Canadian Maple Leaf Flag and how it was brought to fruition

Canadian Maple Leaf Flag and how it was brought to fruition

By Robert J. Harper

A National Flag for Canada was discussed in detail dating back to 1895/96 by heraldry enthusiast Edward M. Chadwick and others. It was suggested again in 1919 after the First World War with input from expert individuals such as Major-General (later Sir) Eugene Fiset. In 1925 our Canadian Government requested formal submissions and designs from all Canadians, but failed to make any final decision. Then again in 1946 our Government addressed the National Flag issue with requests for more public input through design submissions and advice from experts.

In 1956 Lester B. Pearson (Minister of External Affairs) was successful in brokering a deal to end the Suez Canal crisis (of which he won the Nobel Peace Prize). During this work Mr. Pearson offered Canadian soldiers as peace keepers. His offer was rejected based on the simple fact that our soldiers wore a Red Ensign on their shoulder and could be mistaken as British soldiers. Mr. Pearson was so disappointed by this decision he made a promise to himself to work toward the creation of a National Flag for Canada. In 1957 Mr. Pearson became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. In 1960 the Liberal Party of Canada instituted a party policy to create a National Flag for Canada.

In 1961 John Ross Matheson from Brockville Ontario was elected in a by-election and became the Liberal Member of Parliament for Leeds County (now Leeds & Grenville). Mr Matheson had been involved with the study of heraldry, flags, ensigns, colours and coats of arms since 1949 with his good friend George Beley (co-founder of the Heraldry Society of Canada, now the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada) in Brockville Ontario.

Mr. Matheson met with Mr. Pearson on Parliament Hill in July 1961, it was at this meeting Mr. Pearson explained his dream of a National Flag for Canada and asked his newly elected “Flag Expert” to begin working behind the scenes on what it would take to bring a National Flag of Canada to fruition. Mr. Matheson promised to complete the work. From late 1961 through 1963 Mr. Matheson sought out and enlisted the expert advice of historians, heraldry experts, and any previously documented information available to him.

In 1963 the Liberal Party of Canada was elected as the Government of Canada. Prime Minister Lester B Pearson announced that Canada would have its very own National Flag within 2 years. Early in 1964 Mr. Matheson enlisted the services of Alan Beddoe (military artist and heraldry enthusiast ,later, co-founder of the Heraldry Society of Canada) to assist him in the design stage of the flag work. Mr. Matheson travelled to RMC in Kingston to meet with DR. George Stanley who was the Dean of Arts and military historian to ask for his input. It was at this meeting that Dr. Stanley made the suggestion of the basic design of the Maple Leaf Flag (recycled Fiset concept).

The suggestion was based upon the design of the RMC Flag, the colours of the General Services Medal 1866-70 and the suggestion of Major-General (later Sir) Eugene Fiset in 1919 of a “”single red maple leaf on a white field”” as the image for a Canadian National Flag to match the image used on the Canadian Olympic Athletes uniforms since 1904.

Mr. Matheson met with Prime Minister Pearson in early May 1964, he brought along Alan Beddoe to this meeting. Mr. Beddoe (without any prior knowledge of Mr. Matheson) presented his version of a proposed Flag (later dubbed the Pearson Pennant) to Mr. Pearson. Mr. Pearson liked the design and it was soon the subject of extensive ridicule which lead to the beginning of the “Great Flag Debate” in Canada.

In September of 1964 after months of flag debate, Prime Minister Pearson announced the formation of a multi-party Parliamentary Flag Committee who would come up with a design. This committee again called on Canadians to submit  suggestions for the design of a National Flag for Canada. When added to the previous submissions there were more than 5,900 suggestions with over 2,100 which included a maple leaf.

John Ross Matheson continued to work toward his promise to bring a National Flag to fruition and worked on the Flag Committee as the co-ordinator (Flag expert). He worked to ensure the committee would agree on the choice and made a decision to make the single maple leaf design the one which would become the final choice.

Mr. Matheson enlisted a design team from Canadian Government Expositions Commission to refine the single red maple leaf suggestion into what we know today as the Canadian Maple Leaf Flag. This team was made up of Jacques St. Cyr who created the stylised Maple Leaf, George Bist (independent designer) who designed and created the exact proportions of the red bars the white pale and the length as 2 times the height of the Flag so the Maple Leaf could be visible at a distance, and Dr. Gunter Wyszecki (National Research Council of Canada) who determined the exact colours to match the official colours which were given to Canada by King George V in 1921. This team’s work was co-ordinated and overseen by Patrick Reid who worked directly with John Ross Matheson.

There were 3 designs in the final vote (Beddoe’s Pearson Pennant”, a single maple leaf design ensign with a fleur- de- lis in one corner and union jack in the opposite corner) and our Canadian Maple Leaf Flag which was chosen on October 22, 1964 by a unanimous 14-0 vote, this recommendation was sent to Parliament to be voted on.

From October 22, 1964 until November 9th 1964 there were several further refinements to the design by changing the 13 points on the Maple Leaf to 11 and by straightening the stem on the leaf. These changes were created by Jacques St. Cyr, Patrick Reid and John Ross Matheson as the design of our Canadian Maple Leaf Flag we see today. The Great Flag Debate raged on in Parliament from October 29th 1964 until the early morning hours of December 15th 1964 when The House of Commons voted 163 to 78 in favour and our Canadian Maple Leaf Flag became a reality.

This is a document of chronological facts which incorporates the details of the efforts by many, many individuals who worked tirelessly to bring the National Flag of Canada to fruition. One name becomes prominent in this document, John Ross Matheson. Mr. Matheson never sought any special recognition from his work to bring the National Flag of Canada to fruition. He was proud to have been part of the team.

Every team has a leader, a quarterback, someone who just gets the job done. Yes, the “job” was given to him by Lester B. Pearson because Mr. Pearson knew that John Ross Matheson had the knowledge and the integrity to fulfill the promise to bring the National Flag of Canada to fruition. This is how the Canadian Maple Leaf Flag was born 50 years ago, and first raised on February 15th 1965.

This video contains a part of the Flags Heritage Minute, which was produced and provided by Historica Canada. Historica Canada is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to enhancing the awareness of Canadian history and citizenship. This video is made available with the approval of Historica Canada.