Sackville lays claim to creator of Canada’s flag

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Even after exhaustive research the late George Stanley, above, of Sackville is still credited with developing the Canadian flag.

By Wallie Sears



Any doubts as to the official founder of Canada’s Red Maple Leaf – the flag that flies proudly over every province and territory – have been eradicated completely, and that honour goes without question to “one of our own”, George Francis Gilmour Stanley.

There have been other claims submitted for the honour but thorough research conducted into the archives by several academics and others always comes up with the four-page letter written by Stanley to MP John Matthews, who was the point man for Prime Minister L. B. Pearson who was exerting a good deal of pressure to ensure that Canada would have its own distinctive flag that would serve as a unifying force for all Canadians.

The letter was written on March 23, 1964, and contained a hand drawn sketch by Stanley, who subsequently showed Matthews his idea, which originated from the standard in vogue at the Royal Military College in Kingston where he served as professor.

Local people may recall the divisive debate that took place over Pearson’s efforts to replace the Red Ensign with something appropriately Canadian. The PCs, led by John Diefenbaker, would have nothing to do with the proposal and opposed the Liberal government every step of the way. The Canadian Legion also opposed the change as most had served their country under the Union Jack or the Red Ensign.

So, after it seemed the move was going nowhere in a hurry it was agreed to turn the matter over to an all-party parliamentary committee.  Hundreds of proposals, including that of Stanley, were posted on the wall and deliberations began. The Liberals went with the three-maple leaf design favored by Pearson, the Tories proposed a flag that would have consisted in three parts – Fleur de Lis, the Red Ensign and a maple leaf. The NDPs proposal was for a single maple leaf.

It soon became clear to the Conservatives that they could never get their submission passed and so they swung behind the NDP suggestion as there was no way they would budge in favour of the government. Realizing he could never get his triple maple leaf to pass, Pearson threw his weight behind the NDP entry and, finally, there was unanimous agreement on what should make up Canada’s new flag. But while there was agreement there it didn’t settle down with all Canadians and even to this day there are a few “monarchists” who bristle each time they see our flag, which is highly regarded around the world. Actually, it was only a few years ago your columnist was accosted by one such individual who said “we have only one flag .. and that is the Union Jack.”

On another occasion when humorist Alan Fotheringham posed the question “why should we (Canadians) fly the flag of a foreign nation over our buildings – referring to our penchant for flying the Union Jack below the Maple Leaf – there was a lot of muttering and reaction. However, there is a belief that this attitude will disappear with ensuing generations.

But there were rancour and bitter words thrown through the halls of power in Ottawa until finally a flag that all – or at least the vast majority of Canadians could rally around. Removal of any indication of the British flag permitted those in Quebec to show their allegiance and support and now the maple leaf flies from sea to sea to sea.


The thing that sparked this column was a CTV W5 show last week, which, in pictures, took viewers step by step through the development of our flag. It even showed Stanley at his desk at RMC with the famous letter and sketch that ultimately made it into an international symbol. 

While Stanley is claimed as our own in Sackville and was buried here following his passing in 2002, he enjoyed a long, varied and productive career. Born in Calgary, he became a man of letters, earning a Rhodes Scholarship along the way. His first teaching position was at Mount Allison but he left to enlist for the Second World War, retiring in 1947 as lieutenant colonel. Later, he taught and held administrative positions at UBC and RMC before returning to Sackville where he headed up the first Canadian Studies program in Canada.

Retirement came in 1981 but only from the classroom as he continued to do research and write voluminously at his Frosty Hollow home.

I recall visiting Stanley during the time he was being wooed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to serve as New Brunswick’s lieutenant governor. He wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the position, mainly because of the extra expenses he would face, but the gap was overcome and he went on to bring a new level of decorum to Fredericton in the role.

He completed his term in 1987 and again returned to Sackville where he continued his writing and joined the Group of Four that met regularly at the Vienna Coffee House where world affairs were discussed knowledgably by the group that changed from time but included David MacAulay, Bill Sawdon and other dignitaries.

Many years earlier Stanley married Montreal lawyer Ruth Hill and they had there daughters – all academics – Della, Marietta and Laurie.  Mrs. Stanley still resides in Sackville, her chosen home, and continues to lead a busy and productive life.

Stanley has been recognized by the Sackville Heritage Committee along with the late John Fisher for their outstanding contributions to the advancement of Canadian life and culture.

Meanwhile, Sackville continues to bask in the limelight caused by the brilliance of an Albertan who made his way to New Brunswick. Definitely a reversal of what is happening today as the old adage “Go West Young Man” has taken hold in a major way. 

Organizations: Royal Military College, Union Jack, NDPs Canadian.The PCs Conservatives UBC Canadian Studies Vienna Coffee House Sackville Heritage Committee

Geographic location: Sackville, Canada, Kingston New Brunswick Maple Leaf Ottawa Quebec Calgary Fredericton Montreal Laurie

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