Canada’s Fractious Flag Debate of 1964

Top left is the new maple leaf flag, next to the Red Ensign, with the Union Jack on the bottom right. In the bottom left corner is the original maple […]
Published on November 5, 2023

Top left is the new maple leaf flag, next to the Red Ensign, with the Union Jack on the bottom right. In the bottom left corner is the original maple leaf flag proposed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson. Next is a revised version of the same flag, and the third is a design proposed by A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven.

One of the most heated debates in our national history occurred in 1964 over the question of whether Canada should adopt a new flag. The debate was a clash of the old and the young, the innovators versus the traditionalists, and contrasting views of the importance of history. A key milestone on the way to adopting the new flag was marked 59 years ago this week.

As part of the British Empire, the flag of Canada at its 1867 inception was the Union Jack, a combination of three crosses, red, white, and blue representing the national saints of England (St. George), Scotland (St. Andrew), and Ireland (St. Patrick).

By 1868 another banner known as the Canadian Red Ensign was also frequently flown. This was a red flag with a Union Jack in the upper left corner and a shield bearing the coats of arms of the provinces in the lower right section. As new provinces were added that shield became increasingly crowded with crosses, fish, lilies, maple leaves, thistles, trees, wheat sheaves, a sun, lions, a crown, a buffalo, ocean waves, and a boat. Though this flag had no official status, it waved over the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and was proudly carried by Canadian troops in World War I.

In 1922, the Red Ensign’s shield was altered to reflect our coat of arms and featured the three lions of England, the lion rampant of Scotland, the harp of Ireland, and the fleurs-de-lis of France above a sprig of three maple leaves. It was this flag that accompanied the armed forces of Canada in World War II and the Korean War.

By the 1960s, a time of cultural ferment, many Canadians wanted a flag that was distinctly Canadian, one resembling no other nation. An increasingly multicultural country and one in which Quebec separatism was making headway could not be comfortable with so many reminders of a British imperial past. Therefore, in May of 1964, the Liberal government of Lester Pearson proposed that the Red Ensign be dropped and replaced with a flag of the prime minister’s choosing, consisting of three red maple leaves on a white background with thin bars of blue at either side, echoing our national motto, A Mari usque ad Mare (“From Sea to Sea”).

Opposition was instant and fierce, with the new flag derided as the “Pearson Pennant.” Realizing that he had erred in imposing one proposal on Parliament, Pearson engineered a multi-party committee to recommend within six weeks a new design and called for Canadians to submit their suggestions.

Thousands of citizens’ designs flooded into Ottawa, many of them variations on a theme of 10, for the 10 provinces—10 stripes, 10 bars, 10 maple leaves, etc. One disenchanted comedian suggested that the new flag bear the image of nine beavers peeing on a log—the log representing Quebec. Other, more sincere, proposals included stylized northern lights, Canada geese, or interlocking symbols evoking notions of unity.

Meanwhile, led by Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker and veterans’ organizations, opponents of any sort of new flag continued their fight. For them, the fact was that the Red Ensign was old was a virtue, not a drawback. It had been hallowed by time and by the blood shed by those carrying it. It represented historical ties to the founding French and British peoples of the Dominion; it reminded the world that we were a constitutional monarchy with freedoms dating back to the Magna Carta, not some new upstart banana republic.

Such arguments failed to sway Canadian public opinion–this was the Swinging Sixties not the 1860s. The country was about to celebrate its centennial and needed something new and fresh; old crosses and lilies meant nothing to the new generation. Quebec was averse to British symbolism so the Red Ensign had to go. On Oct. 22, 1964, the committee voted 14–0 to adopt a new flag, with two red panels flanking a white square bearing a single red maple leaf.

This was not the end of the battle. Parliament still had to approve the committee’s recommendation, and here Diefenbaker fought a bitter rear-guard action against those who called the traditionalists “chauvinists,” “bigots,” and “colonialists.” The Conservatives launched a filibuster and clogged the operations of the House of Commons, hundreds of lengthy speeches were made, and finally the government invoked closure and forced a vote. At 2:15 in the morning of Dec. 15, the House approved the new flag design by a vote of 163–78. Senate approval and royal assent followed close behind. By Feb. 15, 1965, Canada had a new flag.

In time hard feelings died down. The veterans of long-ago wars died and the new banner was attached to the uniforms of Canadian soldiers fighting in the Balkans or Afghanistan. The Maple Leaf Forever.


Gerry Bowler is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. 

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