The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.
Prime Minister Lester Pearson and John Matheson, one of his Liberal Members of Parliament, are widely considered the fathers of the Canadian flag. Their names were front and centre in 2015 during the tributes and celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the flag’s creation. But the role played by George Stanley is often lost in the story of how this iconic symbol came to be.
George Stanley was an eminent historian and one-time lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick. During the great flag debate of 1964, he was dean of arts at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. Stanley was also a friend of Matheson. The MP for nearby Leeds, Matheson was an influential member of an all-party parliamentary committee tasked with choosing a new flag.
On 23 March 1964, Stanley wrote to Matheson. He outlined his ideas for what the flag should represent and what it should look like. At the end of his now historic letter, he sketched the first-ever representation of what would become the chosen flag. It was a six-centimetre-long, hand-drawn rectangle in red ink, with red bars on each side. In the middle on a white background, was a single maple leaf.
The committee was by then inundated with suggestions for a new flag from across the country. (See also: Flag of Canada: Alternate Designs.) Conservative Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker and thousands of war veterans opposed any change to the status quo. The vets had fought for Canada under the old Red Ensign. It featured the Union Jack and the Canadian coat of arms. Diefenbaker also favoured a flag showing the symbols of Canada’s “founding races.” Pearson was fond of a design by heraldry expert Alan Beddoe. The “Pearson Pennant,” as it was dubbed, featured three maple leaves on a white background with vertical blue bars on either side, representing “From sea to sea.”
But no design was as straightforward and elegant as Stanley’s. His proposal also avoided any reference to founding races, the colonial past, or any other source of potential controversy. This was deemed especially important at the time. Quebec nationalism was on the rise in the midst of the Quiet Revolution, and the FLQ was placing bombs in mailboxes. One of Pearson’s aims in adopting a new flag was to remove symbols, such as the Red Ensign, that inflamed Quebec nationalists and threatened Canadian unity.
In his letter to Matheson, Stanley said that a new flag “must avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are of a divisive nature.” He also wrote that the “single leaf has the virtue of simplicity; it emphasizes the distinctive Canadian symbol; and suggests the idea of loyalty to a single country.”
Stanley’s inspiration had come from the Royal Military College flag. It features two red vertical stripes bookending a white centre on which an armoured fist holds three maple leaves beneath a royal crown. Stanley simply replaced the centre elements with a stylized maple leaf.
A more professional drawing of Stanley’s crude sketch was eventually made by the graphic artist Jacques Saint-Cyr of the Canadian Government Exhibition Commission. Matheson asked him to incorporate one small change: inspired by a similar design by George Bist, he asked that the centre white section be a square flanked by two red bars, rather than having all three sections equal in size. Saint-Cyr’s final draft of Stanley’s design was included among the many submissions being considered by the committee, which had become deadlocked on the matter. As pressure mounted, Stanley’s design won out. This was partly thanks to Matheson’s backing, but also because of its simplicity. It afforded a compromise between those who wanted the Pearson Pennant and those who favoured either more complicated designs or the Red Ensign.
Parliament approved the Stanley flag on 15 December 1964 by a vote of 163 to 78. Immediately after the vote, Matheson wrote a postcard to Stanley, saying, “Your proposed flag has just now been approved by the Commons 163 to 78. Congratulations. I believe it is an excellent flag that will serve Canada well.” The new flag was officially run up a government flag pole in Ottawa on 15 February 1965.
Stanley’s March 1964 letter to Matheson, with its conceptual drawing, somehow ended up in the papers of Alan Beddoe. He had designed the discarded Pearson Pennant. The sketch was apparently lost to history for several decades. Its whereabouts was unknown until a researcher named Glenn Wright stumbled across it in a cardboard box of documents at the National Archives in Ottawa. “When I turned the page and saw that sketch, it was very emotional,” Wright told Ottawa Citizen reporter Randy Boswell, who wrote about Wright’s discovery in 2002. “This is certainly the genesis of the Canadian flag.”
The main players in the flag saga are now gone. Pearson died in 1972, Saint-Cyr in 1996, Stanley in 2002 and Matheson in 2013. But what they created has lasted for more than half a century and counting. It has flown from the top of the Peace Tower and from thousands of public and private buildings across the country, from embassies around the world and at Olympic medal ceremonies.
The Stanley flag is now a universally recognized Canadian symbol. As Boswell pointed out in his article: “’A flag,’ [Stanley] would later write, ‘speaks for the people of a nation or community. It expresses their rejoicing when it is raised on holidays or special occasions. It expresses their sorrow when it flies at half-mast. It honours those who have given their services to the state when it is draped over their coffins. It silently calls all men and women to the service of the land in which they live. It inspires self-sacrifice, loyalty and devotion.’”