The battle for a distinctive national banner goes back to 1946 -

The battle for a distinctive national banner goes back to 1946

Before the inauguration of our flag 52 years ago today, Maclean’s reported in 1946 on the dim hopes of an ‘all-Canadian flag’


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    For some reason, all Canada’s attempts to have a national flag seem to get off on the wrong foot.

    In 1925 another Mackenzie King Government appointed a committee of civil servants to report on a suitable design. By sheer mischance every man on the committee happened to be Catholic. In a flurry of Loyal Orange huffs and puffs the project was dropped.

    This time things have gone a little better. A majority of the country and all the major parties seem to want a Canadian flag, and it’s still possible that we may get one. But the old jinx is still working-after a whole winter’s work and a million words of argument, the Flag Committee of the House of Commons is in a condition that looks depressingly like deadlock.

    On paper it seemed the perfect time to revive the idea of a national flag. The Canadian Red Ensign had been our battle flag in Normandy. On V-E Day it replaced the Union Jack on the staff of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, and Canadians generally applauded the change.

    Semiofficially, as every schoolboy knows, the Canadian Red Ensign had been a national flag since a year or two after Confederation. What the schoolboy doesn’t learn from his history book is that the right to use our own Red Ensign wasn’t won without a fight.

    On land anyone can fly any flag he likes. At sea this isn’t so. If you were to fly the White Ensign from a ship other than one of His Majesty’s Ships, you might be boarded by an officer of the Royal Navy, summoned to court and fined up to £500 sterling.

    Similarly the unadorned Red Ensign is the banner of the British merchant marine. When, about 1869, Canadian shipowners began to fly a Red Ensign with the arms of Canada in the fly, the British Admiralty didn’t like it. They notified the colonial secretary in 1875 that “the ensign without any badge” was the only proper flag for a “colonial” merchant ship.

    We Flew It Anyway

    Canadians paid no attention, kept on flying the Canadian Red Ensign by land and sea. Finally an imperial statute of 1889 declared the Red Ensign “without any defacement or modification whatever” to be the proper colours for “all ships and boats belonging to any subject of Her Majesty.”

    Ottawa protested vigorously. Sir John A. Macdonald’s Government applied for an Admiralty warrant to legalize the Canadian Red Ensign, and backed the application with an order-in-council of its own.

    Strong representations were made to London. Finally in February, 1892, the Admiralty gave way. A formal warrant authorized the Canadian Red Ensign for vessels of Dominion registry.

    To all intents and purposes the Ensign thus became the Canadian flag. At that time it had flown over Parliament Hill for more than 20 years, and continued to fly there for 10 years more.

    Where, then, did the Union Jack come in as “Canada’s national flag?”

    It began with a curious incident in 1902, when the Joe Chamberlain era was in its heyday. Sir Joseph Pope, Canadian Undersecretary of State, wrote a memo to the Deputy Minister of Public Works, whose department buys a new flag every few months for the staff of the parliamentary tower. (They wear out in about 90 days of use.)

    Sir Joseph said the Union Jack and not the customary Canadian Ensign was the proper flag to be flown over Parliament. He backed his argument by quoting an editorial from The Times of London. Apparently the Deputy Minister of Public Works found the argument sufficiently convincing, for the next flag he bought was a Union Jack.

    Oddly enough, nobody paid any attention for two years. Then, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1904, the Quebec nationalist Henri Bourassa asked Sir Wilfred Laurier why the Union Jack was flying at the Tower, instead of the Canadian Ensign which had flown there in the past.

    Sir Wilfred said he didn’t know. But the Minister of Public Works, Hon. James Sutherland, cut in to explain that the Red Ensign was “a merchant marine flag, not a national flag in any sense,” and that the proper flag for such display was the Union Jack.

    Mr. Bourassa made no rejoinder, and the matter was dropped. For seven years it got no official notice.

    In 1911 one John F. Stedman, a schoolteacher of Ebenezer, Sask., wrote for official guidance. What should he tell his school children to fly on holidays as the national flag of Canada?

    The question went all the way to Westminster. The colonial secretary answered it, “directing” the Governor-General to inform Mr. Stedman that “The Union Jack is the national flag of Canada as of all other parts of His Majesty’s Dominions.” Until V-E Day that dictum of a British colonial secretary was the last word on Canadian flag policy within Canada.

