Williams not first to use flag as political tool — Dief hated new flag

by Bruce Cherney

Premier Danny Williams has ordered the Maple Leaf to once again fly over Newfoundland and Labrador provincial buildings.

The Flag Flap, as it was termed by journalists, started when Williams accused Prime Minister Paul Martin of failing to honour a June 5, 2004 election promise to allow Newfoundland and Labrador to keep 100 per cent of its oil and gas royalties rather than have 70 per cent clawed back by Ottawa because it receives equalization payments as a have-not province — an “offset” payment. Ottawa had offered a deal that would see 100 per cent of these revenues go to Newfoundland for eight years without any clawback. 

It’s not surprising that Williams used the Canadian flag as a weapon in his fight with Martin. After all, there’s still quite a few Newfoundlanders who firmly believe they were tricked into joining Confederation by crafty British and Canadian politicians. 

Residents of the Atlantic province voted to join Canada on April 1, 1949 by a slim margin — 52 per cent to 48 per cent. 

Newfoundlanders were originally given two options for a proposed referendum: continue as a British-governed colony or be ruled by its own “responsible government,” which it possessed until 1934. It was only later that the Canadian option was slipped onto the ballot upon the insistence of the British colonial officials and Canada backers such as Joey Smallwood, who would become Newfoundland’s first premier under Confederation. The British didn’t want to carry Newfoundland’s bloated debt because Britain’s economy was being crippled by its own substantial debt accumulated during the Second World War.

Other Newfoundlanders believed their fate was tied to the United States, which had built three military bases on the island as part of its lend-lease agreement to help Britain during the war. These bases pumped plenty of Yankee dollars into the Newfoundland economy. The appeal of an America option caused greater urgency for Britain and Canada to reach an understanding on resolving the Newfoundland question to their mutual benefit.

While some in Newfoundland were peeved enough at Ottawa to support their premier, it became evident as the Flag Flap progressed that many on “The Rock” joined mainland Canadians and didn’t applaud their premier’s decision to remove the Maple Leaf. They were were angered that the Canadian Flag, a cherished icon of nationhood, was being used as a political tool.

The Flag Flap stirred up emotions reminiscent of the debate leading up to  the official unveiling of the uniquely Canadian flag to the public, an anniversary that will be commemorated on February 15. At the time, a segment of the Canadian public was very vocal in its criticism of the proposed flag. In fact, if Williams had removed the Maple Leaf from Newfoundland provincial buildings in 1965, he would have been soundly applauded by some prominent Canadians, including a former prime minister  — John Diefenbaker.

But that was then and this is now. 

When proclaiming every February 15 National Flag of Canada Day in 1995, former Prime Minister Jean Chretien reinforced the prevailing perception of the Maple Leaf, saying, it “reflects the common values we hold so dear: freedom, peace, respect, justice and tolerance. Canada's flag is a symbol that unites Canadians and expresses throughout the world ... our pride in being Canadian.”

About 10,000 people gathered on February 15, 1965 to witness the raising of the Maple Leaf over the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. It was a cold, gray day, but when the flag was raised by Joseph Secours, a 26-year-old RCMP constable, and a 21-gun salute rang out, the sky opened up, the sun shone through and an obliging breeze caused it to wave in the wind.

Jim Rae of the Ottawa Citizen wrote, “Emotions that had been pent up for more than an hour emptied in a mighty cheer just as the Maple Leaf reached the top of the mast for the first time.”

While newspapers reported the new flag was greeted by cheers, one elderly gentleman, when interviewed by the Citizen, said it didn’t mean anything to him and that it looked “like your handkerchief after you’ve had a bloody nose.”

But, his opinion was in the minority on the Hill that day. Another man said that, when they ran the new flag up the mast, he got “a little mist in my eye.”

“If our nation, by God’s grace, endures a thousand years, this day ... will always be remembered as a milestone in Canada's national progress,” proclaimed then Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson. “It is impossible for me not to be deeply moved on such an occasion, or to be insensible to the honour and privilege of taking part in it.”

Former Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker looked downcast and dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief as he shed tears when the Red Ensign, which had acted as the national flag, was lowered to make way for the new flag.

Months earlier, Pearson had suffered the wrath of Diefenbaker, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire and veterans when he unveiled his plan to create a new national flag.

