In Conversation with Rod Matheson
Social Media & Outreach Editor Zach Parrott interviews Rod Matheson for The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Rod Matheson, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Forces, is the son of John Ross Matheson, a member of parliament who played a decisive role in developing the National Flag of Canada in the mid-1960s. Rod Matheson remembers.
ZP: How old were you when your father was working on the flag?
RM: I was between five and seven years of age during the years 1963–1965, when my father became intensely involved in the flag development.
ZP: Thousands of Canadians submitted designs to the all-party flag committee in 1964. Did you or any of your siblings submit a design?
RM: I was the fifth of six kids and although my older siblings were between two and 10 years older, I do not believe that they had any flag suggestions. I know that my older brother, Duncan, remembers accompanying my dad as he travelled to Royal Military College of Canada to chat with and seek Dr. Stanley’s involvement and support for the flag.
I also remember that during the very charged months of the flag debate that people would fly mini versions of their favourite proposed flags on their car radio antennae (similar to people today flying flags of their favourite hockey team). The biggest issue was that Mr. Diefenbaker promised to thwart any Liberal attempt at bringing about a new Canadian flag — and particularly the proposed flag nicknamed the “Pearson Pennant.” This ensured the debate was in effect total political war.
ZP: Do you have any other memories of the time?
RM: As a young boy I became more and more conscious of the tense political climate, even in a small town like Brockville, Ontario. My father was championing, on behalf of Mr. Pearson and the Liberal Party, a promise to create Canada’s own flag in time to celebrate Canada’s Centennial in 1967.
Brockville and Leeds county constituency was traditionally Tory, and so my dad as a Liberal representative was really causing a stir. The political tensions were manifested in school ground scraps in later years, as I was compelled to defend my father’s honour. I also remember how enthusiastic and excited my father and our household were. We somehow knew that this issue was of great consequence.
ZP: Did the flag legacy follow you in your military career?
RM: My father and I were both Gunners (Artillery Officers) in the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] and had many friends who all seemed very interested in the story of the Canadian flag. Many people knew us and the connection to the flag. The military, of all Canadian institutions, has perhaps the closest connection to the flag. Both Dad and I have had the honour to relay the stories of the flag to hundreds of Canadian and international military friends over the past 50 years.
I always felt that I had a special connection to the flag that I wore on my military uniform.
ZP: What do you think of when you see the flag?
RM: Canada, and being truly Canadian. The flag hit the mark — it is a most distinct and beautiful symbol of being Canadian and it symbolizes that message around the world. I am exceptionally proud of being Canadian and feel as though all Canadians have won the lottery of life.
ZP: One could argue that your father brought everything together in the flag committee, would he have agreed with that characterization?
RM: My father was fortunate to have been chosen by Prime Minister Pearson (for whom my father had immense respect) to be the “lead” on the flag project. It gave Dad an incredibly exciting and historic role and he took on the challenge like a bulldog. Mr. Pearson had wanted my father to be the chairman of the all-party flag committee, but Dad proposed that he would be more effective championing the flag if he were not required to be judicious in the chairman’s role but able to “work” the flag agenda as a committee member.
Dad was the “great facilitator” of the flag debate. The work from previous attempts to create a Canadian flag [in 1925 and 1945] was distilled by historians, heraldic experts and artists in an effort to discover the most correct combination of symbols, colours and dimensions. Dad briefed the Prime Minister on the trials and tribulations of this most controversial political issue. He also “worked” the political offices necessary to gain consensus and vote the flag into existence.
Prime Minister Pearson was quoted in a Time magazine article in 1965 referring to John Matheson's role in bringing the flag to fruition: “Here's the man who had more to do with it than any other.”
ZP: What do you think about those who try to claim the flag was the product of one person, whether your father, George Stanley, or someone else?
RM: No one person is the father of the flag. Dad and Dr. Stanley played roles in the final chapter in bringing the flag to fruition. Dr. Stanley's opinion was sought due to his position as dean of arts at RMC. Nevertheless, without the work and enthusiasm of many Canadians who were devoted to finding the flag, we would not have our wonderful national symbol. The flag is a result of many loving hands.
Lester B. Pearson was the true hero of the Canadian flag. He took huge political and personal risk to search for the unifying symbol of a maturing and exciting Canada.
ZP: The city of Brockville claims to be the "Birthplace of the Canadian Flag," reasoning that Matheson was MP for the greater county when the flag was being developed. What are your thoughts?
RM: I acknowledge Brockville’s desire to be part of the great flag story. During the 1960s, Brockville was our home town. But I would avoid the concept of a “birthplace” of the Canadian flag. The flag is the spirit and expression of being Canadian. The flag represents everywhere in Canada and Canada everywhere in the world.
John Ross Matheson, Canada’s Flag (1986)
G.F.G. Stanley, The Story of Canada's Flag (1965)