The Maple Leaf flag turns 50

January 30, 2015

The Maple Leaf flag has served as a distinctively Canadian symbol since February 15, 1965, when it was first raised on Parliament Hill. To mark this 50th anniversary, the Canadian Museum of History presents a display exploring the flag’s origins and the controversy surrounding its creation.

From February 6 until July 5, 2015, visitors will have a chance to see five mock-ups of early flags designs, as well as photographs and artifacts that illustrate the social and political context of what became known as the Great Flag Debate.

“Many Canadians are not aware that our modern flag is only 50 years old or that it provoked such a passionate discussion,” says Forrest Pass, historian and curator.

While the British Union Jack was our official flag until 1945, Canada had flown various versions of the Red Ensign since Confederation. But that banner, featuring a small Union Jack and the Canadian coat of arms, was similar to many other flags across the British Empire.

Demands for a uniquely Canadian flag surfaced as early as the 1890s, but were overruled by fears that adopting distinctive national symbols would weaken Canada’s ties to Great Britain. That changed with the Second World War.

“As Canadians found a new self-confidence, they began making significant attempts to foster a distinct national identity and to distance themselves from symbols of the British Empire,” Pass says. “For example, the CBC began playing O Canada as well as God Save the Queen at the beginning and end of the broadcast day.”

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, elected in 1963, promised to introduce a new flag that would promote national unity and represent Canadians of non-British stock. In early 1964, he unveiled his preferred design, a white flag with the three red maple leaves flanked by blue stripes. The “Pearson Pennant” proved so unpopular that the government struck an all-party committee to consider a new flag.

After reviewing 2,000 proposals, the committee endorsed a red and white flag with a single maple leaf. That design, with minor modifications, made its official debut in 1965, ending the Great Flag Debate.

The prototypes were entrusted to the National Collection in the 1960s but have never been exhibited. Now, the public will have a chance to see them just in time to celebrate the flag’s 50th birthday.

“The Maple Leaf represents aspects of Canadian heritage while meeting the highest standards of design,” Pass says. “Its symmetrical motif is unique, visible at a distance and instantly recognizable. This display shows how Canadians reached that final compromise — how our iconic symbol evolved from the “Pearson Pennant” to the flag we now affix to backpacks and fly at the cottage.”

Image: Collage of the 11-point leaf, designed by artist Jacques St-Cyr. This is probably the first depiction of the flag as we know it today.
© Canadian Museum of History