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

                          Randy Boswell
                          The Ottawa Citizen

                          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,
                          the 52-year-old
                          researcher recalls, "was
                          just unbelievable. I wasn't
                          expecting to find this. I
                          was amazed."

                          The letter, dated March
                          23, 1964, was written by
                          George Stanley, an
                          eminent Canadian
                          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
                          Betsy Ross."

                          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
                          national flag.

                          To say the idea was
                          controversial doesn't
                          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
                          indÈpendentiste terrorists
                          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
                          national division,"
                          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
                          information about
                          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
                          was achieved.

                          "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."

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