John Diefenbaker on a new flag, 1964

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

Canada's maple leaf flag was adopted in 1964.

Prime Minister Lester Pearson and opposition leader John Diefenbaker were each looking for a win in the 1964 debate about a new Canadian flag. Pearson, elected in 1963, had struggled and he wanted an issue to galvanize his troops. A new flag might do that. It would also symbolize that the era of British Empire was over, and Canada was asserting its independence. Diefenbaker cherished Canada’s ties with Britain, and had his own political problems. He frittered away his landslide majority of 1958, and in 1963 the Liberals won a minority government. Pearson spoke first as the flag debate kicked off on June 15, 1964. Diefenbaker followed immediately in a speech attacking Pearson’s motives and calling for a referendum regarding the Canadian flag.  

I am going to speak at limited length tonight and keep within the bounds of what I hope will be reasonable expression. I shall not try to follow the Prime Minister (Mr. Pearson) in some of his inflammatory remarks, although I am going to welcome the opportunity before the debate is over to answer several that he made. However, Mr. Speake it is of interest to note this, that there was no mention in all of in his speech of the contribution of the people of French origin in our country. There was no mention of the contribution made by Sir George Etienne Cartier, with Macdonald to the bringing about of confederation. This was a significant omission in every part of his remarks. 

Creating disunity

As he concluded by quoting Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s immortal words, that our purpose in this nation should be to build unity and avoid dissension, I say to the Prime Minister this: “Physician heal thyself. You have brought in, at a time when there are many other matters that ought to have received the consideration of the house, this question that cannot have any other effect than to divide this nation as it has not been divided.”

Let Canadians decide

The Prime Minister gave the house a roll call of anonymity with a reference to two or three persons who had expressed themselves. I am going to give him an opportunity, before I conclude, to have a roll call of the people of Canada on this question; to give the Canadian people, by the only means that can determine this question and on the basis of previous experience and precedent, to which he alluded, the opportunity to express their views on this subject. I want the government, secure in its concepts that it is right because it may be able to command a majority in the house, to give to individual Canadians, everywhere the right to decide the question of the kind of flag that they believe will unify, strengthen and maintain the great traditions of our country.

No warning

The Prime Minister speaks as though he had the authority of the Canadian people . . . When did he across Canada at any time, say that he intended to bring in a distinctive flag that had no reference whatever to Canada’s heritage and our past, to the contribution made by the French and by the British to the building of this nation? I ask that question Mr. Speaker. There has not been one word.

Cleavages and fissures

We have important matters to bring before parliament that deserve attention. The Prime Minister says that he is bringing about unity in this country. I say to him that by this action—and the apologetic manner was apparent throughout his speech today – he realizes he has caused this nation cleavages and fissures and separations that more than a generation of people to come will recall, those that have strong opinions either way – and he mentioned that – or conscientious opinions either way, but certainly strong held.

No one in this nation today would say that there is an overwhelming majority of opinion in favour of the change he is trying to bring about – and he knows he can do it – to separate this nation from the past. He says that when the maple leaf design is produced , it will be peculiarly Canadian. Well, all I have to say in that connection is this. While I wore the maple leaf badge, too, in the first great war – and I was proud of that – and while everyone realizes that under the Meighen administration the national symbol of Canada was declared to be the three maple leaves, not since that date in 1921 has any leader of this nation claimed that a distinctive national flag should be other than the union jack, with also a reference to the French connection upon it…

Maple leaf design

What about a distinctive flag? There is a new definition being given to a distinctive flag by the Prime Minister. He would have us believe that a distinctive flag is one upon which there is no reference to the heritage of our country, nothing of the greatness of its past. He said: Don’t worry about the past; we are going to look into the future . . .

Now, mention was made of the maple leaf this evening. Certainly, in two world wars the maple leaf was generally recognized as Canadian. However, it is interesting to note that in 1915 the state of New York adopted the maple tree as its official tree, representative of the state. The flag should be visible at a distance. Now, that is an interesting thing. I ask you, how far are you going to be able to see that white flag in winter?. . .

Innocuous and insipid

What are some of the objections that can be raised against the flag design in this resolution?… The government has adopted as its definition of a distinctive flag any one that does away with the union jack [the flag of the United Kingdom]. Well now, why? Australia and New Zealand do not do away with the union jack on their flags. Other parts of the Commonwealth doe not, but why is Canada taking this lead?

I think that even today South Africa in its flag carries the union jack. As a matter of fact, the flag of Hawaii carries the union jack. Why is this removed? Surely Canada deserves something better than having a symbol, the symbol of three maple leaves, effective as a symbol and brought in by a Conservative government under the Right Honourable Arthur Meighen. But a symbol is a long way from a flag which should epitomize something of the past and of the greatness of a country and thereby induces its people the potentialities of the future…

Is there any national determination that we should turn our backs on the past, that we should forget everything that has gone by – and that we should produce something innocuous and insipid? …

Abiding Canadianism

There is in all our hearts deep and abiding Canadianism. Canadians think of themselves as Canadians and nothing else. I do. My people came from two races but I think of myself as a Canadian; and always, from my earliest days in this house, I advocated a Canadianism unhyphenated while fully recognizing the constitutional rights under our constitution and the British North America Act.

You cannot force a flag upon the people of Canada and secure from then that mystic something which some ridicule as nationalism – the patriotism of men and women who love their country. A flag design is not a trick by which one group imposes upon others some evidence of Canadianism that all will not accept…

I therefore suggest a national referendum.

Follow up

The drawn out 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.

See page links 944-50.


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

More information

Flag debate, Canadian Encyclopedia

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