Society

The history and controversy behind the Canadian flag

Before the Canadian flag became what it is now, over six months of bitter fighting for the country’s symbolic identity ensued

On Feb. 15, 1965, the current Canadian flag designed by George Stanley was officially raised for the world to see.      

To this day, the flag sports a large red maple leaf centred on a white background with two red vertical ‘seas’ on either side. These ‘seas’ resemble the motto “Canada, from sea to sea,” to mark the country’s east and west coastlines. 

According to the government of Canada website, the use of red and white symbolizes the bridging of English and French history. As for the famous maple leaf, it has historically been a cultural icon and one of Canada’s largest natural resources. 

But this design didn’t come without long controversy and debate. It was a national issue known to be one of Canada’s worst and ugliest political debates that lasted around 40 years. It only came to an end by accident because of a voting fluke.

The flag continues to raise debates today. For Indigenous and racialized people, it’s supposed semblance of unity might not accurately acknowledge that Canada is built on stolen Indigenous land. 

Since the discovery of  Indigenous children’s unmarked graves at former residential schools, many Canadians feel that proudly raising the flag for national holidays such as Canada Day would be tone deaf to the ongoing violence against Indigenous Peoples. Canadian flags have reportedly been stolen from people’s homes, sparking discussion on what the flag really represents.

The great flag debate

In 1963, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson proposed a new formal flag be made to best suit all cultures and heritages of people who live in Canada and did not limit representation to the British and French. In a YouTube video showcasing his speech, this pitch was met with resounding cries and boos of disagreement from the crowd.

Despite these cries, the former prime minister pushed on. “I believe that a Canadian flag as distinctive as the maple leaf will bring all of us closer, and make us better and more united Canadians,” Pearson said.

However, his plan backfired and was met with deeply divided opinions. Many wanted to retain the Red Ensign, Canada’s previous informal flag that shared symbols with flags flown by British merchant ships and boasted royal colonial rule. 

Pearson’s predecessor John Diefenbaker dismissed Pearson’s maple leaf idea, wanting a flag built on “Canada’s founding races”—mainly, this meant British. He critiqued Pearson for dividing the country more than any other prime minister. 

But Pearson wanted a compromise that could include all, while dissociating the flag from Canada’s violent past of colonialism. At a time where there was political tension with Quebec due to divisive attempts in which the Parti Québécois advocated for independence from Canada, Pearson aimed for a new flag that could prevent any more risks to Canadian unity. 

The flag design ‘fluke’

Over 5,900 flag designs were submitted and a 15 member committee made up of five Conservatives, seven Liberals, one  New Democrat, a Social Crediter  and one Créditiste member were given six weeks to make a decision. It came down to two flags: the Pearson Pennant, proposed by Liberal MP Matheson, and historian George Stanley’s design. 

Pearson’s flag closely resembled Stanley’s, but featured two navy blue seas instead of red and standing against a white background were three maple leaves. This design was inspired by the colours in the coat of arms of Canada, featuring English, French and Scottish symbols. 

Most conservatives assumed that the liberals would vote for the Pearson Pennant, and so voted for Stanley’s flag instead. But the opposite happened—the majority of liberal members voted for Stanley’s design as well. On Oct. 22, 1964, the red and white Canadian flag created by Stanley became official. 

Raising the flag 

While the current national flag debate is seemingly over, the meaning behind the flag—which aims to symbolize inclusivity—is seen as hypocritical by some Canadians because the government has been slow to respond to the significant trauma placed upon Indigenous Peoples. 

In a Times Colonist article, writer Trevor Hancock proposed that another design change be discussed to properly acknowledge the Indigenous nations and their land.

On the other hand, Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association Canada and a member of the Mi’Kmaq Nation, shared in an email interview with Youth Mind that a change of flags should not be the focus.

Although the Canadian flag has replaced the harmful symbol of the Union Jack—a British symbol used in colonial rule—Whitman said that changing the flag to include better representation would not do anything for the years of harm that the colonial structure has brought upon the country.

“It would not change the economic circumstances that leave so many Indigenous women in poverty. It would not reduce the number of us who are murdered or missing,” wrote Whitman. “It would not end discrimination in healthcare. It would not improve education on the reserves or bring nutritious food to the Arctic, or force Canada to settle land claims.” 

When it comes to celebrating national holidays like Canada Day, Whitman wrote that young Canadians from immigrant families have much to celebrate coming from a line of descendants that wanted better for their family. But for Indigenous women, she said that there will be no reason to celebrate until true reconciliation ensures the lives of First Nations Peoples.

For now, everyone has a mission in healing and Whitman advised that one of the first steps is education. 

“Educate yourselves and pledge that you will do everything you can to create equality and to end discrimination and racism and colonialism wherever you see it.”

About the author

Reporter at Youth Mind

Rebecca Benitez-Berona is a reporter at Youth Mind. She is passionate about social justice, creative writing, reading poetry and youth mental health. When she is not writing, she is exploring nature or trying out yet another new bubble tea shop.

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