The Maple Leaf Forever: our flag at 55 - Institute on Governance

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.

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