Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Matheson made Canada a better nation

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When Canadian athletes march proudly into the Opening Ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi a few weeks from now, they will be holding our red-and-white flag high.

The Maple Leaf flag -- simple, dramatic and elegant -- identifies our nation instantly and unmistakably.

For that, we are indebted to the late John Matheson, who died Dec. 27 at the age of 96. Matheson was a young lawyer and rookie MP in 1964 when he was asked by then-prime minister Lester Pearson to head a committee that would select a new national flag. Oh, and could they get the job done in six weeks?

Thousands of designs were set before Matheson and his group. Many of them featured hodgepodges of beavers, crowns, wheat sheaves, fleurs-de-lis, the Union Jack and other symbols. Matheson candidly admitted, years later, that most of the suggested designs were "horrible."

But with the help of the dean of the Royal Military College, Matheson's committee finally unified around the idea of the bright red maple leaf on its stark white background. This group understood if a flag was to be a unifying force for a nation as diverse and far-flung as Canada, it had to represent everyone without distinctions of race, national origin or belief system. The new flag was raised on Parliament Hill at noon on Feb. 15, 1965.

Matheson, a decorated veteran of the Second World War, was also influential in creating the Order of Canada and was responsible for the medal's distinctive snowflake design. He championed the idea that great Canadians could come from any walk of life and did not need to be from the elite classes of bureaucrats, generals, judges and politicians. They could also be humanitarians, artists or community volunteers.

With these two great contributions to Canadian culture, and with his deep understanding of the power of symbols, Matheson made Canada a better, stronger, more inclusive nation. After Matheson passed away, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada had lost a "great public servant." Exactly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2014 A7

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