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Lessons from the Father of the Canadian flag

At mid-day on February 15th, 1965, Canada's new flag was raised on Parliament Hill for the first time. Exactly two months earlier, in the wee hours of the morning, Parliament approved the iconic red and white maple leaf as our new flag. To mark this momentous occasion, the Member of Parliament who had been tasked with leading the process of creating the new flag wrote a quick note to the person who had proposed its design. The note from MP John Matheson was prescient. The flag has served our country well and will continue to be an enduring symbol of liberty, tolerance and opportunity at home and around the world.

The note was sent to the Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), in Kingston, because the RMC flag served as the basis for our modern flag. Dr. George Stanley had stood with John Matheson on the parade square of the RMC, pointed to the flag atop the Mackenzie Building (a building named after Canada's second Prime Minister, who founded the college) and said, 'There, John, is your flag.' Stanley's submission took the red borders astride a white centre and simplified the design, down to a single red maple leaf rather than a more complex three-maple leaf sprig atop an armoured mailed fist on the RMC flag.

While I would have loved the armoured fist to remain, in homage to the resolve Canadians have shown on the battlefield, it was understandable Stanley toned down the military aspects of the flag. After all, he was our first modern military historian and was well known for his book “Canada's Soldiers: The Military History of an Unmilitary People.”

The creation of this new symbol was very important in this period of our country's history. It was meant to show a modern and independent Canada, on the world stage, as it approached its centennial celebrations in 1967. The idea, a new symbol was needed, formed part of Pearson's campaign promises from 1963 and had already sparked a raucous debate across the country. At one point, Prime Minister Pearson was loudly booed and heckled by Veterans, attending the annual convention of the Royal Canadian Legion, when he spoke about it. This was going to be a difficult debate about history and identity in a country which always seemed to struggle with both.

Prime Minister Pearson charged MP John Matheson with navigating the choppy waters, to create a new Canadian flag for two key reasons. First, he was a congenial Liberal MP from eastern Ontario, who was well-liked on all sides of the House. He could bring some of the recalcitrant Tories' onside or perhaps at least get them to drop the opposition and embrace the new symbol after the vote. But perhaps more importantly, Matheson was chosen because he was a war Veteran who bore the scars of service. He cut quite the figure on Parliament Hill, using a cane throughout his post-war life. At first glance, everyone knew John Matheson was a patriot. A patriot, who was also a happy warrior in Parliament, made for a very difficult opposition target.

John solicited designs, managed the debate and made a case for this bold move by the government. In the end, closure was needed to end the filibustering and bring the 163-78 vote recounted in the note to Stanley. Matheson had done his job, and our country should be forever grateful every February 15th.

I had the great honour of meeting John Matheson several times, when I was a cadet at the Royal Military College. The first time I met him was when he spoke at a convocation ceremony and received an honorary degree. The next time was when I volunteered to be his aide for a visit to the college. A third time was when he just showed up to watch an RMC hockey game. I climbed down from the stands and joined him to watch and chat by the glass. I treasure each of these encounters.

He was one of the most inspiring and genuine people I have ever met. A Veteran. A Member of Parliament. A Judge. An early advocate for the disabled. He had done it all and did it with a smile and a positive approach. What I loved the most about our interactions was, he would ask me about my background, why I had joined the military and what I thought about the issues of the day. He was a great Canadian and the father of our flag, yet he was interested in hearing about what this 20-year-old kid from Bowmanville thought about the country. His generous spirit was infectious, and his wisdom remains available to us today.

John Matheson delivered one of the most eloquent, touching and thoughtful speeches about our country I have ever heard. Nothing I have heard, in a decade in the House of Commons, has even come close to the convocation speech Matheson delivered to the RMC Class of 1993. By this point in his life, Matheson needed two canes to go from his wheelchair to the podium, but his smile and charm needed no assistance. On that day, he dedicated his speech to an RMC graduate who none of us had ever heard of. Captain Bob Donald had taken over forward observation officer duties for Matheson, after he had been injured the day before. That substitution happened to come as the Battle of Ortona intensified around Casa Berardi. Bob Donald and his Royal Canadian Artillery fought alongside Captain Paul Triquet and his Royal 22e Régiment, in some of the most ferocious fightings of the Italian campaign. After the battle, Triquet was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallant leadership, and Bob Donald was dead. Both were courageous Canadian soldiers, yet one had his life cut short when he replaced John Matheson. Fifty years later, Matheson used the platform of recognition, he was receiving from the RMC, to pay tribute to the memory of his friend.

“Bob never wore a medal, never had a wife or child. And I, honoured today, have been blessed with a loving wife, six children and sixteen precious grandchildren. What a husband, parent, citizen this Robert Alexander Donald of RMC would have made had he not perished.”

Matheson then recited a small poem which he had written in tribute to Donald. There was not a dry eye in that humid arena in Kingston thirty years ago. I get emotional just thinking about it today. One life was sacrificed so another could go on and live, love and build a modern and successful Canada embodied by our flag.

This was a powerful lesson for that graduating class of young officers in 1993, but his speech also has lessons for all Canadians today. Matheson knew, some of the challenges our country faces from our differences could also be sources of some of our greatest strengths. His examples were profound.

The story of English Canadian Bob Donald fighting alongside French Canadian Paul Triquet underscored this theme.

French and English serving alongside one another while respecting their differences. He recounted how French Canadian prisoners of war, at Dieppe, had refused chocolate from the Germans when English Canadian prisoners were not offered it as well. He declared our bilingualism remains one of "the boldest acts of creative statesmanship in Canadian history" and has served as an example to many other nations.

Matheson spoke about gender differences, diversity and working together to serve the community and country, in a manner which was astounding for a speech delivered thirty years ago, by a Canadian who was already in his 80s. He believed the Canadian experience of inclusion and interdependence was the greatest of our strengths and an example to the world and the challenges it faced. This is just as true today as it was then.

“Think of your country as the laboratory for the emergence of a society of the future, where people of diverse origins develop the ultimate social art of interdependent living. Rubbing up against differences creates a kind of enriching redemptive energy.”

John Matheson was ahead of his time. What he described, as the "redemptive energy" of depending upon one another, is something Canadians should reflect upon, as we celebrate Flag Day in the aftermath of a pandemic and amid the challenges of war and uncertainty around the world. He was a Veteran who helped give us freedom. He was an MP who helped give us our flag. He was a patriot who also challenged us to put service to Canada first, and in true happy warrior fashion, Matheson ended his speech that day this way: "Be of good cheer and confident that right will finally prevail. Optimism is indeed a form of courage. Faith is greater than doubt and love stronger than hate.”

Thank you John. Vive le Canada!

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