It’s hard to believe Canada’s flag, the Maple Leaf, was the subject of contentious and divisive debate before it was adopted in 1965 to replace the venerable Red Ensign.
It has now become one of our most beloved symbols, and it’s one of the most recognized flags in the world. In fact, travelers still abide by the rule of thumb that when venturing to difficult lands, a Canadian flag sewn onto a lapel or backpack will enhance their safety.
But it almost didn’t happen. When Prime Minister Lester Pearson decided it was time for Canada to have its own distinct flag, the leader of the opposition Conservatives, John Diefenbaker, would have none of it.
Despite clinging to a slim minority government, Pearson persisted. A committee was formed, designs commissioned then discussed, and the rest is history.
But in an of itself a flag is just a graphic design.
It’s how a country’s citizens see themselves, and how they carry themselves in the world that imparts a flag with meaning. In that regard, George F.G. Stanley’s design, an 11-point red maple leaf on a field of white bracketed by two red bars, has been an overwhelming success.
Today, when the Maple Leaf flutters in the breeze, we think of an expansive land of disparate natural beauty, populated by welcoming, tolerant, hard-working and fair-minded people. We feel pride as a place of peace. We value and celebrate the various cultures that have found their way to us. We revel in our role as an international underdog, in diplomatic and athletic pursuits. We’re humble to a fault.
As a statesman and diplomat, Pearson likely already knew all this. That’s why he felt confident enough to press on, risking his government. Canada already had an identity; we just needed our own symbol to identify with.