Winter holiday

An early onset of snow that is expected to remain with us for the next few months, as the weather is also abnormally cold, is sure to extend our “winter blahs.” It’s a feeling of hopelessness and near-depression that strikes every winter as the days get shorter and sunlight hours are at a premium. 

To top it all off, Manitobans don’t get a statutory holiday between New Year’s Day and Easter, a lengthy period of time that only seems to deepen our winter doldrums.

The Saskatchewan government has answered the call from its residents to create a new statutory holiday to break up the winter, calling it Family Day. This new holiday will be on the third Monday in February.

Seeing that our next door neighbours have offered their citizens a break from the tedium of winter, Manitoba Finance Minister Greg Selinger was reported in the media as contemplating a similar statutory holiday in this province.

Selinger is now asking Manitobans to come up with a theme for this potential holiday. 

Manitoba now has the opportunity to become a trailblazer by naming its day after a very significant day in Canadian history. Family Day has a pleasant ring to it and it’s fitting to consider one day a year as a celebration of family, however, there is one event that marked the coming of age of our nation. On February 15, 1965, the Maple Leaf flew for the first time over Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The implications are national in scope, but there has to be some province willing to take the lead and show others the importance of marking this occasion.

While our national flag is looked upon as a cherished symbol of Canada, it wasn’t always so. In fact, the movement towards a uniquely Canadian flag deteriorated into the “Flag Flap,” one of the most antagonistic debates in the House of Commons and throughout the land.

Liberal Prime Minister Lester “Mike” Pearson announced the government’s decision to create a national flag during a Royal Canadian Legion national convention in Winnipeg on May 17, 1964. He was soundly booed by those attending just as he said, “I believe that today a flag, designed around the Maple Leaf, will symbolize and be a true reflection of the new Canada.”

The Legionnaires had fought under the old Canadian Ensign during the Second World War and they felt a new flag would be a betrayal of their sacrifice, something federal Conservative Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker continually reminded them of whenever he had the chance.

“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 country into old and new, and he thought this was wrong,” said Jim Coutts, a Pearson government staffer.

“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,” countered Diefenbaker.

Diefenbaker brought personal animosity to the debate because he loathed Pearson.

The Opposition Leader appeared on October 28 on CBC-TV where he was asked about the flag agreed upon by a parliamentary all-party committee that had a single red maple leaf on a white background flanked by two red bars. Diefenbaker mockingly called it a “Peruvian flag” that Canadians would be saluting. However, the Peruvian flag does not have a maple leaf as its centrepiece. On another occasion, he called the flag similar to a beer bottle label.

Diefenbaker should have paid more attention to his own caucus. His Quebec members favoured the new flag and a palace revolt among other MPs was being orchestrated by Dalton Camp, who headed the “Dump the Chief” campaign.

When the committee’s recommended flag was to be voted upon in the House, Conservative deputy 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 ...”

Balcher then proposed that the Liberal government evoke closure and get on with the vote. This stunned Diefenbaker who had hoped to initiate a filibuster, making it impossible for the flag vote to occur. He was effectively silenced by an MP from his own party.

When Pearson proposed a free vote to restore some harmony in the House, he said: “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 told MPs that British Prime Minister Lloyd George had said about the Canadian troops’ contribution, during the Second Battle of Ypres, “(that) the maple leaf was embroidered forever on the silken folds of the banner of human history!”

The reality was that Canadian soldiers during both wars prominently displayed the maple leaf on their uniforms. And, Canadian war graves from both world wars — and now — are identified with a single maple leaf engraved on their headstones.  

Canadian soldiers during the world wars fought under two foreign banners — first under the British Union Jack and then the British Admiralty’s Red Ensign, neither being a true national flag. The Red Ensign was chosen on January 26, 1924, to fly only over government buildings as a temporary measure. A national flag featuring a maple leaf had been in the works since 1925, though nothing was done until decades later.

Diefenbaker’s arguments mostly fell on deaf ears and Canada had a new flag, effective February 15, 1965. 

When the Red Ensign was lowered on Parliament Hill, Diefenbaker wiped tears away with a handkerchief. But a “mighty cheer” arose “just as the Maple Leaf reached the top (of the flag pole) for the first time.”

Canada came of age with a new national symbol that is readily recognized around the world. Why not create a celebration to mark this momentous occasion? 

If Manitoba takes the lead, momentum could build across Canada to eventually establish Flag Day as a national holiday.