    It was the first Mackenzie King Government which made the first move to restore the status of the Canadian Red Ensign. An order-in-council in January, 1924, provided for display of the Canadian Red Ensign “from all buildings owned or occupied by the Canadian Government and situated without Canada.”

    And in 1925 Mr. King told Parliament: “I would not lend my support to any flag not having the Union Jack as its most distinguishing feature.”

    Until just lately no other view was advanced in Parliament. In six full-dress debates on the subject, French-Canadian as well as other speakers have favoured inclusion of the Union Jack in any Canadian flag.

    Armand Lavergne, the nationalist firebrand of his day, supported in 1931 a resolution for a Canadian flag “in which the British flag shall occupy the position of honour.” Onesime Gagnon, now Provincial Treasurer in the Duplessis Cabinet, backed a similar motion in 1935.


    In those days all the argument was between those who wanted a Canadian flag (design unspecified) and those whose battle cry was “Hands off the Union Jack.” When the current flag project was launched last year, it was assumed that the opposition would still come from Union Jack supporters, and at first there seemed to be some ground for the assumption.

    When the matter came before Parliament in November, though, no party any longer held out for the Union Jack. To the motion that a committee be set up to report on a suitable flag design, the Progressive Conservatives moved as an amendment that Parliament adopt, without further ado, the Canadian Red Ensign as the national flag.

    If the amendment had simply been accepted, the whole matter might well have been disposed of by a nearly unanimous vote. The anti-Ensign opinion which has since become manifest, particularly in Quebec, was then unmobilized. Liberals were more or less committed to the Ensign anyway. They’d hoisted it on V-E and V-J Days, and now by order-in-council had it flying from the Peace Tower daily.

    Mr. Speaker, however, ruled the Progressive Conservative amendment out of order, and the chance for unanimity was gone.

    Even then, final choice of the Red Ensign was a tacitly foregone conclusion. Mr. King was known to favour the traditional flag, with a gold maple leaf replacing the Canadian arms in the fly. Few doubted that he would have his way.

    Meanwhile, though, the committee set about its duties, and invited designs from the general public. It got 2,409 of them, counting a couple of hundred left over from the short-lived project of 1925.

    The Ingredients

    More than 1,600 had maple leaves, 116 beavers, 231 stars, 49 crowns and 22 crosses. Often these symbols were arranged in groups of nine. One entry had seven little beavers, marching head to tail like skunks, and “representing the seven provinces,” as the designer explained in a covering note. The Union Jack figured in 383 designs, the fleur-de-lis in 184.

    Some of the entries were elaborate. One lady put hers up in a handmade morocco case, with a morocco folder inside it, and enclosed a portrait of herself and a certificate of copyright for her design. Several were captioned “All rights reserved,” and many were accompanied by copyrighted suggestions (words and music) for a Canadian national anthem. But in the main, the designs were sloppily drawn.

    All winter conscientious committeemen trudged around among the panels in the committee room on which the designs were displayed, honestly trying to find out what the Canadian public wants for a flag.

    Something like 25,000 letters and a flood of petitions backing the design of La Ligue du Drapeau National were received. This was the only non-Jack flag around which any body of support had gathered. A plain banner cut diagonally into red and white triangles, with a green maple leaf in the centre, it does have a plain, pleasing appearance, and from the start it got most of the anti-Jack support on the flag committee.

    Three other designs got subsidiary consideration and enough votes to keep them on the board through several eliminations.

    One was a “compromise” suggestion of Senator Leon Mercier Gouin. Taken from a group of designs prepared by Col. A. F. Duguid, it had a crown in the upper left-hand corner and in the fly, three red maple leaves on a field of white.

    Another milder “compromise” was the so-called La Presse design. Submitted by Hugh Savage, Victoria, B.C., it had won a national contest run by the French-Canadian newspaper 20 years ago. It gave the upper left-hand corner to the Union Jack, but the field was white, symbolic of France, and there was a pale green maple leaf in the fly.

    Last of the semifinalists was the design submitted by Leroy Holman, Summerside, P.E.I. It had a Union Jack in the corner, but the whole flag was enclosed in a red border, and across the white fly ran four diagonal blue stripes. In the middle of the fly was a red maple leaf enclosed in a blue circle.

    This lost whatever chance it had, though, when a heraldry expert pointed out that its leftward-slanting blue bars were technically Bars Sinister—the heraldic sign of bastardy.

