Are We Nearer Our Own Flag?

BLAIR FRASER February 1 1954


Are We Nearer Our Own Flag?

BLAIR FRASER February 1 1954


Are We Nearer Our Own Flag?


NO DOUBT Conservatives will find plenty to embarrass them in the new year, but at least they have been delivered from one tight spot by the equally embarrassed Liberals. They won’t have to go through a debate on Bona Arsenault’s bill for a distinctive Canadian flag.

Literals have persuaded their colleague Arsenault to defer second reading of his bill (that’s when debate takes place) until after he has had private chats with party whips, including Liberal whips of all the provincial groups. Arsenault says he hopes to get unanimous agreement from them, and through them from their party caucuses, on his cherished plan for a Canadian flag.

It’s taken for granted that Arsenault will fail to get agreement from any party, let alone from all. (That’s why the major parties find this topic so distressing—they can’t reconcile Quebec opinion with majority opinion elsewhere, on the issue of whether to include the Union Jack.) But even if Arsenault then insists on moving second reading of his bill, Conservatives need have no worry. The Literals are determined to choke off debate right at the start.

Someone will move the “six months’ hoist,” death sentence of private members’ bills. Presumably the axe will be swung by Jack Pickersgill, Secretary of State, who under the terms of Arsenault’s hill would be required to choose a new flag design.

CONSERVATIVES find the question just as thorny as Liberals do, buf it may well have been their fault that Bona Arsenault brought in his bill at all. They couldn’t resist making fun of him for having, as they put it, voted against his own resolution on the same subject, when it was debated early in December.

Arsenault’s resolution had called for another "flag committee” like the one which wrestled with the problem in 1946, and which split fifteen to eight between a Jack and a non-Jack design. Conservatives faced the issue with apprehension. If they plumped for a Union Jack in the position of honor, they knew they’d lose votes in Quebec; if they didn’t plump for the Jack, many a True Blue Tory heart would break. They caucused anxiously, decided that George Drew himself should make the party’s only speech on the subject and that he should try to fix the whole responsibility for a national flag upon the Liberal Government. This he did very skilfully. The party then sat back to pray that Liberals, CCFers and Social Créditera would "talk out” Arsenault’s resolution and not let it come to a vote.

Their hopes were more than fulfilled. Liberals turned out to be even more embarrassed, for the same reasons. Their Quebecers and a lone Torontonian backed Arsenault to the hilt, but British Columbia Liberals hummed and hawed for forty minutes apiece, speaking with agonized eyes on the clock and saying nothing in particular. Finally, with half an hour still to go before six o’clock and the end of this painful debate, Jack MacDougall, of Vancouver, gave up the struggle. He moved the adjournment of the debate, which meant in practice the shelving or pigeon-holing of the whole question. Liberals, including t he hapless Bona

Arsenault, were marshaled to vote as one man for MacDougall’s shelving motion. The relieved and delighted Conservatives voted against it with hoots of joy. Liberals believe it was because of his personal embarrassment on that occasion, more than for any other reason, that Arsenault returned to the attack a few days later with a private bill directing the Secretary of State to choose an appropriate design for a distinctive national flag.

Continued on page 42

Backstage at Ottawa


1F PICKERSC¿ILL wanted to choose a design he’d have plenty to choose from. More than three thousand have been submitted to the government since the first “flag committee” was set up back in 1925. Twenty-six hundred and ninety-five designs were in hand by the time the 1946 committee packed up and more have been coming in ever since.

Antoine Chassé, a House of Commons committee clerk, was secretary of the 1946 committee; lie has the job of sending back the suggestions which still trickle in at the rate of about one a month. Of the four hundred and fiftyodd designs that have come in since the 1946 committee finished its work, two have so impressed Chassé that he hasn’t sent them back. One is a design by the well-known painter Thoreau MacDonald, a stylized red maple leaf on a dark blue ground with ten white stars ranged around the centred leaf. The other, a more complicated arrangement of crosses and coats of arms in red, white, blue and gold, was sent in by Richard Hanson, of Windsor, Ont. Chassé seems to hope that somehow, some time, the government or another parliamentary committee will consider them.

He of all people ought to know how vain his hope is. Not only these two, but all the twenty-seven hundred that were solemnly exhibited and inspected by the flag committee of 1946, were never anything but window dressing.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King had decided, even before the flag committee was set up, what design he wanted for a Canadian flag. It was to be the Red Ensign, like the one which now flies from the Peace Tower, except that instead of the Canadian coat of arms it would have a large golden maple leaf in the fly.

Walter Harris, now the rising star of the cabinet but then an obscure and green backbencher, was chairman of the flag committee. It was his first big job —to make sure that the committee should recommend the flag design that Mackenzie King had picked out in advance.

