First World War and the Maple Leaf Flag

Excerpted from Letters to Vimy, an upcoming publication by Orland French

 Dear Uncle Oscar:

I’d like to think that your action and the loss of your life at Vimy played a role in Canada’s desire to have its own flag. As I explained earlier, the first stirrings of Canadian national pride came after Vimy.

I imagine you see the Union Jack flying about everywhere. That would be the flag you enlisted under and are serving under, representing England and the British Empire. Oh, yeah, we no longer have the British Empire any more either. Nowadays it’s the Commonwealth, and we’ve kicked a few members out of the club. We haven’t used the Union Jack for more than a century. Our new Maple Leaf flag replaced the Red Ensign in 1965. It has red bars at either end, with a red maple leaf mounted prominently on a white field in the middle. No crosses or diagonal slashes or having to remember which white slash went on top so you would know whether the flag was flying correctly or upside down, signalling distress. We can pretty much tell when a leaf is upside down.

Being good Canadians, we didn’t rush into this decision. We had been using the Union Jack a long time, and also its derivative, the Red Ensign. This was a flag created in 1707 as the flag of the British Merchant Marine. You’ll remember it as being red, with a Union Jack in the upper left corner. From about 1870 to 1904, it was commonly used on land and sea as Canada’s flag. As various provinces entered Confederation, their mark of identification was added to the ensign, sort of like sticking gold stars on a record of attendance.  In 1922 these symbols were replaced with the Canadian coat of arms, and the new version was authorized for official use on Canadian buildings abroad. After another world war, it was adopted for use on government buildings in Canada.

We unfurled our independence slowly.  After the flag was codified in 1922, some serious talk began about getting a new flag for Canada. A committee of the Privy Council poked around for new designs in 1925, but it didn’t get anywhere. Canada’s actions during the Second World War (1939-1945) strengthened the nation’s self-identity, and after the war a renewed push began for our own flag. A select parliamentary committee called for submissions. And when it received more than 2,600 designs, did it marvel at the creative genius of Canada? It did not. It threw up its hands in despair and gave up.

In the lead-up to Canada’s centenary in 1967, nationalist fervour grew and grew. Pearson proposed that the country adopt a new flag before its 100th anniversary in 1967. Out of a number of submissions, three were chosen – none of which was the final design. Our flag, like our politics, is a compromise. Pearson favoured three maple leaves on a single branch, on a white field edged with sea-to-sea blue. Another design offered a variation of the Red Ensign, with the Union Jack (British Heritage) and the fleur-de-lis (French heritage). The red-on-white design won out, mostly because there was historical precedent. King George V had proclaimed red and white as Canada’s colours in 1921.

So, 40 years after that first committee began to play around with the flag’s design, we finally got a flag of our own. Naturally, there was some resistance to change – a few likened it to a logo on a sugar sack. People in western Canada said, Wot’s a maple tree?, because they don’t have any. But relatively quickly it was adopted worldwide as a symbol of Canada. This acceptance was hastened immeasurably by prominent and lavish use of the flag during Expo 67, a world’s fair held in Montreal on man-made islands in the St. Lawrence River, as if we didn’t have enough land.

Your flag-waving nephew


Photo: A Canadian flag and likeness of my Uncle Oscar French on his grave at Nine Elms Military Cemetery, Thelus, France.

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