Published in the Montreal Gazette on February 13, 2015
It’s difficult to imagine how, less than a week away from the event, the Harper Government is going to spin the fiftieth anniversary of the first appearance of the Canadian flag atop the federal parliament in Ottawa.
A little under three years ago the same Conservative Administration essentially ignored the thirty-year celebration of the adoption, in April of 1982, of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Speaking on April 12, 2012, during a visit to the Chilean capital of Santiago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expounded how the troublesome nature of the charter’s implementation caused him to back away from observing its anniversary.
That delicate argument does not bode well for any significant commemoration on this February 15 of the new national flag first flying proudly up on the Peace Tower in Ottawa some 50 years earlier. Indeed, if the ratification of the country’s distinctive Canadian flag was anything, it was divisive.
Yet, today, there is little question that the national standard is exceedingly popular amongst Canadians, including a significant majority of Quebecers. In fact, a survey in 2012 by the Association of Canadian Studies revealed that two-thirds of Quebecers considered the Maple Leaf, or unifolié in French, to be either a source of personal or collective pride, or both. The study was fairly extensive, with some 2,207 individuals being interviewed – a relatively high number of participants.
However, the near-universal popularity of the new ensign, particularly in English-speaking Canada, was almost a totally unexpected happening.
As one old enough to recall 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.
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 link.
As is so often the case in government when disagreements abound, an all – party committee was formed to study the issue and submit proposals. 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.
In Canada, in fact, the flag’s acceptance came very quickly, particularly among the young. I recollect just two years after its approval 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 now half a century ago, it would seem that most Canadians have taken a shine to the red and white Maple Leaf standard, as they have as well to the 32-year-old Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Although he eagerly accepts being regularly photographed in front of it, it remains to be seen how Mr. Harper will weave his party’s historic opposition to the flag’s adoption. He has a little less than a week to think about it.
Below, flying proudly at Expo’67, with Canadian Pavilion in the background