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The Great Canadian Flag Debate

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        The adoption of a new Canadian flag merited vigorous debate due to the history of our flags, the desire for a new flag by a majority of Canadians, and controversy over the design of the new flag.  During Lester B. Pearson’s 1963 election campaign, he promised that Canada would have a new national flag within two years of his being elected Prime Minister.  He would beat former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who strongly opposed the idea of adopting a new flag.  The majority of Canadians wanted a new flag, but were unsure of the design that would best represent them as a country.  They came to a resolution after a vote was taken December 16, 1964, on changing the flag or keeping the Canadian Red Ensign.  The outcome of this vote would be crucial in creating the national identity we value today.

        Canada was represented by several flags long before the Great Canadian Flag Debate. Canada as a colony and dominion was represented by royal flags, including the flag of France, the Cross of St. George, and several versions of the Royal Union Flag.  The 1801 version of the Royal Union Flag, or Union Jack, was used primarily before confederation.  The Union Jack, the national flag of the United Kingdom, would take a smaller role here following confederation when Canada chose to be represented by the Canadian Red Ensign in 1868.  The design of the Canadian Red Ensign is a Red Ensign that features the Canadian Coat of arms on the right hand side of the flag.  Both the Royal Union Flag and Canadian Red Ensign were used up until 1945 with few complaints.

Following World War II, William Lyon Mackenzie King showed interest in changing flags to one that was distinctively Canadian.  The flag recommended to him was also a Red Ensign, but instead of the Canadian coat of arms, there was a gold maple leaf.  Because of this, he lost interest and the topic went away until 1958 with the taking of the August Gallup Poll, a poll conducted by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion (CIPO) to determine public opinion on political, social and economic questions.  During this survey, CIPO asked the public’s opinion on changing the Canadian flag.  The results showed that over 80% of people wanted a national flag completely different from any other flag, and 60% wanted their flag to feature a maple leaf.  This poll, which revealed a desire from Canadians to adopt a new flag, set the stage for the changing of the Canadian flag.  In 1960, Pearson, the leader of the official opposition at that time, recommended that the government, headed by Diefenbaker, should establish a new flag. Diefenbaker declined the recommendation, which is why changing the flag was on Pearson’s 1963 election platform.  Canadians’ desire to change flags was evident at this point in time, but they were still largely undecided in terms of the design, which is one of the reasons vigorous debate was so necessary.

Lester B. Pearson’s goal was to unite Canadians with a unique flag that we could call our own, but the flag issue divided Canada in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  In large part, this was because of the design that would be chosen for the new flag.  The House of Commons discussed and debated changing the flag over the course of the summer with no resolution found.  A special flag committee with representatives from all parties was assembled on September 14, 1964, by Pearson to produce a flag within six weeks.  Following the creation of this committee, Canadians were invited to submit their ideas for a new flag.  Approximately 5,900 entries were sent to Ottawa, with the majority of these bearing a maple leaf.  Other common elements included Union Jacks, beavers, and fleur-de-lis.  Canadians were deeply divided on the issue, with many, including the Royal Canadian Legion, wanting a Union Jack to remain linked to our British roots, while others wanted a fleur-de-lis to remain linked to our French roots.  The flag the committee chose for the House of Commons to vote on was the design by historian George Stanley.  Stanley’s flag featured a single maple leaf in the middle flanked by two red bars.  The vote was taken on December 15, 1964, and ended 163-78 in favor of changing the flag to George Stanley’s version.  The House of Commons would also vote to continue the use of the Royal Union Flag to appease the Royal Canadian Legion and others who wanted the use of the Union Jack.  Canadians were relieved to have their own flag, and also to have the debate done with, and Pearson managed to keep his campaign promise to have a new Canadian flag by the Centennial in 1967.  Although it was a long and ugly process, with many people ending up unhappy, it was important that the government was meticulous in the process of changing the flag.

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