The Maple Leaf Forever: our flag at 55

3 minute read

By: Karl Salgo, Executive Director, Public Governance

The 15th of February will mark the 55th birthday of Canada’s beloved national flag, our red and white maple leaf. (Enter Michael Bublé crooning “The Maple Leaf Forever”.)

Perhaps I should say “moderately” beloved, for in characteristic Canadian fashion, we don’t really exhibit intemperate devotion to this piece of polyester fabric. It has yet to inspire either rockets-red-glare, symbol-of-our-nation’s-resilience verse, or the mandatory recitation of a daily pledge by politically innocent school kids. Conversely, neither has it been the object of incendiary protests by arguably less innocent flower children. No, the Maple Leaf waves over Parliament Hill as an agreeable symbol of our reasonable pride in our sensible nation.

As such, the flag has what governance nerds (mea culpa) would call legitimacy. Legitimacy is an important concept in governance. It means, among other things, that we accept certain things even if we don’t necessarily agree with them – like Supreme Court rulings, parliamentary enactments, and certain winners of the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.

In like manner, our flag is more or less universally accepted as a symbol of nationhood by Canadians, including those who rarely see an actual maple tree, who might wonder whether red is associated with any particular political party, or who, for any number of reasons, might believe that they could have come up with something better themselves.

It was not always thus. The 1964 parliamentary debate on a replacement for the Red Ensign, which was adapted from the British Union Jack and had officially been our national flag since 1945, raged on for six months and was one of the most acrimonious in our history. Conservative Leader John Diefenbaker, recently ousted as prime minister and not one to recover quickly from such a slight, fought with thunderous, Old Testament fury for a flag reflective “of Canada’s founding races.” Just whom John George was speaking of, and whether he was being sufficiently inclusive, I set aside for another discussion, but suffice it to say that he wanted to give the canton of honour (the top left-hand corner) to the Union Jack.

In the end, the selection process was turned over to an all-party committee of 15 parliamentarians, who were given six weeks to choose from among 5,000 contenders. They agreed unanimously but almost by accident: Diefenbaker’s Conservatives reportedly voted for what became our flag in part because it hadn’t been Prime Minister Pearson’s first choice, and they assumed that the Liberal members would vote against it.

Would such a decision-making process have legitimacy today?

Those 15 MPs were mostly men with substantial representation from Mr. Diefenbaker’s “founding races”: there was one woman, Margaret Konantz, who was Métis and from Manitoba. To a considerable extent, the flag was a product of its times, and more specifically of the desire to move beyond historic colonial linkages. But as no one who has conspicuously sported it while traipsing in foreign lands can deny, it tells the world we are who we are.

About the author

Karl Salgo

Karl Salgo

Executive Director - Public Governance

As Executive Director of Public Governance, Karl provides advisory services to multiple levels of government (provincial, federal and international) on all aspects of public sector governance, including institutional capacity, the center of government, organizational design and effectiveness, accountability, oversight, and risk management. He also plays a lead role in the IOG's research initiatives, including the work of the Public Governance Exchange, a syndicated, multi-jurisdictional forum for developing and exchanging ideas on public sector governance. Additionally, Karl provides educational services to public servants and appointees on a broad range of subjects, ranging from policy development and MC preparation to political savvy and the operations of government, to the responsibilities of directors in a wide range of public institutions.

A career public servant, Karl has degrees in political science, history and law from the University of Toronto and in public administration from the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. He worked for many years in the federal Department of Finance, in areas as diverse as tax policy, communications and financial markets. In the latter capacity, Karl helped to establish the governance framework for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and later served as Chief of Capital Markets Policy.

From 2004 to 2012, Karl worked in the Privy Council Office’s Machinery of Government Secretariat, where he provided advice to the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister on the organization and structure of the Government of Canada – the Cabinet, portfolios, and the creation, winding-up and governance of individual organizations.

As Director of Strategic Policy from 2007 to 2012, Karl was the secretariat’s lead authority on Crown corporation governance, the conventions of the Westminster system, and the conduct standards applicable to ministers and other senior public office holders. Karl was the author/editor of numerous PCO publications, including Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State and Guidance for Deputy Ministers. Actively involved in realizing the myriad governance and accountability changes that flowed from the Federal Accountability Act, Karl played a lead role in the design and implementation of the accounting officer mechanism of deputy minister accountability.

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