They started with some 5,900 design submissions, but when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s flag committee handed the controversial red maple leaf on white with red bars to Parliament for consideration in late 1964, the symbol and colours on the prospective flag were no new invention.
In fact, the white and red have centuries-old ties to French and English cultures, respectively, and had originally (officially) been brought together in Canada on the General Service Medal issued by Queen Victoria in 1899 to Imperial and Canadian servicemen who had helped stifle the Fenian Raids and Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion. Red and white became Canada’s national colours in 1921, when King George V declared the country’s coat of arms.
The coat of arms also incorporated both red and green sugar maple leaves. That particular foliage had been proposed as a formal national symbol in Canada at least as early as 1834, when Ludger Duvernay founded the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste — for preserving French Canadian language and culture — and they took the leaf as their national emblem. Eventually, through the First and Second World Wars, the maple leaf was sported by many Canadian soldiers, stitched into their regimental badges and stamped on equipment.
Until 1965, though, the unofficial but widely used flag of Canada was the Red Ensign. It was British to the core, but also suited Canadian nationalists much better than the official Union Jack (which still took up the ensign’s entire top-left quarter) simply because it was not the Jack and they had no other option. The Red Ensign was Britain’s marine flag, and according to C.P. Champion in The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-68,had been flown in Canada on Hudson’s Bay Company posts since Prince Rupert authorized it in 1682. Sir John A. MacDonald was fond of flying it, though Sir Wilfrid Laurier took it down in 1904 and sent the Union Jack back up. The shield on the ensign changed over the years as provinces came into Confederation, and in 1922 adopted instead the shield from the Royal Coat of Arms.
In the gruelling 1964 quest for a national flag, the red-and-white and maple leaf motifs found their way onto numerous submissions from organizations and citizens across Canada — notably the Pearson Pennant (the PM’s own design), which used the more traditional three-leaf design seen on the coat of arms, sided by blue strips that represented the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Pearson was determined to give Canadians a distinct flag that didn’t advertise clear-cut ties to Britain — and pushed for his own simple tri-leaf draft, which still used the Imperial red, white and blue, as a means of inspiring greater national unity. At least at the time, his vision had the opposite effect. John Diefenbaker, head of the Conservative opposition, continued to fight ferociously for a flag that explicitly showed the country’s British heritage: for him, the only reasonable option was the Red Ensign. In French Canada, meanwhile, the flag debate roused little enthusiasm; Pierre Trudeau noted that “Quebec does not give a tinkers dam about the new flag, it’s a matter of complete indifference.”
Pearson’s very democratic multi-party flag committee favoured the single maple leaf category (the other two groups were for reworkings of the Red Ensign and multiple leaves), but even the one-leaf designs came in an array of different styles and colours. And for many of the Liberals, New Democrats, old nationalists and a new generation of post-war Canadians, even the pairing of the Union Jack and Fleur-de-lis did not quite represent Canada. As Pierre Sévigny, the former Progressive-Conservative MP for Longueuil, said at the time, “Neither the … Union Jack nor the Fleur-de-lis can be accepted as national emblems by more than a minority of Canadians.” Canada needed, and would get, a symbol all its own.
The new Canadian flag used a shade of scarlet darker than the red of Britain’s Union Jack and lighter than that in America’s stars and stripes. It had to be recognizable from great distances, suggesting the classic shape of the sugar maple even while flapping in high winds. While an anatomically correct sugar maple leaf has 23 points, Ottawa artist and heraldry expert Alan Beddoe’s original design — based on the vision of George Stanley, dean of arts for Canada’s Royal Military College, and guided by Liberal MP John Matheson — had 13 points, but was soon re-stylized and simplified to have the current 11 points by Department of Expositions designer Jacques St. Cyr.
The Red Ensign was lowered on February 15, 1965, and the first official Canada flag was raised to the cheers of thousands gathered at Parliament Hill. It’s said that the flag used that day disappeared mysteriously after the ceremony, but nevertheless, the country had its maple leaf at last, a simple symbol with the potential to unite all Canadians.