The Canadian flag: a cool ’60s design turns 50

But would we do it as well today?

Expo '67, in Montreal, Quebec.

Expo ’67, in Montreal, Quebec. (Laurent Bélanger/WikiCommons)

The story of the creation of the Canadian flag, which was officially flown for the first time over Parliament Hill 50 years ago on Feb. 15, is usually told in terms of political wrangling.

On this milestone anniversary, count on the tale being thoroughly hashed over again—how Lester B. Pearson’s Liberals succeeded in pushing through the flag Canadians have come to love against passionate opposition from John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives.

It’s a great yarn. But when I gaze up at the flag these days, I’m not inclined to revisit that old clash between Tory reverence for British heritage and Liberal insistence on a distinct Canadian identity. I’m more prone think about, for instance, the Contempra phone.

You remember the Contempra. Introduced in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, the sleek phone dreamed up and made here in Canada was sold around the world for two decades. It was the signature success in an extraordinary period of Canadian design creativity.

Or perhaps one of two signature successes. The flag exemplifies much the same modern design ethos as the Contempra—simple and symmetrical, bright and bold. And these shared virtues are no accident.

Of course, the maple leaf’s history as a Canadian emblem starts long before the sixties. Rich Archbold’s book A Flag for Canada traces, with engrossing illustrations, how the leaf, especially emblazoned on military and athletic uniforms, had taken hold by early in the last century.  But those older leaves tended to look rather realistic. The stylized one on our flag is, as we would now say, pure  mid-century modern.

The idea of a flag featuring a single leaf between red bars was first proposed by George Stanley, then dean of arts at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont. Stanley’s concept was accepted, after bitter debate, by a House committee on Oct. 22, 1964. Only after that political choice was made, though, was the fine work on how the flag would ultimately look taken up in earnest.

Pearson assigned Ontario MP John Matheson to spearhead the project. Matheson turned to Patrick Reid, who was then heading the federal government’s exhibition commission, for expertise. The commission’s top-flight graphics section, which executed everything from trade-show displays to world’s fair pavilions, made it the logical choice. Reid called in his best designer, Jacques St-Cyr.

And so it came about that Matheson, Reid and St-Cyr worked long into an early November night back in 1964, devising our flag’s finished graphic scheme. Of the three men, Reid, now 90 and living in Vancouver, is the last one living, and he gives St-Cyr full credit for the final product (as I reported in this earlier story).

Strangely, St-Cyr rates at best a passing mention in most accounts of the flag’s creation. He grew up in Trois-Rivières, Que., served in Europe during the Second World War, then studied design in New York before coming to work for the government. Over a long career, he rose to senior posts in Ottawa, including heading design for federal museums.

Although his death in 1996 drew scant notice, St-Cyr is remembered warmly by old colleagues. Michel St-Jean, who was a top federal museum designer before moving on to a notable career in retail-store design, started out under St-Cyr in 1969. In an interview from Peterborough, Ont., St-Jean told me St-Cyr was a sensitive mentor, with an intellectual streak, as evidenced by the extensive book collection in the Ottawa apartment where he often cooked fine meals for friends.

Sometimes over dinner they discussed their craft. “I remember Jacques saying, ‘We’ve got to simplify everything—everything should be clear, concise, well-balanced, readable’,” St-Jean said. “I think the whole flag came out of that, especially the leaf. He was very much a product of that European simplification that came out after the war.”

Don McGregor, who also worked for the exhibition commission, met St-Cyr in the late sixties, when they were both attached to what was called the National Design Council. McGregor remembers how the modernist verve of designers like St-Cyr burst into the consciousness of Canadians with Expo 67 in Montreal. And Expo, McGregor notes, was deeply and directly influenced by what was happening in European design, particularly in Switzerland.

“Jacques was one of those guys who was very aware of all the trends in design,” he says. “What we ended up with is one of the most recognizable flags in the world. I mean, it’s so simple. And that’s what was inherent in that new sense of design that was coming into Canada at the time.”

Back in 2005, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History) put on a show called Cool ’60s Design, in which curator Alan Elder succeeded in capturing the way objects from the era managed to somehow combine discipline and delight.

