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Run it up the flagpole

Today we celebrate birth of the Maple Leaf

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Forty-seven years ago today, I was an eight-year-old kid squatting impatiently on the chilly gymnasium floor at Glenmore Elementary School in West Vancouver.

I was surrounded by hundreds of squirming schoolmates and we were all sitting in a gigantic circle, at the centre of which stood a towering flagpole.

Next to the pole was our principal, whose name has been lost in the mists of time, and tucked under his arm was a mystery package. After a brief speech, also thankfully lost in the mists of time, he ripped open the package and pulled out a large rectangle of red and white fabric.

Aided by the school's ancient janitor, he lashed the rectangle to the pole and slowly hoisted it to the rafters, where it hung limply due to the fact there wasn't much wind blowing inside the gym that day.

It was the first time any of us had seen the new Canadian flag.

I'd like to tell you about the intense emotions that raced through me at that historic moment, but, what with being eight years old, I suspect the only things on my mind were the games my buddies and I would play at recess and whether my mom had again packed peanut butter sandwiches in my lunch box.

I wanted to share these memories with you because, as I am sure you are already aware, today is National Flag of Canada Day, when we celebrate the day in 1965 when our red and white Maple Leaf was first raised over Parliament Hill along with hundreds of communities throughout the nation.

Today, 47 years after I first laid eyes on it, I have finally figured out how I feel about our flag: I like it. I like it a lot. I do not wish to disparage other nations' flags -- festooned as they are with gaudy stripes and bars and rampant creatures and heraldic symbols and crests -- but I generally find them too busy for my humble Canadian taste.

The stylized red Maple Leaf flanked by two red bars is a lot like us -- understated but powerful. It stands out in a crowd. It's cool without trying too hard.

Being polite Canadians, however, most of us do not go in for hardcore flag-waving. The truth is, most of the time we only get warm and fuzzy over the flag when it's being raised during a medal ceremony at the Olympics.

Unlike some other nations -- which we are far too polite to mention by name -- we are not the sort of in-your-face flag fanatics who parade their patriotism in cheesy movies wherein aging actors prance about the ring clad in silk shorts decorated with our national emblem.

No, we only put our flag on things that are truly important. I am thinking here of hockey jerseys, the top of Mount Everest (thank you, Laurie Skreslet) and the uniform of Marc Garneau, the first Canadian astronaut in space.

When we are teenagers travelling through Europe, we also proudly slap the Maple Leaf on our backpacks, which gives us something in common with almost every American tourist we meet, if you catch our drift. As a crusading journalist, I called Guy Gauthier, owner of The Flag Shop on Pembina Highway for the last 14 years, to see whether he was expecting a flood of patriotic patrons for Flag Day.

"No," Guy confessed, "not really. We'll get the odd person. It's not on people's radar. It's one of those hidden dates. Canada Day is our main day that brings extra sales."

At Guy's shop, by the way, the Maple Leaf is easily the top seller, followed by our provincial flag and the U.S. flag, but there's a hot new kid on the block. "Sports flags are starting to be better sellers, especially now that we have the Jets," he beamed. "We've sold a ton of Jets flags. Not more than the Canadian flag, but it's definitely top five."

Which is nice, although our beloved Maple Leaf would only be dangling from trees today if it weren't for Lester B. Pearson, who, as prime minister in 1964, decided we needed a flag distinctively and unmistakably Canadian.

Not everyone agreed back then. Speaking in Winnipeg at a Royal Canadian Legion convention that year, Pearson was loudly booed when he revealed he was replacing the British Red Ensign, then our official flag, with a new design.

After months of bitter debate that divided the country, he handed the red-hot potato to a 15-member multiparty committee, which, after rejecting thousands of designs, finally opted for the single maple leaf.

So, yes, Canadians, we have our own flag. And today is its special day! Let's wish it a happy birthday and maybe tip our hockey helmets in a salute to its champion, Lester Pearson.

Because, for once, we can all be happy a politician left us flapping in the wind.

Unfurling flag facts


The inspiration for our flag came from Dr. George Stanley, dean of arts at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., who suggested a red and white single maple leaf design because it could be seen from a distance;

Stanley himself was inspired by the commandant's flag at the college, which featured a armoured fist holding three maple leaves on a red and white background;

Red and white were designated Canada's official colours in the proclamation of the Royal Arms of Canada in 1921 by King George V;

Our flag is twice as long as it is wide. The white square and its maple leaf make up half the surface of the flag.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2012 A2


Updated on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 at 10:38 AM CST: Updated art.

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