The simple sketch that created our 'unifying symbol'
A letter by a historian that is the 'genesis of the Canadian flag' has
miraculously surfaced after disappearing 38 years ago
Friday, February 15, 2002
In a reading room at the
National Archives, Glenn
Wright opened a
cardboard box and lifted
from the stack of papers a
neatly typed, four-page
letter, yellowed by time
and marked "Confidential."
What he held in his hands,
researcher recalls, "was
just unbelievable. I wasn't
expecting to find this. I
The letter, dated March
23, 1964, was written by
George Stanley, an
historian and dean of arts
at the Royal Military
College in Kingston. He
would go on to become
the lieutenant-governor of
New Brunswick -- where
he still lives with his wife
at age 94 -- and earn
acclaim as "Canada's
Mr. Stanley's letter was
addressed to John
Matheson, today an
84-year-old retired judge
in Kingston, back then a
Liberal MP from Brockville
who had emerged as
then-prime minister Lester
B. Pearson's pointman on
the government's most
explosive issue: the
promised adoption of a
new and distinctive
To say the idea was
adequately capture the
mood of that time. Even
before Mr. Pearson's
pledge to replace the Red
Ensign, a makeshift
banner adapted from the
Union Jack, members of
the Royal Canadian Legion
were organizing a national
campaign to stop anyone
who might try to discard
the country's most visible
symbolic link to Britain.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, the
mailbox bombs of
had already transformed
the Quiet Revolution into
a loud, aggressive threat
to smash Confederation.
The miniature Union Jack
still flying on Canadian
flagpoles was increasingly
viewed by the Pearson
government as not only a
musty relic of the
country's colonial past,
but also a dangerous
incitement to separatists.
"In the race against
biographer John English
has written of Mr.
Pearson's growing sense
of urgency, "a new flag
might be a rallying
Amid this gathering storm
of discontent and
desperation, the letter
from Mr. Stanley arrived in
Ottawa. And on the third
page of his memorandum,
below a paragraph about
the need to create a
"unifying symbol" for a
country torn by racial
strife, is the first ever
representation of the
future Canadian flag -- a
tiny, childish sketch in red
ink that would become the
seed for millions of
fluttering maple leaves
from coast to coast.
"The single leaf," Mr.
Stanley proposed, "has
the virtue of simplicity; it
emphasizes the distinctive
Canadian symbol; and
suggests the idea of
loyalty to a single
Mr. Wright, an archival
researcher for more than
20 years, says he's never
stumbled across any
artifact with the profound
historical significance of
what he found that day
last year while digging for
Canada's early flags for a
report he'd been assigned.
The Stanley letter was
pulled from the box, where
it had remained unnoticed
for nearly four decades,
and was immediately
placed in a security vault
pending a decision on
where or whether it will be publicly displayed.
"When I turned the page and saw that sketch, it was very
emotional," says Mr. Wright. "It's just incredible that he would draw
that and describe its qualities in such a wonderful way. This is
certainly the genesis of the Canadian flag."
No one knows exactly how such a document could have gone
missing for so many years -- ending up, as it happens, in the
posthumous papers of a rival flag designer. And it is startling to
think that in October 1964, with the Queen facing a separatist riot
in Quebec City and politicians ominously deadlocked on the flag
question in Ottawa, the maple leaf solution offered by Mr. Stanley
was momentarily imperilled by the disappearance of his letter.
George Stanley, perhaps as much as anyone in the country in 1964,
knew about the awesome power of a flag and the destructive
potential of the French-English conflict in Canada. He had already
helped balm those wounds by writing a landmark biography of Louis
Riel that persuasively -- and definitively -- recast the MÈtis rebel
as a nation-builder rather than the irredeemable madman and traitor
portrayed in previous English-Canadian history texts.
Mr. Stanley had become friends with Mr. Matheson in Kingston,
where their children learned Scottish dancing together. Two months
before the flag debate erupted in May 1964 with Mr. Pearson's
courageous -- or foolhardy -- speech at a Legion hall in Winnipeg,
Mr. Matheson paid a visit to Mr. Stanley at the historic military
training school on the St. Lawrence shore. Over lunch at the RMC
mess hall, the two discussed heraldry, the history and the future of
Canada and the conundrum of the flag. And as the two men walked
across the parade grounds, Mr. Stanley gestured toward the roof of
the Mackenzie Building, and the college flag flapping at its peak.
