A New Flag For Canada: 56 Years Since Inauguration of Maple Leaf

| February 12, 2021

Monday, February 15, 2021 is National Flag of Canada Day, marking 56 years since the Maple Leaf first flew on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on February 15, 1965!

February 15, 1965 inauguration of the Canadian Flag.(Courtesy National Film Board of Canada).

But before Canadians from coast to coast could gather in celebration of their new, unifying red and white flag, the country spent almost 100 years after Confederation without a flag of its own. In fact, until the 1965 inauguration of the current flag, Canada used several flags, two of the most recognizable being the British Union Jack and the Canadian Red Ensign. As Canada matured as a nation, particularly after the end of the First World War where Canadian troops flew the Red Ensign, the movement to adopt a distinctly Canadian flag grew. The maple leaf itself had long been an unofficial symbol held dear by Canadians, but it became ever more recognizable outside of Canada during the First World War as the cap badge worn by the Canadian Expeditionary Force and as the emblem carved on many of the headstones of Canadians who gave their lives from 1914-1918. 

However, Canadians were divided on how to best represent Canada and its people in the design of the flag. Some Canadians held tight to their ties to Great Britain and the Queen, wishing to keep flying the Union Jack or Red Ensign, the latter of which also represented Canada during the Second World War. In Quebec, there was similar strong loyalty to the Fleurdelisé amongst French-Canadians. It would be a long and emotional debate before the Maple Leaf would be officially proclaimed the national flag by Queen Elizabeth II. And Second World War veterans would play an integral role in its creation.

The Red Ensign (Courtesy Heritage Canada).

The Canadian flag is based on designs submitted and curated by Canadian Second World War veterans.  

John Matheson was a flag enthusiast, Liberal MP, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. He led the multi-party parliamentary committee to select a new flag design for Canada. He had previously served with 1stField Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in Italy and was grievously wounded at Ortona. Matheson played a central role in ensuring that George Stanley’s design  – which became the chosen flag – received consensus from the selection committee.

John Matheson (courtesy Heritage Canada).

George Bist, a veteran who had previously served in the Canadian army as a Morse code operator and was present at the German surrender in May 1945 near Bremen, submitted a simple design of a red maple leaf on a white background flanked by two blue stripes. He lived in Toronto and worked as a graphic designer. Bist’s calculations eventually defined the final proportions of the flag and its elements. 

Design submitted by George Bist (©Canadian Museum of History, 19890086-323)

Jacques St-Cyr was born in Batiscan, Québec in 1921. In 1942, at the age of 21, he voluntarily enlisted and took part in the liberation of Europe. He arrived in Courseulles-sur-Mer with the Maisonneuve Regiment on July 7th, as a Sergeant with A company. He was wounded on July 30th, in Saint-André-sur-Orne, during the siege of the town and repatriated to England. In 1945, he returned to his regiment to participate in the liberation of the Netherlands. He was lucky enough to survive the war and return home. Like many other returning veterans, he received a scholarship and chose to study graphic design. During the “Great Flag Debate”, St-Cyr was a graphic artist with the Canadian Government Exhibition Commission. He simplified the 13-point maple leaf to the familiar 11-point design.

Jacques St-Cyr (above and below; photos courtesy Heritage Canada).

George F. G. Stanley was a respected historian, holding the first ever chair in Canadian history in Canada, and a one-time lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick.  He served as a junior officer in the New Brunswick Rangers early in the Second World War. He later joined the Historical Section at Canadian Army Headquarters in London, where he rose to become the deputy director. He retired from the army in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

After the war, Stanley returned to his academic career. By 1949 he was the head of history at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario. In the 1960s he became dean of arts. It was in this capacity that Stanley, inspired by the Royal Military College flag, wrote to the parliamentary committee charged with selecting a design for a new Canadian flag.

Stanley with fellow Canadians during the war (Pte. R.W. Hole / DND / LAC / PA-115819).


Stanley was inspired by the Royal Military College flag, pictured. (Courtesy Heritage Canada).

In March 1964, Stanley wrote to Matheson with his ideas about what the flag should represent and  look like. In this letter, he sketched the first-ever representation of what would become the Canada flag we know today. It was a hand-drawn with red bars on each side of the six-inch rectangle. In the middle of the white centre background, Stanley had placed a single, stylized 13-point maple leaf (later simplified to an 11-point leaf by Jacques St-Cyr). The design received support from the parliamentary committee and Parliament approved the flag on 15 December 1964. It was first flown on 15 February 1965, now marked as National Flag Day in Canada.

Stanley’s original sketch from letter to Matheson. (Courtesy Heritage Canada).


Matheson wrote a postcard to Stanley after his design was selected by vote in 1964, saying, “Your proposed flag has just now been approved by the Commons 163 to 78. Congratulations. I believe it is an excellent flag that will serve Canada well.” (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1979-75-50).


Unveiling the New Flag (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-142624).

10,000 people gathered in Ottawa on February 15, 1965 to witness the inauguration of the new Canadian flag. At precisely noon on Parliament Hill, guns from the nearby Nepean Point sounded as R.C.M.P. Constable Joseph Secours, 26, hoisted the National Flag of Canada for the first time.

Thus, the Maple Leaf Canadians fly with pride throughout the world was born, and veterans had left their imprint on the newest emblem of Canada. But – there is so much more to this story! The Canadian Encyclopedia has an excellent article on the National Flag of Canada co-authored by John Matheson that goes into much further detail about the long and divisive road taken over decades that led to the creation of Canada’s Maple Leaf flag.

Stanley with his winning Canadian flag (courtesy Heritage Canada).

Visitors are filled with pride when they see the Canadian flag flapping in the breeze above the sands of Juno Beach. We fly one year-round, in all weather conditions, to ensure there is always Canadian representation on this sacred ground in Normandy. Now you can share this symbol of courage and pride with your community by bringing home your own Juno Beach Maple Leaf from Normandy. By sponsoring a flag at Juno Beach, you’re helping to keep a crisp, pristine flag flying, and also receiving a treasured keepsake honouring the 1.1 million Canadian men and women who served during the Second World War.

This National Flag Day, support the Juno Beach Centre, celebrate all things Canadian, and have your flag delivered in time* to raise at your own home this coming D-Day!  



* We will do our best to deliver flags before June 6, 2021, however we cannot guarantee delivery dates. Please check Canada Post for updated shipping time estimates. 



Dispatches from Juno shares all the news, events, and stories from the Juno Beach Centre in France and Canada. Interested in contributing a story to the blog? Email the editor at jbca@junobeach.org.

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