Piece of Canadian history lives at TWU

As July 1st approaches, many Canadians will fly the Maple Leaf—a symbol of our national identity—which turned 50 earlier this year. But long before our beloved Maple Leaf flew over Parliament Hill, another flag, the Red Ensign, flew in its place. And one of the last Red Ensigns to fly in Ottawa can be found right here in the Fraser Valley, in Trinity Western University’s Archives.

In 1965, the Red Ensign flag was lowered from the East and West Blocks on Parliament Hill and the Peace Tower, and Canada's new national flag was raised in its place for the first time. What the 10,000 spectators—and millions more watching on TV at home—didn’t see on that chilly February day was how that Canadian flag came into existence, and how the minority status of the ruling party played a significant role.

The great Canadian flag debate of the 1960s threatened to topple then-Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s Liberal minority government. Pearson was determined that Canada ought to have a distinctive national flag, so a flag committee, consisting of representatives from all parties, was formed in 1964. The committee, which included then-Member of Parliament Robert Thompson, was given six weeks to resolve the flag issue. The Opposition continually delayed the debate, most likely in an effort to see Pearson’s government fall.

Over the course of 45 meetings, the committee heard from 12 expert witnesses and received about 2000 submissions from across the country. Of those, 90 submissions were considered, including three submitted by Thompson.

It all came down to three final flag prototypes: a flag with three maple leafs; a flag featuring a single leaf design, and a flag with a Union Jack or fleur-de-lis, or a combination of the two. According to his personal papers, Pearson favoured the three-maple-leaf designs. The Conservatives knew this, however, and were strongly opposed to it. What they didn’t know was that a single-leaf design had been submitted anonymously by Liberal MP and committee member John Matheson, who was instrumental in encouraging Pearson to secretly agree to compromise—and support the single-leaf flag.

When it came time to vote, the Conservatives all voted for the single-leaf design. Much to their surprise, the Liberals and other minority parties, which had all agreed to do so, cast their votes for the same flag design. In the end, the Maple Leaf was the unanimous choice. The Maple Leaf was selected in "the most democratic way anything ever passed in Parliament,” said Thompson in a 1995 interview.

Because of his involvement in the flag debate, Thompson asked Pearson if he could have one of the last the Red Ensign flags flown on the Hill; as a token of friendship, Pearson agreed. In the 1980s, Thompson gifted the flag, and other memorabilia from his life in politics, to the University. The Red Ensign resides in the Thompson archives at TWU. A replica is on display in the Robert N. Thompson building, which houses TWU's art, history, languages, and political science departments, as well as the School of Arts, Media + Culture’s theatre.

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