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Canada’s Flag Turns 50

(note: this article was first published 14Feb.2015)

I was 15. I remember mother standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing dishes.  It was her habit to read the Globe and Mail line by line, front to back and, on this occasion, she had been reading about the flag being proposed to replace the Ensign.  There was a tired expression on her face, because, with four sons, she felt the way she looked but I knew she was unhappy at the news that a flag with a red maple leaf, with two red bars on a white background was preferred by the Liberal government to replace a flag that reminded her of the sacrifices she had made during the War and after it.

Mum was a nurse and physiotherapist assigned to Middlesex Hospital during the Battle of Britain.  Dad, born on a farm in Grimsby Ontario, learned to fly and, like the rest of his generation, travelled to Britain as a volunteer.  Dad joined the RAF and served every day of the War.  He was a navigator on Lancaster and Sterling bombers, shot down three times, and met mother during one of his recuperations.

The Union Jack on the Ensign brought memories flooding back when she saw it in the newspaper.  The idea that it would be ‘replaced,’ as if her memories could be replaced must have seemed thoughtless, even cruel.

It didn’t ruffle dad’s feathers.  He seemed to take it in stride.  He seldom talked about politics, so the fact that the flag debate dragged on for months must have been unremarkable.  He didn’t talk much about his war experiences either.  His medals were placed under his socks in a drawer.  He never wore them, even on Remembrance Day.  Dad was much older, with Parkinson’s Disease, when we realised that he was a War hero, in the best sense of that term, not the way it is used these days, too freely and too often.

I mention this because, for mum and perhaps other war brides, they left their homeland, for which so many sacrifices had been made, and claimed this country as theirs.  When they looked at the Ensign, they remembered families, lost relatives and friends, and so many lives spent in desperate times. Canada’s new flag, with its history stripped from it, seemed too simple, too trivial to represent what they had lived.

Mum was unhappy about the loss of the Ensign. She felt adrift.  She adapted to the new flag and learned to appreciate it’s simplicity, but her former life overseas often occupied her thoughts.  The new flag didn’t really flutter in her estimation.  I was sympathetic to the price she had paid, so memories of the flag debates, the design competition, and the selection remain with me.  I am sorry that the heritage of the British connection was lost which explains my continuing preference for the Ensign.

February 15th 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Flag.  There are people who can remember the inauguration of the Maple Leaf.  It wasn’t universally appreciated at first.  The National Post (13Feb.2015) published images of some of the flags that had been submitted as suggested designs.  Below the pictures, there are several comments that deserve thoughtful reflection.

Upper Canadian

While I like our new flag, I see nothing wrong with the Red Ensign. I also have trouble with how willfully a part of our heritage was just cheaply discarded.

Dennis Galon  

Agreed. Unlike Upper Canadian, I am ancient, and was a young adult at the time of the debate. As I recall the political discussion, the fundamental issue was the Conservative (Diefenbaker) insistence on our British heritage to the detriment of all else versus the Liberal (Pearson) insistence on something distinctively Canadian that dominated. If the examples presented here are representative, then it seems to me that the Diefenbaker thinking was largely rejected either by insisting on combining British allusions with French allusions, or my proposing something distinctive.

At the time, my personal preference was the current maple leaf on red, but with blue stripes at either end, because of the fit with our national motto (A Mari Usque Ad Mare/From Sea to Sea/D’un océan à l’autre). Now I am delighted that nobody cared what I thought–not only does Pacific to Atlantic ignore the ever more important Arctic; but the simplicity of the chosen two colour design is, IMHO, aesthetically superior. The stylized maple leaf, versus a realistic leaf, is, IMHO a significant contributor to the aesthetic appeal complementing the simplicity of two colours.

One way to judge the effectiveness of the design, is the relative ease with which the Canadian flag stands out in a sea of flags. I would be willing to bet that our flag is correctly associated with Canada world wide more so than the flags of similarly prominent nations.

For something that truly was concocted in committee, the end product, IMHO, is a vindication of the process; a wonderful example of the idea that committees sometimes produce something far better than anemic compromise.

As a Westerner in my heart, who has long lived in Ontario, I find the notion that the Maple Leaf is more an Eastern than Western thing, expressed by LoneCynic, an unusual thought. Not only is the Maple tree found across Canada, but prior to 1965, it was widely used unofficially as a Canadian symbol.

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Professional. Retired. Canadian.

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