"There, John, is your flag," Mr. Stanley remarked, suggesting the
RMC's red-white-red design as a good basis for a distinctive
Canadian flag. At the centre, Mr. Stanley proposed, should be
placed a single red maple leaf instead of the college emblem: a
mailed fist holding a sprig of three maple leaves.
"It was an interesting proposal that I kept very much to myself,"
Mr. Matheson later recalled, "but pondered it from time to time."
The suggestion was followed by Mr. Stanley's detailed memorandum
on the history of Canada's emblems, in which he warned that any
new flag "must avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are
of a divisive nature" and that it would be "clearly inadvisable" to
create a flag that carried either a Union Jack or a Fleur-de-lis.
Included in his memo was a humble rendering of what he called "a
simple red-and-white flag bearing a stylized maple leaf" and a
second drawing -- quickly dismissed by its own creator as less
elegant -- showing horizontal red bars with a three-leaf symbol in
the white centre stripe.
The memo was apparently passed on to Alan Beddoe, a respected
heraldic authority who had designed the ornate Books of
Remembrance for Canada's war dead and had been hired by Mr.
Matheson to produce prototypes of proposed Canadian flags as
ideas began rolling in from across the country.
Mr. Matheson had taken note of Mr. Stanley's suggestion, but
initially favoured a pure white flag bearing three red maple leaves
joined at the stem -- much as they appeared in Canada's coat of
In a fateful meeting with Mr. Pearson, Mr. Matheson presented his
proposal but, to his horror, was upstaged by his own hired hand,
Mr. Beddoe. "Without any prior advice or warning to me," Mr.
Matheson recalled in his book, Canada's Flag, "Beddoe extracted
from his briefcase another design, with vertical blue bars, which he
handed to the prime minister, saying: 'Perhaps you would prefer this
flag, which conveys the message: From sea to sea.'
"I spluttered my protests," Mr. Matheson has said, "but to no avail."
Mr. Pearson was smitten by the design, and it was soon presented
in Parliament as the government's preferred option for a new flag.
But derision poured in from across the country, and spearheaded by
Conservative opposition leader John Diefenbaker -- the bombastic
defender of the Red Ensign -- critics forced the government to
withdraw the "Pearson Pennant" and assign the design of a new
national flag to an all-party committee of 15 MPs.
Canadian politics during the last half of 1964 was so dominated by
the issue, and the House of Commons so paralysed by the rancour
and rhetoric surrounding the subject, that the Flag Debate has
come to acquire upper-case significance in history texts covering
the period. At the height of the uproar, as the committee toiled
away with seemingly no hope that a compromise might be reached,
a Royal Visit to Quebec City by the Queen led to a violent clash
between demonstrators who mocked the Red Ensign and riot police
who were widely deemed to have overreacted.
The Oct. 10 incident, emblazoned in the memory of many French
Canadians as "Truncheon Saturday" and in the minds of many
English Canadians as the symbolic birth of Canada's unity crisis,
made a peaceable resolution of the flag issue an even more urgent
matter for the federal committee.
The Liberals, who held only a minority in the House of Commons,
needed to attract support from several opposition members of the
committee to secure sufficient support for a new flag. But the
Tories would not relinquish the Red Ensign, the NDP was supporting
a single-leaf flag with blue bars, and the Liberals -- apart from Mr.
Matheson -- still clung to the hope that the Pearson Pennant
designed by Mr. Beddoe would draw enough converts to carry the
At that point, with the committee on the verge of an impasse that
could have plunged the country into even more acrimonious debate
over the flag, Mr. Matheson met with NDP MP Reid Scott and Liberal
MP Grant Deachman to try to achieve a compromise.
Precisely what happened next is unclear, given the conflicting
accounts from key players in the drama. Mr. Matheson says he had
gradually become convinced that the Stanley proposal was the
best choice, but he feared that his friendship with the RMC dean
might doom the design as another Liberal concoction being foisted
upon the country.
"I drew their attention to the refined proposal of George Stanley,
dilating upon its characteristics without disclosing from whence it
originated," Mr. Matheson has recalled in his book. "Almost instantly
a consensus was reached and a bargain struck -- that design was
to become our choice."
