Lester Pearson on a new flag, 1964

Canada's maple leaf flag adopted in 1964.

The Red Ensign flag used as Canada's flag until the adoption of the new maple leaf flag in 1964.

Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Conservative leader John and Diefenbaker were bitter political adversaries. In the 1963 election campaign, Pearson promised to provide Canada with a distinctive new flag. Pearson and a small group of advisors worked on a design featuring three maple leaves on a white background with blue vertical borders. Diefenbaker accused Pearson of turning his back on tradition and of sowing disunity. He called for a national referendum. Flags may at first appear to be of little importance, but as the acrimonious debate showed, they are steeped in a potent symbolism. Here is Pearson’s speech on June 15, 1964, kicking off the flag debate.

Mr. Speaker: I would remind the Housethat this is the 750th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, and … today is another anniversary, a little closer to home in both time and space. One hundred years ago today, on June 15, there was a dramatic moment in Canadian history when, in parliament, Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown, two strong and even bitter political opponents, agreed to meet and  try to end their long antagonism for the purpose of creating a Canadian confederation which one day would stretch from sea to sea. I hope that this resolution which is now being discussed one hundred years later will, when action is taken on it, result in a united effort, above party and above personalities, to strengthen and ensure the survival of the confederation which Macdonald and Brown, putting patriotism above all else 100 years ago, did so much to create …

This is a serious, a solemn and historic occasion and I venture to hope, as I also mentioned a moment ago, that the debate will be worthy of the occasion. This is the first time in our history that parliamentary action has ever been requested by a Canadian government to decide on a national flag.

No referendum

In dealing with this important resolution before us and the procedure that might be followed to bring it into effect, if it meets the wishes of parliament, there has been some criticism to the effect that the resolution should not be submitted to parliament at this time but that there should be a referendum or a plebiscite before action by government or parliament; or that it should be submitted—and this has been another proposal—to a federal-provincial conference for agreement and a decision.

As to the latter, surely this would not be the most effective or the right procedure to follow. Those provinces which have separate flags chose them without reference to the federal government or federal parliament, and they were, of course, right in doing so. The choice was within their own responsibility. Similarly, the choice of national flag is the responsibility of the federal government … 

As for a referendum or plebiscite, I have received a great many representations on this emphasizing the desirability of following this course in a matter of such deep and wide national importance … There are strong arguments, I submit, against a referendum or a plebiscite. In the first place, I believe it is essentially out of keeping with our system of parliamentary democracy and responsible government. The very fact that we have had only two plebiscites in the entire history of this country and, so far as I am aware, none at all in the entire history of the United Kingdom indicates that it is not a part of our parliamentary system of government. The essence of our parliamentary system is that the people elect members of parliament on the basis of broad positions of policy and program and they expect the members of parliament to assume the responsibility of making decisions in the national interest based on those positions …

Votes in a special referendum on a special subject would be by constituencies, and any cleavage on racial or geographical lines would be highlighted over the six or seven month period of the referendum and subsequent action. That seems to be a great disadvantage in the adoption of this constitutional procedure …

Exclusively Canadian

I believe that a national flag of the kind I have described in this resolution, that will be exclusively Canadian, will bring us closer together; give us a greater feeling of national identity and unity. Today especially, as [Governor General] Mr. Massey has reminded us, we need faith and confidence in ourselves as Canadians, with pride in Canada, devotion to our country. I believe that the adoption of this resolution will help to produce that result. If I did not deeply and sincerely so believe, I would not be introducing it into this House of Commons.

In taking this position, I know there are others who are as patriotic and as Canadian as I am or can ever hope to be, who disagree honestly and deeply. I respect that kind of honest disagreement. I know also that a flag issue is bound to raise strong and deep and genuine emotions. All national symbols have a deep meaning and create strong sentiments. This is why they are so important in national growth; in nourishing loyalty and patriotism among those who make up our nation. It is inevitable, therefore, that there will be strong emotional reactions when there is any suggestion that old symbols should be dropped, or adapted to new conditions and new needs . . .