Pearson announced his intention to create a new flag on May 17, 1964 at a national convention of the Royal Canadian Legion in Winnipeg. It was a brave, though some would argue foolhardy, location to make the announcement.

When Pearson said, “I believe that today a flag designed around the Maple Leaf, will symbolize and be a true reflection of the new Canada,” the veterans booed him. The legionaires had fought under the Red Ensign with the Union Jack in the upper corner during the Second World War, and firmly believed it should remain the flag of Canada.

The Red Ensign was chosen as Canada's official flag to fly over government buildings on January 26, 1924. This flag had been assigned to British merchant ships in 1707 by Queen Anne. From 1892 to 1924, it had been the official flag of Canadian ships, but by convention both the Union Jack and the Red Ensign could be seen flying across Canada during this period.

Pearson smiled to reporters after his Winnipeg speech, and said the angry crowd had not bothered him, quoting former U.S. President Harry Truman, who had said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

“Pearson was probably more determined to go forward after that meeting, because he saw that the thing had been politicized and that people had worked on these people, or they’d worked on themselves, to sort of divide the nation into old and new, and he thought this was wrong,” said Jim Coutts, a Pearson government staffer.

The flag debate had indeed been politicized, especially by Diefenbaker and his followers. The Leader of the Opposition didn’t like Pearson and he didn’t like his flag.

“I think they loathed each other," commented Coutts. “There’s no question about that. I think Diefenbaker loathed Pearson because be beat him (in the 1963 federal election). In retaliation, he went after Pearson personally.”

Diefenbaker announced to all that the new flag would be passed “over his dead body.

“Flags cannot be imposed, the sacred symbols of a people’s hopes and aspirations, by the simple, capricious, personal choice of a Prime Minister of Canada.”

Diefenbaker went on to compare the proposed new flag to a beer bottle label. He also called it a “sop” to Quebec.

The flag in question was not the eventual design of two red bars on a white background and a single maple leaf in its centre. Pearson favoured a flag with three maple leafs and two blue bars.

“I was horrified (by Diefenbaker's speech),” said Reid Scott, an New Democratic Party MP and flag committee member. “I thought it was a very unfortunate choice of words, because so many people hated Diefenbaker, I was afraid they’d vote for the flag just so they were sure he’d lie dead at the end.”

The personal attacks were front and centre in the Ottawa Citizen in a story entitled Pearson Accused of Flag “Blackmail.” 

Gordon Churchill, one of Diefenbaker's strongest backers, referred to Pearson in abusive terms, calling him “a sawdust Caesar, reminding me of Mussolini (the Italian dictator who was killed by partisans near Milan in 1945), trying to force the country to accept his personal choice of flag.”

Churchill said the Maple Leaf design was a “monstrosity.” Diefenbaker further contemptuously referred to the flag design as the “Pearson Pennant.”

The animosity would be surprising to most Canadians living today, even to historians of the 1960s, since a glimpse through Canada’s past shows that the Maple Leaf has a treasured standing as a national icon. Even the Legion, which opposed a new flag, in 1960 — before the debate got underway — chose for its badge a single red maple leaf on a white field.

The maple leaf was worn by Canada's Olympic athletes in 1904. Canadian soldiers during the First World War had maple leaves embossed on their jacket buttons. Canadian war graves of both world wars had a single maple leaf carved in their headstones.

In 1921, a Royal proclamation stated the emblem of Canada was “three maple leaves conjoined on one stem.”

Liberal Prime Minster Mackenzie King on June 22, 1925 promised a new Canadian flag to replace the Union Jack, but there was little will to make the change. On November 8 1945, Acting Prime Minister James L. Ilsley moved in the House that it was expedient to have a distinctive flag and have it looked into by a committee.

Co-operative Commonwealth federation (forerunner of the NDP) Leader M.J. Coldwell supported a distinctive flag, but Diefenbaker opposed it.

The government in 1945 considered a flag bearing a maple leaf be created. The parliamentary committee looked at 2,408 potential designs for the new flag with 1,611 bearing a maple leaf, 383 a Union Jack and 116 with a beaver as the predominate theme. The committee narrowed the design down to 55 with a Union Jack and 63 with a maple leaf, but couldn't reach a consensus. Twice burned on the flag issue, King dropped the project. Instead, the Red Ensign, through an order-in-council, was to be Canada's temporary flag. The key word is “temporary,” since King still believed that a new flag could be agreed upon at a later date.

It was thought to be necessary to create a new flag by 1963 to stifle rising Quebec separatist sentiments. For many Quebecers, the Union Jack and Red Ensign stirred up images of colonialism and suppression of French-speakers’ rights in Canada. It was felt that a new flag would bring so-called soft nationalists in Quebec over to the cause of Canadian unity.

Pearson's design for a new flag was reconsidered when it became obvious that the debate had taken a personal twist. After an all-party committee was appointed on September 10, 1964 to come up with a design, Pearson vowed he would not interfere with the decision-making process.

Diefenbaker considered this to be a personal victory — the three maple leaf flag was dead in the water. He was reported to have danced for glee and joked for several minutes in the lobby of the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel in Ottawa.

On September 11, the Montreal Gazette described the PM’s actions as “the proper course under the circumstances ... He has always given the Opposition time and reason to ponder whether the withdrawal of the legislation (if that should be the recommendation of the committee) might not be to the Opposition's ultimate disadvantage than to the Government.”

Across Canada, newspapers praised the actions of Pearson, even if they did not agree that Canada needed a new flag, referring to him as reasonable and conciliatory.

Unlike Pearson, who did not communicate with the seven Liberal members of the committee, Diefenbaker had no such qualms and continually talked with the five PC members of the committee, urging them to find ways to keep the Red Ensign and Union Jack as part of any new design.

The committee consulted specialists in heraldry before coming up with a final design. One such expert was Col. Archer Fortescue Duguid, who said that the Red Ensign was a British Admiralty flag and nothing more.

A member of the committee asked, “What message does the Red Ensign, which we now fly as our national flag, send?”

Duguid answered, “A British merchant man of Canadian register.” He further said that using a Union Jack in the flag of a country outside Britain designates colonial status, regardless of the circumstances.

Dr. Arthur Lower, a prominent historian of the day, testified that there was a growing surge of Canadianism among young people and that a new flag would greatly enhance their pride. “Ever since I have taken to teaching I have found a ready response on the part of young people and a recognition that their country is here and not somewhere else,” he added.

“When I was a child I was brought up to sing The Maple Leaf, Our Dear Emblem, and we sang it with gusto,” Lower added. “I think it comes as close to a national symbol as we can get.

“The only thing that will replace the old sentiments is a powerful new sentiment, a sentiment for the country as a whole, which I have been trying to describe,” Lower told the committee.

Dr. George F.G. Stanley, the dean of arts and head of the history department of the Royal Military College of Canada, told the committee that Canada had the right to adopt the flag of her choice.

It was Stanley's suggestions that led to the Maple Leaf flag, which was based on the Royal Military College of Canada flag.

John Ross Matheson, a Liberal member of the committee who wrote a book on the flag debate, had visited Stanley at the college. They were emerging from the mess when Stanley remarked, “‘There, John, is your flag,’ he wrote. “Interpreting him literally I remarked that Canadians would not accept a mailed fist symbol. He said, ‘No, I mean with a red maple leaf in the place of the college crest.’”

The majority of the committee members came to the conclusion that it was their duty to “choose a flag, not an ensign.”

Meanwhile, Canadians seemed enthusiastic for a new flag and submitted nearly 6,000 designs.

On October 20, each committee member was asked to choose a design. Finally, 30 designs were under consideration. After a series of votes, the committee opted to favour a single maple leaf design initially proposed by Stanley. The vote was recorded at 14-0. When it came to recommend the single maple leaf as the national flag, the vote was 10-4.

According to the official Hansard record for the committee, the recommendation was for “a red flag of the proportions two by length and one by width, containing in its centre a white square, the width of the flag, bearing a single red maple leaf.”

Apparently, the selection made in so-called secrecy by the committee had been leaked to Diefenbaker who on October 28 on CBC-TV said he would never accept the recommended design. Diefenbaker claimed the design showed nothing of Canadian heritage and it was far from distinctive. He claimed, “it would be the Peruvian flag ... we would have the Peruvians saluting it ...” But, the Peruvian flag does not bear a red maple leaf in its centrepiece — it is simply two red bars on a white background.

Diefenbaker, despite the obvious separatist sympathies expressed in Quebec, could not admit that national unity was better served by a distinctive Canadian flag. His eight Conservative MPs from Quebec did not share his views; nor did Real Caouette and the Social Crediters from Quebec (there were 20 Social Credit MPs from that province).

Diefenbaker should have paid more attention to the fractures in his own caucus. If anything, the flag debate added impetus to the “Dump the Chief” campaign led by Dalton Camp that was emerging in the Conservative Party.

“Diefenbaker had little respect for the acumen of Pearson while Pearson, who had a lively sense of his own shortcomings, placed generous confidence in Diefenbaker’s power to destroy himself,” wrote Matheson. “Therefore Pearson's strategy lay not in rhetoric but in waiting, in giving his enemy plenty of rope.”

Diefenbaker's strategy was to lead a filibuster in the House of Commons. During the flag debate, Diefenbaker and Conservative MPs made 270 speeches.

“English-speaking Canadians have had enough of this Canadian talkfest,” said Caouette, a staunch supporter of Canadian unity, in the House, “they are fed up with this waste of time ... One hoax after another has been played on us in the last few days, just as we have been misled since last June with those words: ‘The public wants a plebiscite (proposed by Diefenbaker and meant as a delaying tactic).’”

Caouette. said the filibuster had brought a “Pickwickian character to the Commons ... the exchanges tend to be juvenile.”

Conservative MP Michael Starr in his speech attacked Caouette, Liberal MP Judy LaMarsh, Quebec in general, bilingual checks, a translation of Beauchesne into French, bilingual stewardesses, a translation of the parliamentary phone book into French, and “those members of the Grit government” from Quebec, recalled Matheson.

The turning point in the debate came when the deputy Conservative leader and Quebec MP Leon Balcher rose and said, “For weeks, and even months, the House of Commons has been witnessing an unparalleled debate which is completely paralyzing the business of this House and transforming it into a debate society where it is impossible to reach any decisions whatsoever.”

Balcher said it was time for the prime minister or one of his ministers to invoke standing order 33 (closure of debate) to have the question settled once and for all.

Conservative MP Gordon Churchill jumped from his seat and said that Balcher did not speak for the Conservative Party, but the damage had been done.

Pearson proposed a free vote on the flag committee’s recommendation saying, “The past can and must be honoured, but surely the past must not be permitted to prevent the changes that are necessary to adapt to the future ... We do not ignore the lessons of history when we support Canadian symbols for Canadian unity.”

He quoted former British Prime Minister Lloyd George who, speaking about the Canadian contribution to the Second Battle of Ypres during the First World War, said of the "Canadian heroes ... (that) The maple leaf was embroidered forever on the silken folds of the banner of human history!”

It was reported that the applause was deafening and many members were brought to tears, and most hoped that Pearson's powers of reconciliation would carry the day. lt was not to be.

Diefenbaker rose and said that Pearson was “backing away” from the truth. His statements were greeted with an uproar of protest.

“His performance before a crowded press gallery was masochistic and suicidal,” wrote Matheson of Diefenbaker's December 11 speech. “He seemed bent upon self-destruction.”

The closure vote was carried 152-85. On December 14, Conservative MP Paul Martineau from Quebec, gave one of the better speeches of the debate, according to journalist and historian Peter Newman, saying, “The maple leaf is a true Canadian symbol. Canadians recognize it as such anywhere, and others recognize us as Canadians by the maple leaf symbol ... The new flag is the symbol of the future because it expresses unity, that unity to which so many of us have paid lip service during the course of this debate ... I believe this maple leaf will express for Canadians, in their own undemonstrative and taciturn way, the firm conviction that Canadians want to live together, work together, and build a worthwhile nation."

The vote on December 15, 1964 at 2 a.m. was 163-78 in favour. There were 23 abstentions, including eight prairie Conservatives. At 2: 15 a.m., the members of the House rose and sang O Canada and God Save the Queen.

But for two days, the Conservatives forwarded more amendments, including a two-flag Canada — the new flag and the Union Jack. On December 17, the vote was 185-25 against a two-flag Canada. The Senate on the same day gave its approval for the new flag. 

On January 28, 1965, Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, with Pearson at her side, signed the Royal Proclamation for the Maple Leaf, effective February 15, 1965. Canada finally had its own distinctive flag.