Mr. Matheson, interviewed earlier this week at his home in Kingston,
says his views had become "poisoned" to opposition members
because of his early advocacy for a three-leaf design, and that as
he negotiatied with Mr. Scott for the NDP's support, he was
conscious of trying to distance himself from a design that he, in
fact, had solicited from Mr. Stanley.
Mr. Scott, 75, a retired judge now living in Fenelon Falls near
Peterborough, says he remembers the frustration that had set in
among members of the flag committee. He says he had also been
approached by two other opposition members who had encouraged
him to strike a deal with the Liberals to get a breakthrough, with
promises from the pair that they would support whatever solution
"I said, 'John, this is getting ridiculous. We're beginning to look like
a bunch of fools to the country. Stay behind after the committee
adjourns and let's you and I go around the room and at least
understand where we're headed.' "
Mr. Scott describes a scene in with the two walked around the
committee room inspecting the scores of flag designs that had been
draped on the walls for weeks.
"What is all the fuss about?" he remembers saying, having noticed
the maple leaves in almost every design and the predominance of
white and scarlet on the walls. "It's got to be a red and white flag
with a maple leaf on it."
Regardless of the precise details of that encounter, the two men
agreed to back the Stanley proposal and orchestrate the
committee's voting to produce a red-white-red maple leaf flag for
There was, apparently, one further act in the unfolding drama.
Although Mr. Stanley's memory is now failing and he is too hard of
hearing to be interviewed, his 79-year-old wife, Ruth, says she and
her husband have discussed the events of 1964 repeatedly over
the decades, often regaling friends with some of the stories that
emerged from the era.
And Mrs. Stanley insists that she heard every word of a mysterious
phone call placed to Mr. Stanley by Mr. Matheson in October, 1964.
Apparently seeking reassurance that the maple leaf flag had been
designed by Mr. Stanley -- a respected and rigourously
non-partisan military historian -- and not the Liberals themselves,
the opposition had sought proof of its origins, says Mrs. Stanley.
"But they'd lost the memo," she recalls.
The telephone rang one evening at their home in Kingston. As her
husband spoke to Mr. Matheson, she says, Mrs. Stanley kept her
ear "a few inches" from the receiver and listened to the
"John said, 'George, I want you to know there's someone else on
this line, someone listening.' George said, 'Yes.' And John said, 'Did
you or did you not write me a memo about Canadian symbols and
the flag?' And George said, 'Yes, I did.' John said, 'Did you or did
you not make a suggestion of a flag?' And George said, 'Yes, I did.'
And John said, 'Would you describe that flag?' And George did. And
John said, 'Well, that's all I need to know.'
Mr. Scott and Mr. Matheson say they have no recollection of such
a phone call, although Mr. Matheson allows that it might have
happened. Nevertheless, on Oct. 22, 1964, the flag committee
chose the Stanley flag design by a significant majority and sent the
matter to Parliament for approval.
After one last round of im-passioned argument, and the
unyielding opposition of Mr. Diefenbaker, a frustrated
French-Canadian member of the Mr. Diefenbaker's own Tory caucus
invited the Pearson government to invoke closure on the debate
and officially adopt the new flag.
The jubilant prime minister was described in the next Canadian issue
of Time magazine embracing Mr. Matheson during a celebratory
reception at 24 Sussex Drive and declaring, "Here's the man who
had more to do with it than any other."
Ruth Stanley chuckled over the fact that the letter was found in
the archival collection of papers kept by the late Alan Beddoe,
originator of the Pearson Pennant and later a critic of the Stanley
design proclaimed by the Queen 37 years ago today.
he says her husband was "thrilled" by the discovery of the letter
he'd written nearly 40 years ago. She still vividly recalls the night
he came home late for dinner because he'd spent extra time writing
the memorandum for Mr. Matheson. A joke was shared, she even
remembers, about the fact that he'd used a ruler issued by the
Government of Canada to compose his crude little sketch of a flag.
But this was no mean enterprise, and Mr. Stanley knew it. He
genuinely believed that the future of Canada was in the balance as
he put off supper and sat down at his desk on March 23, 1964, to
distill his vision of the country into a rectangle six centimetres
"A flag," he would later write, "speaks for the people of a nation or
community. It expresses their rejoicing when it is raised on holidays
or special occasions. It expresses their sorrow when it flies at
half-mast. It honours those who have given their services to the
state when it is draped over their coffins. It silently calls all men
and women to the service of the land in which they live. It inspires
self-sacrifice, loyalty and devotion."
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen