The Great Flag Debate

In 1963, Lester Pearson succeeded Diefenbaker and became Canada’s fourteenth Prime Minister. The following year, he proposed replacing the Red Ensign with a flag that would promote national unity. Considering Diefenbaker’s commitment to his vision of promoting “One Canada,” some might think it surprising how passionately he argued against Pearson’s idea. “The Great Canadian Flag Debate,” as it came to be called, split the nation.

It is interesting to note that, even though the Red Ensign was used widely from the time of Confederation until 1965, it was never actually approved as Canada’s national flag. The Union Jack was the official standard of the country and was a symbol of Canada’s membership in the Commonwealth.

“Sir, a flag cannot be created by one man however powerful his position. Flags are born in the strife and turmoil of the clash of history. They are not the result of egocentric decision.”

John Diefenbaker, 1 September 1964

A Tattered Flag: Retiring the Red Ensign

Pearson’s Liberal argued that a new flag would assert Canada’s sovereignty and demonstrate that the nation was no longer a British colony. Those opposing Pearson felt strong attachments to the Red Ensign as an important historic symbol of Canada’s roots. Following a summer of fruitless parliamentary debates, Pearson formed a committee with the mandate to design a new standard.

After receiving thousands of suggestions from Canadians, the committee narrowed the possibilities to three:  the Red Ensign; a second design created by George Stanley with a single red maple leaf on a white background with red bars on both ends; and a flag with three maple leaves and two blue bars on each side (nicknamed the “Pearson Pennant”).

"The Maple Leaf"

Ultimately, Lord Stanley’s design was chosen. The “Maple Leaf” as it was dubbed, was brought to the House of Commons for a vote. Despite last-ditch efforts by the Progressive Conservatives to sway the House, the flag was approved. The new standard was raised over the Parliament Building on 15 February 1965.

Diefenbaker bitterly charged Prime Minister Pearson with having “done more to divide the country than any other prime minister” and he never accepted Canada’s new flag. For his funeral in 1979, his coffin was draped with both the Red Ensign and Canadian Maple Leaf.