About Our National Flag, The Maple Leaf

I wrote this personal reflection, a few years ago, in honour of the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of a new national flag for Canada. The Maple Leaf replaced the British National Flag in our Parliament and the Ensign flag (circa 1957) in 1965. Every 15February, since, marks this event.

I was 15. I remember mother standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing dishes. It was her habit to read the Globe and Mail line by line, front to back and, on this occasion, she had been reading about the flag being proposed to replace the Ensign. There was a tired expression on her face, because, with four sons, she felt the way she looked but I knew she was unhappy at the news that a flag with a red maple leaf, with two red bars on a white background was preferred by the Liberal government to replace a flag that reminded her of the sacrifices she had made during the War and after it.

Mum was a nurse and physiotherapist assigned to Middlesex Hospital during the Battle of Britain. Dad, raised on a farm in Grimsby Ontario, learned to fly and, like the rest of his generation, travelled to Britain as a volunteer. Dad joined the RAF. He served every day of the War. He was a navigator on Wellington and Sterling bombers, shot down three times, and met mother during one of his recuperations.

The Union Jack on the Ensign brought memories flooding back when she saw it in the newspaper. The idea that it would be ‘replaced,’ as if her memories could be replaced must have seemed thoughtless, even cruel.

It didn’t ruffle dad’s feathers. He seemed to take it in stride. He seldom talked about politics, so the fact that the flag debate dragged on for months must have been unremarkable. He didn’t talk much about his war experiences either. His medals were placed under his socks in a drawer. He never wore them, even on Remembrance Day. Dad was much older, with Parkinson’s Disease, when we realised that he was a War hero, in the best sense of that term, not the way it is used these days, too freely and too often.

I mention this because, for mum and perhaps other war brides, they left their homeland, for which so many sacrifices had been made, and claimed this country as theirs. When they looked at the Ensign, they remembered families, lost relatives and friends, and so many lives spent in desperate times. Canada’s new flag, with its history stripped from it, seemed too simple, too trivial to represent what they had lived.

Mum was unhappy about the loss of the Ensign. She felt adrift. She adapted to the new flag and learnt to appreciate it’s simplicity, but her former life overseas often occupied her thoughts. The new flag didn’t really flutter in her estimation. I was sympathetic to the price she had paid, so memories of the flag debates, the design competition, and the selection remain with me. I am sorry that the heritage of the British connection was lost which explains my continuing preference for the Ensign. 

Geoffrey Brittan

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  1. In 1957 I was an eleven year old delivering the early morning Globe and Mail paper. My dad refused to read the Toronto Star (too liberal for his taste). I share your Mum’s views (and evidently yours) in regards to the Ensign flag. I well remember actually singing God save the King and later God save the Queen in school. Your mentioning of the Globe and Mail brought back a flood of memories (i.e. plowing through the snow on my bicycle in the dark winter months trying to get all the papers done in time for breakfast and then school).

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