It was 25 years ago this week that an easterly gust of wind set Canada’s new flag crackling over Parliament Hill for the first time. On Feb. 15, 1965, the now-familiar red-and-white banner with its stylized maple leaf replaced the Red Ensign, whose Union Jack had long symbolized Canada’s historical connection with Britain. There were cheers to greet its first appearance, but the Maple Leaf had been far from a unanimous choice. For six months, members of Parliament had exchanged vitriolic attacks over which proposed new design for the flag would best fortify what many saw as the weakening ties of Canadian unity. Conservative Opposition Leader and former prime minister John Diefenbaker demanded that any new flag include both the Union Jack and the fleur-de-lys—a symbol of French Canada. But Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson insisted on an entirely new banner, one that, he insisted, would symbolize a selfconfident and independent Canada.
Still, although a few protesters wore black armbands on that day 25 years ago, and photographers caught tears in Diefenbaker’s eyes,
most of the 10,000 spectators cheered wildly as Gaétan Secours, then a 26-year-old RCMP constable, hoisted the new flag for the first time. And this week in Ottawa, organizers of special anniversary celebrations expressed the hope that they could recapture the upbeat mood that accompanied the flag’s first appearance. Secours, now a member of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, was to return to the foot of the Peace Tower this week to repeat his central role in a ceremony that was also to be attended by Gov. Gen. Ramon Hnatyshyn and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
But while Pearson intended the flag to be a symbol of Canadian unity, that prospect appeared far from certain during the disagreements over whether to adopt a new flag at all. Indeed, that debate took place during what was already an exceptionally tumultuous period in Canadian politics. Pearson’s minority government, elected in 1963, was under attack for several political scandals and such controversial policies as the creation of the Canada Pension Plan, unification of the Armed Forces and the debate over whether to adopt official
bilingualism. On top of that, a rising tide of separatism inside Quebec was at odds with a growing mood of Canadian nationalism—often tinged with anti-American sentiment—elsewhere in the country. Into the midst of that politically turbulent and emotional era, Pearson was determined to launch the new flag as a symbol of Canada’s unity.
At one level, Pearson’s initiative has clearly been a success: even some of the flag’s harshest critics of 25 years ago now acknowledge its importance. Mervyn Yabsley, 69, former director of the membership department of the Royal Canadian Legion, recalled the anger when Pearson spoke at the legion’s annual convention in 1964 about his plans to introduce a new flag. “He got a pretty rough reception,” Yabsley remembered. “A lot of boos.” But in retrospect, he said, “I think that the flag was a pretty good idea.” And other Canadians seemed to agree. The country’s largest flag manufacturer, Canadiana Textiles Screen Prints Ltd., estimated that two million were sold last year alone. For Secours, at least, there is no doubt that the Maple Leaf flag has performed its task. “I believe the flag has helped Canadian unity,” he said last week. But with the country foundering on the deeply divisive issues of language and the Meech Lake accord, it remains clear that there are limits to the power that even a popular flag holds to unify the nation.
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