Harris did his job to the queen’s, or rather to King’s, taste. It was unfortunate that the only Red Ensign with gold maple leaf turned out to be a crude piece of free-hand drawing, colored in crayon, but that difficulty was surmounted by having an official artist do official versions, uniform in size, of all the most popular designs. The committee wasn’t unanimous (no flag committee ever was in this country, or ever is likely to he) but the majority of fifteen loyally plumped for the Prime Minister’s flag.

When the committee’s report went to parliament, though, King was the first to perceive that the debate was certain to damage the unity which a flag is intended to create. The report was shelved, the question dropped, and Canada’s national flag is still what it was before.

THAT DOES NOT MEAN, as many Canadians seem to think, that there is no official Canadian flag. On Sept. 5, 1945, an order-in-council of the Mackenzie King Cabinet proclaimed that “the distinctive national flag of Canada” should be the Red Ensign with the Canadian coat of arms in the fly, “until parliament otherwise decides.”

It’s true that the “distinctive” quality of the Red Ensign is open to some question. Varied only by badges in the fly which are indistinguishable a few yards away, the Red Ensign is flown by merchant ships of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Cyprus, Tanganyika, Somaliland, Papua and Western Samoa. Until India became independent and abolished the Indian princely states, it was the flag of the Indian principalities of Baroda, Cambay, Janjira and Cutch. Flown on land, it also signifies the presence of the British Resident of Zanzibar.

However, in spite of all these duplications, the Red Ensign lias been “our flag” to a great many Canadians almost since Canada became a nation.

Shortly after Confederation, Canadian sea captains began sewing the Canadian coat of arms on the Red Ensign to distinguish themselves from the British. The Admiralty didn’t like this at all. It sent nasty notes to Canada, via the Colonial Office, pointing out that “the Ensign without any badge” was proper wear for “colonial ships.”

Alexander Mackenzie was Prime Minister of Canada when the first Admiralty protest was received; he ignored it, and so did Canadian sea captains. Eventually the Admiralty got the British parliament to pass an Imperial statute to enforce its stand. Ships “belonging to any subject of Her Majesty” were required to fly the Red Ensign “without any defacement.”

Sir John A. Macdonald was indignant. After heated protests to London, his Government issued a Canadian order-in-council authorizing the use of the Canadian coat of arms on the Canadian Red Ensign. Finally, in 1892, the Admiralty gave in and issued its formal warrant to the same effect.

That would have been the end of the story but for Sir Joseph Pope, undersecretary of state in the days of Laurier, and a great Empire man. Without authority from anyone Pope instructed the deputy minister of Public Works in 1902 to buy a Union Jack instead of the customary Canadian Ensign to be flown over the parliament buildings.

It took Canada forty-two years after that to get back to where Sir John A. Macdonald had left us when he died in 1892. Nothing happened at all until 1923 when the first Mackenzie King Government declared by order-in-council that the Canadian Red Ensign should be flown on Canadian public buildings abroad. (At home they still flew the Union Jack.) In 1925 the first “flag committee” failed, as its successor was to do twenty-one years later, and the matter was dropped.

IT DIDN’T COME UP again until 1944 when another Mackenzie King Government proclaimed that the Canadian Red Ensign should be Canada’s battle flag, borne by the troops on D Day and after.

On VE Day the following year came another occasion when the issue was almost settled. Prime Minister King was in San Francisco preparing a broadcast to the Canadian people. He thought he should put in something about the flag.

Jack Pickersgill, then special assistant to the Prime Minister, asked, “Why don’t you tell the people this is Canada’s national flag, and have done with the argument about it?”

Alas, he was too blunt. People who have read Mackenzie King’s diary report that on that day King recorded the incident with the comment that he wasn’t going to have such a delicate matter settled by a brash young secretary. Instead he contented himself for the moment with authorizing the use of Canada’s battle flag on the Peace Tower and on other public buildings at home as well as abroad.

Four months later came the orderin-council which did proclaim the Red Ensign our distinctive national flag, but only “until parliament otherwise decides.” When the matter came up in the House that autumn Progressive Conservative Leader John Bracken moved an amendment to the effect that the same old Red Ensign with the Canadian coat of arms should be declared our national flag for good and all—another opportunity of disposing of the question, for at that time the Quebec “Drapeau National” movement wasn’t even organized. If the Mackenzie King Government had accepted Bracken’s amendment the House might have endorsed it unanimously.

But the Speaker ruled Bracken’s amendment out of order, the flag committee launched its poster contest and the squabble was on all over again. There is no present indication that it will be settled in the near future. But at least, if the Liberals can keep their own mavericks in line, no more SÍ;1¡ will be poured in the wound thi. winter. -fa