Published on August 26, 2013
The foppish Tory Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald is depicted with an earlier version of the Red Ensign in a campaign poster.
Published on August 26, 2013
Then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker reads a copy of Donald Creighton's biography on Sir John A Macdonald -- a book that Diefenbaker read and re-read. Diefenbaker is with E.J. Pratt, and Margaret Ray, Librarian, at the opening of the E.J. Pratt Library. 1961
Photo by Bob Lansdale
This is the first in a five-part series
“Canada had a flag, a flag ennobled by heroes’ blood. Mr. Pearson believed that a distinctive flag was one in which there should be no relationship with the past, nothing to indicate our heritage: the greatness of the French régime or the contribution of Great Britain,”
- John Diefenbaker, One Canada, Vol. 3
By the summer of 1963, Canadians had entered what would be a long period of passionate and often bitter debate about the meaning of Canada.
Until the end of 1964, that debate would centre on the question of whether or not Canada should adopt a new flag.
The flag that generations of Canadians had known was the Red Ensign, which depicted the British Union Jack in the corner and the Canadian Coat of Arms, which included the French fleur-de-lis, in the fly.
Supporters of adopting a new flag proclaimed that after nearly 100 years of being a country, Canada ought to have its own distinctive flag. Others argued that Canada already had a distinctive Canadian flag -- the Red Ensign. It went back almost to Confederation and Canadians had fought two world wars under it.
But Prime Minister Pearson, who called for a new flag, presented a powerful argument.
Quebec nationalism, energized by the decolonization movement abroad, threatened to tear apart Confederation. For years, the Mackenzie King and St Laurent governments had been quietly dropping from use symbols and phrases they deemed too British -- such as the official name of the country, the 'Dominion of Canada' -- but now there was a sense of urgency to that agenda.
The British symbols of Canada’s past would inflame the separatists, it was argued. Pearson spoke of the need for new symbols that would promote national unity.
The flag debate was extremely divisive. The popular historian Donald Creighton, echoing other critics, would call the Maple Leaf flag “vapid and monotonous” and a “deliberate rejection of Canada’s history.”
What made Canada unique in North America was its Britishness, Canadians believed
Creighton’s views may have been unfashionable in the eyes of the growing counter-culture movement, which Pierre Trudeau would later brilliantly exploit; but they weren’t anachronistic, University of New Brunswick historian Donald Wright says.
In an upcoming biography on Creighton, Wright outlines how Diefenbaker led the fight against a new flag, joined by intellectuals such as Creighton, Eugene Forsey, writer Scott Symons and, according to polls, a majority of English Canadians.
“The British connection” had always been central to English Canadian identity, and many people thought that it should be reflected in the national flag.
In the English-speaking world before the Second World War, there were two political and cultural models: the British one and the American one. Canadians, until the 1960s, had always had a conscious preference for the British model.
“There was this perception, and it was a common perception in the Anglo-Canadian mind, of the United States as a country of excessive freedom, excessive licence, excessive permission, and that Canada was more moderate, more stable, and its moderation and stability came from Great Britain,” Wright said.
Order and restraint were preconditions of liberty; too much emphasis on freedom and you ended up with the Wild West.
“From my earliest days,” Diefenbaker wrote, “I regarded the system of law evolved under the British Crown as the greatest single guarantee of individual liberty for Canadians.”
For Diefenbaker, the Red Ensign reflected Canada’s historic preference for British institutions, from the United Empire Loyalists to the Fathers of Confederation; and the Union Jack was a symbol, not of colonialism, but of the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and individual rights.
A Canadian compromise or a denial of the past?
Diefenbaker and Creighton thought that the new flag was a supine attempt to appease Quebec nationalists. However, Stephen Kenny, a University of Regina historian specializing in relations between French and English Canadians, sees Canada’s post-’60s identity as a classic Canadian compromise.
“That was the alternative that was presented to Canadians by Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau,” Kenny said.
“They said, well you don’t have to have all those symbols and all that Britishness. You could continue with the basic infrastructure of British institutions and British values without the symbolism. So you get rid of the postal boxes with the Royal insignia and you get rid of the Red Ensign and have a new Maple Leaf flag.”
For Pearson’s critics, however, to remove the symbols was to erase the past from the public consciousness. After all, the reason the symbols were offensive was because they were reminders of Canada’s past, which happened to be bound up with the British Empire.
“(Diefenbaker) saw in people like Pearson a progressive liberalism where you wean yourself from anything in the past and you free up individuals to do as they want and as they see fit in a whole variety of economic and ethical issues,” said Ron Dart, a University of the Fraser Valley professor and historian of High Toryism in Canada.
In the post-war years, intellectuals on the left tended to reject nationalism, equating it with 19th century European colonialism. Around the time medicare was introduced, Trudeau, a skeptic of nationalism, and intellectuals such as Ramsay Cook articulated what historian Douglas Owram has called “a functionalist definition” of Canada.
It was not for reasons of history, duty or emotion that Canada deserved the loyalty of its citizens, but because it was a just and rational state, and an efficient provider of services.
But Diefenbaker was worried about what would happen if Canadians forgot where their institutions came from.
In 1972, a little book by Diefenbaker was published – Those Things We Treasure: A Selection of Speeches on Freedom and in Defence of Our Parliamentary Heritage. It was meant to raise alarm about the decline of Parliament, Trudeau’s concentration of power into the Prime Minister’s office and an increasing public amnesia concerning the origins of liberal democracy.
Diefenbaker returned repeatedly to the latter theme: “Magna Carta and other charters of freedom, and Parliament itself, though nurtured in English soil, have matured when their seeds have been planted in the far corners of the earth.”
Parliament is “hallowed by the greatness of its history,” Diefenbaker wrote. The corollary is that if that history is forgotten, respect for Parliament will be diminished.