    Three Factions

    As successive votes cut down the selections, it became evident that there were three factions at work. One wanted the Union Jack included at all costs; another was equally determined to keep it out. A third group cared little about the Union Jack one way or the other, but —like Mr. Holman—wanted a distinctive and recognizable Canadian flag.

    Altogether, the Red and Blue Ensigns are authorized by Admiralty warrant for more than 70 uses. The Red Ensign with a badge in the fly is flown by merchant ships of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It also identifies ships from colonies like Tanganyika, Cyprus, Somaliland, Papua, Western Samoa; from Indian principalitieslike Baroda, Cambay, Janjira or Kutch. Or it may merely signify the presence of the British Resident of Zanzibar.

    During the war a great many young Canadians became uncomfortably aware of all this. A young sailor wrote to the flag committee from the mercantile manning pool, Montreal:

    “Being a merchant seaman I can assure you that the lack of a distinctive Canadian flag is felt very keenly among native-born Canadian seamen. People in other lands, seeing the Red Ensign flying on our ships, take us for limeys. With all due regard for England, the feeling among young Canadians (especially merchant seamen) is that the time has come for Canada to assert, herself with a truly national and distinctive flag. The lack of a true Canadian flag is very painful and humiliating to us.”

    A few letters like this, obviously spontaneous, have more effect on committeemen than barrowloads of the printed or mimeographed campaign material.

    But although the middle group, typified by this young seaman, may he stronger than some people think, and does appear to be growing, the main body of anti-Ensign feeling is in French-Canadian Quebec.

    French Canadians “can’t see the logic” of putting another country’s flag into the place of honour in our own —unless, of course, you concede that Canada is still a colony.

    But, they say, you tell us Canada is now a sovereign state, master of her own destiny. If this be true, why not signify it by using a purely Canadian flag?

    Back to Wolfe

    Thus the argument in logic. Emotionally it goes deeper. French-Canadian M.P.’s say the Red Ensign flew from the peak of General James Wolfe’s ship as he sailed up the St. Lawrence in 1759; that it was the Red Ensign his army hoisted over the Citadel of Quebec as the sign and symbol of conquest. Said one Quebec member, in private: “Would you expect the Japanese to put the Stars and Stripes in the upper quarter of their flag?”

    As an added complication, the issue has acquired a strident political overtone in the past few months. The Duplessis Government introduced in the Quebec Legislature a resolution, unanimously adopted, which urged exclusion of “all foreign symbols” from the new flag. Many such have been passed throughout the province, including a recent one by the Quebec City Council. Backbenchers in Ottawa say that to accept the Red Ensign would give Mr. Duplessis’ Union Nationale a spike club for use in any Quebec election—and there’s a by-election in Compton, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, on July 3.

    So, what with one thing and another, French-Canadian Liberals have dug in against the Red Ensign in any shape or form. They say that if the committee reports in its favour, they’ll stage a filibuster against adoption of the report that’ll keep Parliament sitting until snow flies. Some of the brasher spirits even claim they could defeat such a report in the Commons—one scout says he could line up 113 votes, enough for a majority on many a dull evening, against the Red Ensign.

    But they don’t want the issue to come to an open fight, they say. Their line in Liberal caucus will be to shelve the whole issue, let it go until next year at least, and then see how the people feel about the thing.

    Meanwhile the flag committee is marking time on the issue. At least half the committee has voted in favour of the Red Ensign with gold maple leaf—not as a formal decision, but in the course of balloting to eliminate other designs. With other Union Jack designs ruled out, the Red Ensign would certainly get a majority —only about a dozen of its 37 members would vote for the Drapeau National or any other non-Jack flag.

    But thus far the committee refrained from specifying the Red Ensign or any other design as its choice. It has named a subcommittee “to make suggestions that will go as far as possible toward reconciling the conflicting views expressed in the Committee, and toward working out a design that will be generally acceptable.”

    Not many really think this can be done. The real purpose of the subcommittee was to wait until the Prime Minister’s return and see what he thinks ought to be done.

    If he still wants the Red Ensign and maple leaf, it shouldn’t be hard to get a majority to support it in Parliament. He might even win over some French-Canadian backing, with the help of Hon. Louis St. Laurent, who is on record for the inclusion of the Union Jack.

    But the chances of real, full success—the chances of getting the support of all Canada for an all-Canadian flag, flown and honoured in every province — these, at the moment, appear depressingly small.

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