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

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 indépendentiste 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 symbol."

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 country."

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.


The Canadian flag, celebrated today on the 37th anniversary of its official unfurling on Feb. 15, 1965, has had a particularly eventful week. It was the centrepiece of the military ceremony in Afghanistan, where Canadian soldiers raised the red and white over the Kandahar airport to signal this country's commitment to the global war on terrorism. It has been waved endlessly in Salt Lake City to register Canada's enthusiasm for its Olympic athletes -- and its objections to a wildly controversial decision that has deprived the nation of a figure-skating gold.

And amid these displays of patriotic fervour, all flags atop public buildings have hung sorrowfully at half-staff to mark the passing of Princess Margaret, who will be buried today in Britain.

A beacon of national pride at the best of times, the flag has also been a frequent flashpoint in the long-running cultural conflict at the centre of Canadian politics and identity. Infamously disparaged by Quebec Premier Bernard Landry last year as "a piece of red rag," the flag has been burned and banned by its fiercest opponents and recklessly brandished by its most zealous defenders.

But it could have been far worse. Pierre Trudeau's "Non" speeches during the 1980 Quebec referendum might have been framed by the Red Ensign instead of the Maple Leaf -- a sight that surely would have left nothing of Canada for Jean Chrétien to almost lose in another referendum 15 years later.

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 Métis 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 arms.

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 day.

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 negotiated 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 Canada.

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 rigorously 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 conversation.

"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 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 impassioned 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.

She 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 members, 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 wide.

"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."

The Red Ensign was Canada's national flag until a new one was chosen in 1965. 

Sackville Tribune-Post / George Stanley, perhaps as much as anyone in the country in 1964, knew about the awesome power of a flag. 

Thirty-seven years ago today, on Feb. 15, 1965, the much-debated Canadian flag was unfurled for the first time. 

The 'Pearson Pennant,' fiercely defended by Lester Pearson, featured vertical blue bars and three red maple leaves. 

George Stanley suggested the Royal Military College's red-white-red design as a good basis for a distinctive Canadian flag. 

The Maple Leaf, in red and white, was chosen as Canada's flag after heated debate and was first unfurled on this day in 1965. 

This simple, child-like sketch in red ink is one of the first representations of what would become the Canadian flag. It was found in a long-lost letter written in March 1964 by historian George Stanley. 

This simple, child-like sketch in red ink is one of the first representations of what would become the Canadian flag. It was found in a long-lost letter written in March 1964 by historian George Stanley. 

Copyright © 2002 by The Ottawa Citizen. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.