He's our Father of the Flag


Staff Writer

KINGSTON -- When John Matheson was growing up in Quebec city and winning first prize for his schoolboy essay on "Our Flag - The Union Jack," he couldn't have known that today he would be celebrated as the Father of the Canadian Flag, quite a different flag from the Union Jack.

Tomorrow, Canadians will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the day their distinctive red and white flag emblazoned with a bold red maple leaf first flew over Parliament Hill, replacing the Red Ensign, which loyal fans, among them former prime minister John Diefenbaker, had fought so hard to retain.

Matheson now lives in a retirement residence in Kingston and is recovering from a serious stroke a couple of months ago.

During a recent interview with The Recorder and Times, the constant telephone calls from other media, wanting him to tell his story on the eve of the flag's anniversary, testified to his historic contributions to Canadian history and culture.

The Maple Leaf came into existence after a bitter Parliamentary battle in 1964. There had been earlier, unsuccessful attempts in 1925 and 1945-46 to settle on a Canadian flag, but in 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was determined to unite the country under a single undisputed Canadian flag and he chose Matheson, a recently elected Member of Parliament from Leeds riding and an old family friend, as his champion.

A less likely champion could not have been imagined had anyone first met Matheson in 1944. That year, while serving with the First Regiment RCHA during the Second World War, he'd been nearly killed when shrapnel from a bomb damaged the motor cortex of his brain and left him barely alive, an epileptic and paraplegic. Doctors in Algiers held out little hope for him, but one thing Matheson has demonstrated in his now 87 years is that he likes to meet challenges.

While hospitalized at St. Anne de Bellevue, Que., he met his future wife, Edith May Bickley. They were married in August 1945, by which time Matheson was walking with the aid of canes and, following the urging of Louis St. Laurent, had embarked on a law career. Still recuperating, he completed his law degree at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and was called to the bar in 1948. He came to Brockville in 1949 to open his own law office.

During his years in Brockville, Matheson became close friends with his banker, George Beley. Though Matheson was a lifelong Liberal and Beley was a Tory, the two had much in common, including a love of bagpipes, Scottish traditions and the monarchy. Matheson helped Beley acquire an official coat of arms, and then together they worked to acquire a coat of arms for Matheson's father, who had been a naval chaplain.

He and Beley became more and more interested in heraldry. This led them to push in the 1950s for Brockville to acquire its own flag and coat of arms and resulted in their forming the Heraldry Society of Canada in 1966. Matheson also became involved in the Order of St. John (he is now honorary president of the Brockville chapter) and studied its heraldic origins.

In the years he was building his law practice, he was interested in politics "in a vague way." In 1961 he agreed to run as a Liberal in a federal byelection in strongly Conservative Leeds riding. He won and found himself in a Parliament controlled by Diefenbaker, with Pearson leader of the opposition.

These were times of unrest, especially in Montreal, where separatism was gaining support. In 1960, Pearson promised that if the Liberals came to power he would bring in a Canadian flag within two years. Such a flag would promote national unity, he believed, and, as Matheson put it, "discontinue that rivalry between the Union Jack and the French tricolour that I knew as a boy."

Pearson wanted Matheson to come up with a design for Canada's flag, as a sovereign country under the Queen of Canada.

"No one else in the Liberal ranks or Parliament had the knowledge to do it, but George Beley had given me the knowledge," Matheson said.

Pearson and his Liberals formed a minority government in 1963 and Pearson was immediately challenged to provide Canada with a flag. To withdraw would mean a political loss of face. The search for a Canadian flag began in earnest.

"There were thousands of flag suggestions. Many of them were horrible."

But Matheson, following heraldic principles, recommended that "we take what had been proclaimed (in 1921 on Canada's coat of arms) as Canada's device and turn that into a flag."

In 1964, Matheson, building on earlier suggestions by a heraldic expert, Col. A. Fortescue Duguid, showed Pearson a design with a white (argent) field with three red (gules) maple leaves conjoined as in the lower third of Canada's coat of arms. At this meeting, unfortunately, a government artist, Alan Beddoe, showed Pearson his own design, which added a vertical blue bar at each end of the flag, representing the fact that Canada stretched from sea to sea.

"I was horrified," recalled Matheson. "But it appealed politically to Pearson."

Beddoe's design became the infamous "Pearson pennant," printed cheaply in Japan, flown on cars and soon the subject of ridicule. Debate in Parliament dragged on with no resolution in sight, so in September, at the suggestion of a Conservative member, Pearson appointed a 15-member all-party committee to come up with a flag design in six weeks.

Pearson asked Matheson to chair the committee, but Matheson said, "God, no!" and agreed to work as a silent member. The committee worked in camera and Pearson, although unquestionably curious, never asked how it was progressing.

For those interested in the ins and outs of the entire flag story, Matheson's book, Canada's Flag, is a must-read. Suffice it to say here that the design evolved over those six weeks into the flag we know today. It harks back to the Royal Military College flag, which has three pales (vertical bars) of red, white and red; to a design by George M. Bist, that used a stylized maple leaf on a white background; and to a pre-1921 design by Sir Eugene Fiset having one red leaf on a white background.

To make it distinct from the flag of Peru, also red, white and red, the committee made the flag twice as long as it is wide, with the red pales each a quarter of the length and the white square one-half the length.

"This design offended the rules of heraldry, but it focused on the one thing we wanted to emphasize - the Maple Leaf. It was instantly recognized as Canadian."

On December 15, 1964 the flag was accepted by a Parliamentary vote of 163 to 78.

"On the day of the vote, I was very happy, also very emotional about it. There was a great party at (Pearson's) place. I didn't know what he felt about (the flag). He was very kind to me. He gave me a mighty hug."

Matheson was quite undone by his leader's approval, especially when Pearson told the crowd as Matheson walked in: "Here's the man who had more to do with it than any other."

Matheson had refined the flag design, taking out a bend in the leaf's stem. He insisted on the whitest white and the purest red (not tending toward the Union Jack's orange or the Stars and Stripes' purple). He tested the flag in a wind tunnel to be sure that even when flapping in a strong breeze, the flag's stylized 11-pointed maple leaf would be recognizable. In fact, the number of points visually multiplies as wind speed increases.

The Red Ensign - a red flag with the Union Jack in the upper left corner and the Canadian coat of arms in the fly - was lowered on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965 and the new flag was raised in a ceremony observed by 10,000 people.

In Canada's centennial year, 1967, Brockville named John Ross Matheson its Citizen of the Year. The following year he lost re-election and was appointed a judge of the judicial district of Ottawa-Carleton. He was the judge of the county court of Lanark from 1978 to 1984 and lived in Rideau Ferry with his wife, Edith, until they moved to Kingston three years ago.

Today he is writing histories of the Order of Canada and the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada and is attempting to initiate a new order, the Order of the Phoenix, to recognize people who have turned their lives around after serving hard time for serious crimes.

Published in Section A, page 1 in the Monday, February 14, 2005 edition of the Brockville Recorder & Times.


For pictures of the Honourable Col. John Ross Matheson, click on Kingston Charter Meeting Nov. 22, 2003

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