Parliament and the Birth of the Canadian Flag

Michael Dewing and Marion Ménard
Legal and Social Affairs Division

The raising of the red maple leaf flag for the first time on Parliament Hill 50 years ago, on 15 February 1965, was the culmination of a long, heated parliamentary debate.

The debate was notable for a number of reasons: it lasted more than six months and ended by closure; MPs from five parties made more than 250 speeches; and the Speaker made an unusual ruling in an attempt to calm passions on both sides of the House.

To have a new maple leaf flag adopted to replace the Canadian Red Ensign, the minority Liberal government of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson needed support from members of other parties.

Progressive Conservative leader John G. Diefenbaker, leader of the Opposition, argued for the retention of the Canadian Red Ensign, as it contained both British and French symbols, specifically the Union Jack and the fleur-de-lys.

On 15 June 1964, Mr. Pearson opened the parliamentary flag debate with a resolution

to establish officially as the flag of Canada a flag embodying the emblem proclaimed by His Majesty King George V on November 21, 1921 – three maple leaves conjoined on one stem – in the colours red and white then designated for Canada, the red leaves occupying a field of white between vertical sections of blue on the edges of the flag.

The motion also asked that the Royal Union Flag (the Union Jack) be retained as a symbol of Canada’s membership in the Commonwealth and its allegiance to the Crown.

Because the motion contained two distinct proposals, Speaker Alan Macnaughton used his authority to split it into two motions, one establishing the national flag and the other dealing with the Royal Union Flag. This was the first time a Speaker took it upon his own authority to split a motion.

After Mr. Pearson moved the first of these motions, Mr. Diefenbaker proposed an amendment calling for a plebiscite, arguing that Canadians should choose what kind of flag they wanted. Mr. Pearson said it was up to Parliament to decide.

Indeed, the prime minister said it was a question of confidence. In other words, if his motion was defeated, the government would fall, forcing an election.

In September 1964, after weeks of debate and with no resolution in sight, Mr. Pearson agreed to refer the matter to a 15-member all-party Special Committee.

Over the next six weeks, the committee reviewed sketches for the flag submitted by nearly 2,000 Canadians. The committee concluded that there should be no national plebiscite and that the Canadian Red Ensign should no longer be Canada’s national flag.

Instead, the committee decided on a single red maple leaf on a white background with a red border on either side. It also recommended that the Royal Union Flag continue to be displayed to symbolize Canada’s membership in the Commonwealth and its allegiance to the Crown.

On 29 October 1964, the committee submitted two reports. One (Report No. 6) dealt with the national flag, and the other (Report No. 7) with the Royal Union Flag.

The subsequent Commons debate centred on the motion to concur in the report on the national flag, which would have the effect of approving the design. The Opposition proposed an amendment to refer the design back to the committee and hold a plebiscite, but this was defeated. MPs also rejected an amendment to substitute the Canadian Red Ensign for the red maple leaf flag.

Debate continued until Quebec Progressive Conservative MP Léon Balcer, without the authorization of his party, invited the government to invoke closure, thereby limiting the length of speeches and forcing a vote. On 11 December, the government did just that. Finally, at 2:15 a.m. on 15 December, the House adopted the committee’s recommendation by a vote of 163 to 78.

Later that day in the Senate, the leader of the government in the Senate, Senator John J. Connolly, moved a motion recommending that the red maple leaf flag be designated the national flag of Canada. Progressive Conservative Senator Grattan O’Leary tried without success to amend the motion to give Parliament more time for debate and to include more symbols of the founding peoples in a new flag. On 17 December, the Senate passed the motion by a vote of 38 to 23.

Also on 17 December, the House adopted the Special Committee’s report recommending that the Royal Union Flag continue to be flown. The Senate passed a similar motion the following day.

On 28 January 1965, Queen Elizabeth II signed a proclamation declaring the red maple leaf flag the national flag of Canada, effective 15 February 1965. In 1996, 15 February was declared National Flag of Canada Day.

Defining Moments: Adoption of the Flag

From mid-February 2015 to January 2016, as part of the guided tour of the Centre Block, visitors will have the chance to see the Library of Parliament’s exhibit entitled “Defining Moments: Adoption of the Flag.” This exhibit includes copies of the Debates (Hansard) of the Senate and the House of Commons, as well as documents from the Special Committee that studied proposals for a new flag.