How Ontario travelled back in time as Canada moved forward: Cohn

Martin Regg Cohn on Ontario’s provincial flag and how it was a counter-reaction to the new Canadian flag 50 years ago:

While our flag looks and feels old, it is actually younger than the bold and modern Maple Leaf design of 1965. And was very much a reaction to the convulsive national flag debate led by then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson.

A former career diplomat, Pearson understood from his foreign travels that Canada’s emerging national identity demanded a flag that bespoke more than its colonial heritage. Yet in Parliament, Progressive Conservative opposition leader John Diefenbaker raged against the Maple Leaf as a betrayal of our British antecedents.

Tapping into that vein of resentment, Robarts’s PC government embraced the remnants of the discarded Union Jack design — and made it Ontario’s own ensign.

Until 1965, our national flag had featured a miniature Union Jack in the upper left quadrant and our coat of arms to the right — lumping Canada with other former British colonies boasting nearly indistinguishable and interchangeable flags. When Ottawa discarded that template, Ontario adopted it.

While retaining the Union Jack image, Robarts substituted Ontario’s Shield of Arms where the Canadian symbol had once been. The legislature quickly adopted the premier’s suggestion, though one dissenting MPP dubbed it a “revenge flag.”

And very much a reactionary response.

Parliament had chosen a flag for the future that captured the national spirit in early 1965. The Legislature had reacted, three months later, by travelling back in time to conjure up a flag of the past inspired more by tit for tat than tradition.

As Canada renounced the Union Jack, Ontario revivified its British roots, ever mindful of its official motto: “Loyal she began, loyal she remains.”

Do we dare display disloyalty to that design today? Is it time to revisit our faux flag?

It’s not a historical keepsake but a political quickie dreamed up by Robarts in the mid-1960s — just as another false idol, the Gardiner Expressway, was being completed. Should we be stuck with such symbols of short-sightedness for all time?

In Ontario, times change. But it takes time to build up momentum.

The British monarchy is in malaise — out of date and out of place in Canada, but difficult to dislodge. Just as our old Union Jack ensign could be confused for the British flag, so too Canadian postage stamps showing the Queen as our head of state are an anachronism (my airmail letters to British friends look like domestic mail to them).

But when I covered Australia’s ill-fated referendum on ridding itself of the monarchy in 1999, I watched voters quarrel over what would replace the Queen. The lesson is that you first need to marshal public opinion toward a durable consensus.

While many Ontarians clamour for an end to funding of separate schools, public opinion is still deeply split on ending constitutional protection for Catholic education. Until there is a consensus, there is no point launching a battle that will inflame religious passions, divide the province and end in stalemate.

As Ontario becomes less Loyalist and more modernist, demographic shifts will drive democratic change. In time.

How Ontario travelled back in time as Canada moved forward: Cohn | Toronto Star.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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