A letter, a red pen and a hand-drawn sketch: How George Stanley created Canada's flag

It's hard to imagine these days that the man who proposed the original design for Canada's flag received death threats for his efforts.

But that's exactly what happened to New Brunswick's George Stanley in the wake of the flag's birth 55 years ago this month.

Stanley, who would serve as New Brunswick's lieutenant-governor in his later years, proposed the design in 1964 while working at the Royal Military College in Kingston.

And in doing so, he put himself at the centre of one of the most controversial moments in Canada's history.

"I remember one man coming up and said, you know, 'I am going to shoot you,'" Stanley, who also taught at Mount Allison University in Sackville, told CBC in 1990.

The Second World War veteran took it in stride.

Sotheby's Canada

 "And I said, 'Well, you know, I was shot at for several years by the Germans. I don't know if you'll have any more luck than they had'."

His daughter, Della Stanley, would later recall that she and her siblings did not attend the official first flag-raising ceremony with their parents on Feb. 15, 1965.

She said she later learned her father had received a letter saying he'd be killed if he went to the ceremony. 

He went anyway but left his children home.

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Efforts by then-prime minister Lester Pearson to replace the Red Ensign, Canada's official flag since 1945, with a new national flag officially began in May 1964.

It immediately inspired a backlash and divided English-speaking Canadians.

Pearson asked Liberal MP John Matheson to take on the task of finding a suitable design.

Matheson had no shortage of suggestions, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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There were flags with beavers, an obvious Canadian symbol, and the maple leaf, of course, flags with new, unusual coats of arms, even one with a Mountie and an Indigenous person shaking hands.

Pearson himself liked a design that included a triple maple leaf on a white background with blue vertical bars at either end.

Matheson is often credited with being the "father of the flag," even though he told CBC at the time it was the result of the work of many people.

A 1994 CBC report even suggests Matheson doodled it while sitting in the House of Commons.

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But the discovery by a researcher at the National Archives of Canada in the early 2000s seems to put to rest any suggestion the design came from anyone other than George Stanley.

Glenn Wright had already developed an interest in the creation of the flag.

"The history of the flag and what happened in the early '60s had largely been a story of John Matheson," Wright, now retired, said by phone from his home in the Ottawa area.

"And he'd written a book about it, and, you know, the father of Canada's flag, this sort of thing and it was his interpretation that seemed to prevail."

National Archives of Canada

"And then, of course, we come across this letter that George Stanley wrote in the spring of 1964."

The letter Wright is talking about was found in a box of material belonging to heraldry expert Alan Beddoe, who was a key adviser to Matheson and the flag committee.

But the letter is actually addressed to John Matheson.

"Lo and behold, here was this letter which was absolutely delightful, because George had actually used a red pen to scope out what he thought the flag should look like," Wright said, his voice still rising in excitement almost 20 years after the discovery.

"And then he gives a very detailed explanation of why it should be a single red maple leaf."

If the flag is to be a unifying symbol, it must avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are of a divisive nature. - George Stanley, March 23, 1964

In the letter, Stanley actually gives two options for the flag, one with a single leaf, and one with a triple leaf, but says he prefers the former.

"The single leaf has the virtue of simplicity," Stanley writes. "It emphasizes the distinctive Canadian symbol and suggests the idea of loyalty to a single country."

He also suggests the maple leaf is a symbol that avoids divisiveness.

"If the flag is to be a unifying symbol, it must avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are of a divisive nature," he writes.

"It is clearly inadvisable in a purely Canadian flag to include such obvious national symbols as the Union Jack or the Fleur de Lys."

'Astounded to see it'

For Glenn Wright, that four-page letter, written almost two months before Pearson announced his intention to find a new flag, was an incredible find.

I started reading it and I thought, 'Well, this is unbelievable,'" said Wright.

"He's describing the reasons behind it, why it should be a single red maple leaf, and I got to page three and there was the flag. 

"I was astounded to see it, to see it drawn out like that."  

At the bottom of the page, below the typed text, Stanley had sketched out his idea with a red pen, one he would later joke had "For Official Government Business Only" written on the side.

There's no mistaking the sketch as anything but Canada's flag.  

But as Pearson's point person, John Matheson gets much of the credit, Wright said.

"There are a group of people, it's mainly still down in Ontario here, who think that Matheson is the father of the flag and he deserves a stamp, a coin, and all this kind of stuff," Wright said.

"And here was George Stanley, who really encapsulated why it should be a single red maple leaf and what it would do for the country to have a flag of that nature." 

National Archives of Canada

Wright thinks if Stanley's measured arguments in that letter had been made public in 1964, the process might not have been as contentious as it became.

In the end, Pearson's Liberals invoked closure to end the angry flag debate.

And early in the morning of Dec. 15, 1965, after MPs voted on the issue in the House of Commons, Matheson scribbled a note to Stanley on the back of  a postcard.

It reads: "Dear George, your proposed flag has just now been approved by the House of Commons 163 to 78. Congratulations. I believe it is an excellent flag that will serve Canada well."