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Canadian flag, writings by Matheson

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Chairman of the Canadian government's National Flag Committee: John Matheson

[Flag of  Canada] contributed by Ralph Bartlett, 15 February 2015

I have been working through the contributions to you web page on the flag and been struck by how much is forgotten so quickly. I thought I might refer people to a book by somebody who really knows.

John Matheson was probably the most important figure in the design of the flag. In the drive for a flag he gives full credit to Prime Minister Pearson; indeed, at times his remarks about Pearson border on hagiography. However I think the book is close to being exhaustive on the subject. There you will find the answers to colours, including shade of red, three vs. one leaf, size and shape, and the incredible work just to secure a dye that wouldn't fade in 30 days.

What I found most lacking in the book was any discussion of an ensign for the armed forces [they were unified by then]. Nor is any consideration given to a separate flag for the merchant marine. I feel we missed a real opportunity then. Upon re-reading the book recently I thought to write Mr. Matheson and ask him about this, but he would be 82 years old now and I am not at all sure he is still alive.

Any way, I have extracted some bits from the book and include them here :
Patrick Brabazon, 12 July 1999

Canada's Flag.

Mika Publishing Company, Belleville, Ontario, 1986.

ISBN 0-919303-01-3

Col. John R. Matheson

M.P. for Leeds 1961-68. Member and "driving force" of the House of Commons flag committee. Heraldic expert. Advised L.B. Pearson on flag prior to Pearson's first public mention of a new flag in 1960. Continued to advise him after Pearson became prime minister. Trusted by him to plan and organize the government effort to obtain a flag for Canada.

The Blue-White-Blue triband

Lt. Cdr. Alan B. Beddoe 

A veteran of two world wars and a man with considerable experience in heraldic matters who had been employed in decorating the memorial chamber in the Peace Tower. p.53

One Saturday morning I was invited to the prime minister's residence to show Mr. Pearson several triad designs-three red leaves on white and I brought along Alan Beddoe with me. The prime minister studied the sketches produced. Then, without any prior advice or warning to me, Beddoe extracted from his briefcase another design, with vertical blue bars, which he handed to the prime minister saying: "Perhaps you would prefer this flag which conveys the message: From Sea to Sea." pp.128-129

The Red-White-Red triband

Dr. George F.G. Stanley

I must dwell upon the signal contribution and influence of Lt. Col. G.F.G. Stanley, Ph.D., then dean of arts at the Royal Military College since his suggestion became the basis of the flag ultimately chosen. p. 122.

Royal Military College flag
[Royal Military College flag]
by Blas Delgado

I particularly recall standing beside George Stanley and looking up at the Royal Military College flag flapping furiously from the Mackenzie Building, one of the college's buildings in Kingston. This flag had three vertical pales, red-white-red, with the college crest (a mailed fist holding three maple leaves) on the white center pale. We had just emerged from the college mess and Dr. Stanley remarked "There, John, is your flag." Interpreting him literally I remarked that Canadians would not accept a mailed fist symbol. He said, "No, I mean with a red maple leaf in the place of the college crest." p.122

The Colours

In examining these general observations we must now remember the situation then prevailing in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Queen Victoria, by her royal warrant of 26 May 1868, had assigned arms to Ontario which contained three gold maple leaves conjoined on a green field, and arms to Quebec that contained three green maple leaves conjoined on a gold field. The heraldic importance of these early decisions must not be overlooked. There are only two metals known to heraldry, namely silver and gold, and there are only three proper or natural colors for a maple leaf-green, yellow, and red. One is drawn to the conclusion, therefore, that from the very beginning the Herald's College had reserved for Canada the metal argent, or white, and the tincture gules, or red. In assigning arms to the two provinces, formerly Upper Canada and Lower Canada, apparently the heraldic experts had placed in safekeeping for the nation as a whole the device of three red maple leaves conjoined on a field of white. p.16.

This conclusion is supported further by the combination of white and red in the General Service Medal 1866-1877 riband authorized by Queen Victoria in 1899 for service in the Fenian Raids and the Red River Expedition. In addition, Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario, had flown a flag since the turn of the century consisting of equal pales of red, white, and red. p.17.

A green leaf ?

Mr. Blanchette, an Eastern Townships Liberal with service in the United States Army proposed that the committee should accept a flag proposed by the National Flags Club of Canada, red and white divided diagonally and a green maple leaf. p.56.

One leaf or Three

Each person in Canada might see something different. If there were three leaves, one leaf might stand only for British origin, while another might stand for French origin, and a third might stand for any other origin... p.108.

Dr. Stanley agreed with my emphasis on the importance of colors. What I at first found disturbing was his declared preference for a single red maple leaf over the triad appearing in the arms. p.123

Maple Leaves

There were approximately sixteen distinguishable varieties. Relying on photographs produced by the Dominion Forest Service, I selected the hard sugar maple tree as the desired species because not only did it have a handsome leaf but also this tree had been familiar to the Indians, the Habitants, and the United Empire Loyalists, for whom it had produced furniture, food, and fuel. Most important, the leaf was visually familiar to all Canadians. p.177.

To produce a first-class heraldic leaf to exemplify the sugar maple on a flat shield or crest, was one thing, but to produce a design appropriate to the fluttering surface of a flag was quite another. This led to a further process of search and research-search for a design and research as to its appearance on a piece of textile in a breeze, and this included the question of size. p.177.

There are an interesting number of major and minor points, or waves, on the real sugar maple leaf. It is possible to count some twenty-three in all. The stylized design finally chosen has eleven points which visually multiply as the wind speed increases. p.178.

Selecting the maple leaf design

To produce a first-class heraldic leaf to exemplify the sugar maple on a flat shield or crest, was one thing, but to produce a design appropriate to the fluttering surface of a flag was quite another. This led to a further process of search and research--search for a design and research as to its appearance on a piece of textile in a breeze, and this included the question of size. The design was chosen as the best available model of the sugar maple leaf for display upon a flag surface under moderate and mean conditions of wind. When fluttering or flapping in a breeze or light gale, it purports to project with motion picture effect the appearance of a living leaf. It was selected after I had studied its performance under varying velocities in the National Research Laboratory Wind Tunnel.