Our Flag and Our Identity

Today is National Flag Day, and the 50th anniversary of the official adoption of the current Canadian flag.

National Flag Day was first instituted in 1996 by Jean Chrétien. On Flag Day in 2007, Peggy Nash attempted unsuccessfully to make it a federal statutory holiday.

Although dealing with the flag itself, and not the celebration of the flag, Parliament passed the National Flag of Canada Act in 2012. The initial version of the Bill included criminal penalties for mistreating the flag, until opposition in the House resulted in amendments stating that Canadians should simply being “encouraged” to display it.

The origins of the current Canadian flag start abroad, and not in England or France as you might expect. In an Arab Spring of an earlier time, July 23, 1952, the monarchy of Egypt was overthrown.

King Farouk, the deposed monarch, seems to himself predicted these turn of events at the end of the Second World War,

The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left–the King of England, the King of Spades, The King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds.

One of the precipitating factors for the revolution was the presence of the British in the Suez. In 1951, the Wafd Party in Parliament, who had transitioned Egypt to a constitutional monarchy, cancelled the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936. This treaty was initially signed by King Farouk while in power, and allowed British troops to remain in Egypt to protect their interests in the Suez Canal.

The British and the Egyptians were initially able to resolve their differences diplomatically. They negotiated a staged withdrawal of the British from the Suez, and the British would pull out of the Sudan.

This changed after a failed assassination of Egypt’s new leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in October 1954. The opposition to Nasser was based, in part, in his inability to counter British authority. Soon after, Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal on July 36, 1956.

Nasser continued to operate the Canal effectively and promised to pay remuneration to the owners of the Canal Company. Because the Canal was operated under the Constantinople Convention of 1888, there was no recourse the British or French had under international law as long as the Canal continued to operate.

The nationalization of the canal led to the invasion of Egypt by not only Britain, but by France and Israel as well. When the canal first opened in 1869, it had been partly financed by the French. Israel’s interest was in the Straits of Tiran, which had been closed by Egypt since 1951 in contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolution 95.

The Suez Crisis was a time of high tensions, but of cooperation as well. Both America and the Soviets opposed the invasion, and worked jointly to encourage the invading forces to withdraw. The Soviets even threatened to bomb the British with nuclear weapons.

The British, in turn, seriously contemplated invading Kuwait and Qatar to take their oil if the Americans imposed sanctions against them. Former colonial powers often have a hard time shaking off bad habits.

But it was a Canadian named Lester B. Pearson, Secretary of External Affairs of Canada at the time, who created the first United Nations Emergency Force, which eventually intervened in the affair. Canada was able to play a pivotal role particularly because of its neutral relationships with all the parties involved. There was little Canadian involvement in the Suez, and Canada had actually refused British requests for military aid in the Middle East on two separate occasions prior to the crisis.

Person was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 because of the Suez Crisis, would later become Prime Minister in 1963. He experiences with the Suez though flavoured his perception of Canadian identity. Canada was an enormous country with a tiny population. A country with a small army and low risk of being invaded, but of enormous influence and high repute around the world.

The Egyptians, though grateful for Canadian assistance, had prevented Canadians from flying the Canadian flag because it incorporated the British Union Jack. Canada could only be effective as a peacekeeping if it maintained an independent and neutral identity, including the symbolism used on our standard.

Support for a new flag was divided at home, in particular in English-speaking parts of the country that wanted to maintain strong symbolic ties to Britain. A special committee canvassed thousands of submissions, many of which maintained a strong religious components.

An internal memo on March 23, 1964 emphasized that the committee “must avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are of a divisive nature.” In particular, the Union Jack and the fleur-de-lis was to be avoided. Canada was more than just our English and French components, even in 1964.

The new flag ultimately received widespread support, but not uniformly. In protest, the conservative provincial governments of Ontario and Manitoba maintained the Red Ensign through its adoption into a new provincial flag, where it remains to this day.

“Symbols are a powerful thing. They have been known to bring out intense emotions in people,” said Senator Mahovlich on May 16, 2012. Emotions without any though though can be dangerous, and it’s important to reflect on what the flag means for us as Canadians.

Do we still maintain the political neutrality which would allow us to intervene and resolve the world’s greatest crises? Do we retain the respect and admiration of all countries, not just those which are powerful? Would the Canada of today be able to accomplish what we were capable of 50 years ago?

In many ways we have fallen short of those ideals set out by Pearson, the same Prime Minister who had the courage to create a new flag. For example, we have failed in recent years to secure a seat on the UN Security Council, a diplomatic snub which should shock Canadians, but help us realize how we have fallen short of our mark. In many other ways though, we have excelled beyond it.

Hon. Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate, stated on February 15, 1965, when the flag was first raised on Parliament Hill,

The flag is the symbol of the nation’s unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all of the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion.

We have gone beyond mere symbolic unity, and enshrined equality under the law through our Charter. We have become a far more diverse country, with all of our races, languages, beliefs and opinions, and have actually become stronger because of it.

But we also have a long way to go still.

In an editorial in the Toronto Star, Premier Kathleen Wynne invoked the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag to focus on some of Pearson’s other accomplishments, and to call for a pan-Canadian economic union. Pearson introduced a new minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, and 2 weeks vacation time. National medicare, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, and funding for post-secondary education soon followed. This social plan is what allowed Canada to become the country we are today.

Wynne called for an infrastructure investment from the Federal government to allow Canada to grow further. She also called for:

  • The reduction of interprovincial barriers that hamper and infringe on trade within Canada.
  • The establishment of a strategic, long-term national approach to training that helps ensure Canadians in every region have the skills they need to prosper in the workforce of today and tomorrow.
  • The creation of a pan-Canadian energy strategy to encourage economic development and help us make the most of our resources. And as part of that strategy: a co-ordinated plan to reduce greenhouse gases, ensuring that our economic growth is sustainable.

Cooperation, the type we eventually saw in putting our flag together, is what is needed to move Canada forward to even greater accomplishments.

At a Flag Day celebration today in Mississauga with Jean Chrétien and Justin Trudeau, hundreds of Canadians celebrated Flag Day. Trudeau stated,

Our maple leaf has become to mean so much to us. I just wish Mr. Pearson could see us now.


Omar Ha-Redeye with Jean Cretien

Jean Chrétien on Flag Day (Photo Credit: Omar Ha-Redeye)




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