The Beginnings of a National Flag

Friday, February 13, 2015

On Sunday, 16 May 1964, Prime Minister Lester Pearson was in Winnipeg speaking to 2000 people at the Royal Canadian Legion.  As Pearson spoke, he was booed and heckled by members of the audience.  What could possibly have riled an audience comprised mostly of veterans?  Pearson, himself a veteran of the First World War, wanted Canada to adopt a new national flag and made his case during this Winnipeg speaking engagement1. At that time, the Canadian Red Ensign was the country’s flag. It was red with the Union Jack in the upper left corner and the Royal Arms of Canada on the right.  


A red flag with the royal union flag in the top left corner and a shield on the right side.


Many believed that this flag should continue to represent Canada and its ties to Great Britain.  The flag that Pearson envisioned would be based on the three red maple leafs on a white background as it appears at the bottom of the Royal Arms of Canada. But more importantly, he wanted a new flag that represented the diversity of the Canadian population2. As he stated in his Royal Canadian Legion speech, 

“Today there are 5 million or more Canadians whose tradition is not inherited from the British Isles but who are descendants of the original French founders of our country.  There are another 5 million or more who have come to Canada from other far-away lands whose heritage is neither British nor French.  I believe that a Canadian flag as distinctive as the maple leaf … will bring … all those Canadians closer to us of British stock and make us all better and more united Canadians.”3

The debate surrounding a new Canadian flag was very heated and emotional, and not everyone was on side with Pearson’s argument for inclusivity.  In the end, however, the modern red and white flag with its single maple leaf was adopted by Parliament and raised for the first time in Ottawa on February 15, 1965.4


A red maple leaf on a white square between two red borders


But what did inclusion mean in 1965?  In his Winnipeg speech, Pearson spoke of immigrants (the British, the French, and those “from other far-away lands”) but was silent on where Indigenous peoples fit in this “new Canada.”5

Canada has made significant progress in expanding the meaning of inclusivity since the mid-1960s, and many of these struggles and achievements are documented in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. 

On this anniversary 50th anniversary of the National Flag, what does the flag symbolize to you?




1 CBC Newsmagazine, CBC, Toronto, Ontario, 19 May 1964, 12 Feb. 2015.

2 CBC Newsmagazine.

CBC Newsmagazine.

National Flag of Canada Day,” Canadian Heritage, 12 Feb. 2015. 

CBC Newsmagazine.

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