By that, I mean the way a Contempra felt fun while also being eminently functional. Expo delivered that potent combination again and again. Odd chairs turned out to be comfortable. Groovy bubble phone booths kept the rain off. Paul Arthur’s pictograph signage was cool but clear. Our flag is like that. St-Cyr insisted that it be instantly “readable” at a distance, not blurry. Yet the effect isn’t just efficient in signifying “Canada”—it’s beautiful.

I wonder if we would do it so well today. In need of a logo for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, the federal government has staged a contest, open to all Canadian citizens. Populist, I guess, but will it deliver the best possible image? The recent controversy over the government’s planned Monument to the Victims of Communism near Parliament Hill involves the expert advice of the country’s top urban designers being flatly ignored.

Our flag was the product of several currents. History turned the maple leaf into our emblem. Politics put it on a flag of our own. But design made that flag excellent. We should remember, on Feb. 15, that it wasn’t an accident.


The Canadian flag: a cool ’60s design turns 50

  1. I was 15. I remember mother standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing dishes. It was her habit to read the Globe and Mail line by line, front to back and, on this occasion, she had been reading about the flag being proposed to replace the Ensign. There was a tired expression on her face because, with four sons, she felt the way she looked but I knew she was unhappy at the news that a flag with a red maple leaf, with two red bars on a white background was preferred by the Liberal government to replace a flag that reminded her of the sacrifice she had made during the War and after it.

    Mum was a nurse and physiotherapist assigned to Middlesex Hospital during the Battle of Britain. Dad, born on a farm in Grimsby Ontario, learned to fly and, like many of his generation, travelled to Britain as a volunteer. Dad joined the RAF. He served every day of the War. He was a navigator on Lancaster and Sterling bombers, shot down three times, and met mother during one of his recuperations.

    The Union Jack on the Ensign brought memories flooding back when she saw it in the newspaper. The idea that it would be ‘replaced,’ as if her memories could be replaced must have seemed thoughtless, even cruel.

    It didn’t ruffle dad’s feathers. He seemed to take it in stride. He seldom talked about politics, so the fact that the flag debate dragged on for months must have been unremarkable. He didn’t talk much about his war experiences either. His medals were placed under his socks in his sock drawer. He never wore them, even on Remembrance Day. Dad was much older, with Parkinson’s Disease, when we realised that he was a War hero, in the best sense of that term, not the way it is used these days, too freely and too often.

    I mention this because, for mum and perhaps other war brides, they left their homeland, for which so many sacrifices had been made, and claimed this country as theirs. When they looked at the Ensign, they remembered families, lost relatives and friends, and so many lives spent in desperate times. Canada’s new flag, with its history stripped from it, seemed too simple, too trivial to represent what they had lived.

    Mum was unhappy about the loss of the Ensign. She felt adrift. She adapted to the new flag and learned to appreciate it’s simplicity, but her former life overseas often occupied her thoughts. The new flag didn’t really flutter in her estimation. I was sympathetic to the price she had paid, so memories of the flag debates, the design competition, and the selection remain with me. I am sorry that the heritage of the British connection was lost which explains my continuing preference for the Ensign.

    February 15th 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Flag. There are people who can remember the inauguration of the Maple Leaf. It wasn’t universally appreciated at first. The National Post (13Feb.2015) published images of some of the flags that had been submitted as suggested designs. Below the pictures, there are several comments that deserve thoughtful reflection.


    • That is a beautiful piece, Geoff, but like your dad I was an RCAF navigator in a different war which most people forget buit it had its times. I don’t remember much flag waving then as we were under the UN flag, sort of.
      I also had three brothers in the navy, and army in the second war, all on the beach just after D–Day , Many of mine and their brothers-in-arms were from Quebec and while the new flag was not welcomes there either, I think the fact that it didn’t stick the union jack in their face was a good thing. Now we have had 50 years of peace-keeping, Bosnia, Afghanistan, I think we have as many, later memories attached to the Maple Leaf. I like it up there on the pole. They ran it up the flagpole and by and large Canadians salute it. It has lasted 50 years and eventually it will tug the hearts just as the Red Ensign did before it. The Quebec flag, well I don’t know.

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