After the acrimonious Great Flag Debate, the Parliament of Canada adopted the current Canadian flag, the Maple Leaf, and first flew it on 15 February 1965. The Maple Leaf replaced the Canadian Red Ensign as our unofficial national flag and the Royal Union Flag as our official national flag. Parenthetically, Diefenbaker and many journalists pronounced the flag’s name /ˈɛnsaɪn/ instead of /ˈɛnsɪn/. Despite my historical nostalgia for the Red Ensign, I would never seriously advocate for its official reinstatement; I grew up entirely under the standard of the Maple Leaf and know no other Canadian flag. From a marketing perspective, this flag makes Canada easy to identify on the international stage; and from a national perspective, it offers a simple, effective symbol of unity. Certain groups of course, such as some Quebec nationalists and secessionists, will never accept it, but the vast majority of Canadians do identify with the Maple Leaf.
In fact, I argue that republicanism is more prominent in Australia and New Zealand (though especially the former) than in Canada partially because we adopted our own unique national flag that eliminated the Royal Union Flag from the canton; the Maple Leaf, therefore, may have deprived the republican movement in Canada of the perfect symbol of colonial subordination.
Prime Minister Pearson argued before the Legion that the Canadian Red Ensign confined Canada to a narrow ethnic identity and that the Maple Leaf would better serve as a unifying symbol, because the shield of the Canadian Red Ensign contains the English Lions, the Scottish Lion, the Irish harp, and the French fleur-de-lys.
Former Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker and Leader of the New Democratic Party Tommy C. Douglas responded to Prime Minister Pearson’s invocation of closure in December 1964. In his characteristic rhetorical flourish, Diefenbaker – the most ardent defender of the Red Ensign – declared:
Just imagine: in the month of May or June, the Prime Minister said that he would have his flag by July 1st – he didn’t say “Dominion Day” because that’s an expression that’s taboo in the Liberal circles. Then he was going to have his flag by the time the Queen visited Canada. And then he was going to have a flag by Christmas. And when he found difficulty in achieving the latest of his predictions, he brought in a flag by closure.
In his wonderful Scottish brogue, Douglas objected to Pearson’s invocation of closure and wanted to move onto other matters like pensions, but seemed to support the adoption of the Maple Leaf in principle.
While I’d like to see the filibuster brought to an end, I don’t think that the government was justified in introducing closure, because in a way they painted themselves into this corner. By saying that he would have a flag before Christmas, […] the Prime Minister really forced the House into supporting closure or having a continued debate. […] I don’t think that this is the best way to get a flag.
In Australia and New Zealand, the debate on removing the Royal Union Flag from the canton of their national flags serves as a proxy war for and has become inextricably bound up with the broader, more fundamental political question of preserving the current constitutional monarchy or abolishing it in favour of a republican form of government. In other words, it is difficult if not impossible to separate the two questions and advocate for a new, distinct national flag that erases the Union Flag from the canton while still arguing in favour of constitutional monarchy. The current national flags of Australia and New Zealand both contain the Southern Cross (a constellation visible only from the southern hemisphere) and are therefore probably difficult to differentiate and have thus become symbolic lighting rods of debate around which both the monarchist defenders and republican detractors alike have coalesced, though flags should act as unifying national symbols that promote harmony. I hypothesize, therefore, that if Canada had kept the Canadian Red Ensign, it too would have become the symbol and standard-bearer of intense acrimony and disunity, completely politicized, and divisive.
Australia’s 60 Minutes aired this documentary on the festering Australia Flag Debate and the typical boisterousness of Australians.
The chairman of one of New Zealand’s republican groups argues that the debate on the flag and debate on the republic should be kept separate. Canada demonstrates that they certainly can be kept separate, but New Zealand may not be able to follow the same course.
- The Maple Crown and the Commonwealth Realms
- No Discretion: On Royal Assent and the Governor General
- “Confederation Day”: I Agree With Eugene Forsey on Something!