It is argued, and I can appreciate the strength of the argument, that the flag of this resolution ignores our past. In my view, it does not. No one would deny, of course, that we have a responsibility to the past. But we have also a greater responsibility to the present and to the future …

Red Ensign

The red ensign has served Canada honourably and well since it was designated for such service by order in council; but those who are in favour of retaining it and making it permanent and official by parliamentary action must surely realize that basically—this is certainly no disrespect to the red ensign—it is the flag of the British merchant marine and that it is similar except for a different coat of arms, to the flags of certain British colonies.  

I have done some research on this and I have no doubt other hon. members have too. It is true, and this has a bearing on the distinctiveness of the red ensign and its identification with Canada, that apart from Canada and its merchant vessels more than a dozen merchant navies, British companies and other countries, British colonies, use the British red ensign as a base for their flags. Indeed, half of these are British colonies. The majority of these flags based on the red ensign have a badge or coat of arms … which, at no great distance, may be easily confused with the Canadian shield, or vice-versa …

It was not until January 26, 1924, that an order in council was passed authorizing the red ensign to be flown for limited use over all government buildings abroad, and that became essential because we were building up a diplomatic service and for obvious reasons we had to have some flag to fly over Canadian embassies that was not the union jack.  

Temporary flag  

And so the situation remained until towards the end of World War II when in 1944, by order in council, the red ensign was authorized to be flown by our forces overseas. Then on September 5, 1945, was passed that order in council to which reference has already been made more than once, decreeing that, until such time as action is taken by parliament for the formal adoption of a national flag, the red ensign may be flown wherever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag. That is the authority given in 1945, not by parliament but by order in council, by which the red ensign has been flying as a Canadian flag.

Maple leaf

In my view, the time has come for a further and final change. If, as I believe to be the case, Canada needs a national flag and if the red ensign is not the most appropriate design for this purpose, what should that design be? In my view, it should be based on three red maple leaves because that is our formal and emblematic link with our Canadian past.

The record shows this conclusively. The maple leaf itself has been accepted as a Canadian symbol since long before confederation. It is deep in our history and in our traditions. Contemporary records all through the nineteenth century are full of references to it …

Break with the past

This resolution does indeed mark a break with the past, as every accepted stage in the evolution of men and nations must mark a break with the past. But this break does not dishonour or repudiate the past, or the flag symbols of that past under which many of us have served and lived … I have seen the union jack carried doggedly and heroically in combat; I have seen it flying defiantly over the fires caused by the bombing of London; I know something of the decency, the goodness and the fortitude of the British people.

All this is part of our tradition, too, a proud part; it will not be betrayed in any way by the proposals in this resolution. None of these things will be altered in our minds and in our hearts when we support this resolution. We support it as Canadians, because the stand it takes is Canadian and because it marks another stage in the growth of Canada …

United and strong

I believe that the flag we are submitting in this resolution results not only from our growth but from our diversity, the achievement of peoples with pasts in other countries; but they are now concerned, as we are all concerned, with one future only, and that is the future of Canada. We are all concerned with Canada’s future in a world at peace, in freedom and security. So this flag, if it is adopted by parliament, will stand for one Canada; united, strong, independent and equal to her tasks.

It is for this generation and this parliament to give them and to give us all a common flag; a Canadian flag which, while bringing together but rising above the landmarks and milestones of the past, will say proudly to the world and to the future: “I stand for Canada.”   

Follow up

The drawn out flag debate occurred over six months. Members of Parliament voted on December 14, 1964 to adopt the new flag for Canada. The flag, which featured a single maple leaf, was unfurled at a ceremony in Ottawa on February 15, 1965.


House of Commons. Debates, 26th Canadian Parliament, 2nd Session: Vol. 4.
June 15, 1964, 4306-4326.

URL: https://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC2602_04/924

See page links 924-944.

Note:  This speech by Pearson is treated in depth in my book Speeches That Changed Canada.

More information

Flag debate, Canadian Encyclopedia

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