our flag. In Canada, in fact, the flag’s acceptance came very quickly, particularly among the young. I remember just two years after its adoption the enormous Maple Leaf that flew so strikingly outside the Canadian Pavilion at Expo’67 and how visitors anxiously wanted to be photographed within its sight.

 

Notwithstanding a bitter debate nearly a half century ago, it would seem that most Canadians have taken a shine to the unifolié, including now a majority who sit in Quebec’s Parliament. Madame Marois should take note.

(below, the ‘Unifolie’ flying proudly in Monterosso al Mare in Liguria, Italy)

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