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The history of Flag Day

Last Updated Feb 15, 2017 at 3:43 pm PDT

(iStock photo)

OTTAWA (NEWS 1130) – What do National Flag Day, the Maple Leaf and a feisty former Prime Minister who choked a protester have in common?

To answer that, we must travel back to February 15, 1965, when the familiar red and white Canadian flag was first officially raised over Ottawa, ending a contentious debate over exactly how we should represent ourselves to the rest of the world.

But even before the Maple Leaf (and its many proposed variants), Canada had a history of ever-changing national flags — its predecessor, the Red Ensign, went through seven official iterations between 1868 and 1965.

Canadian Red Ensign

“The interesting thing about the Red Ensign is it was initially up to the artists to decide on what style of coat of arms they would use,” says Shayne Campbell with the Settlers, Rails and Trails Museum in Argyle, Manitoba, which houses Canada’s second-largest collection of historical flags.

A Red Ensign with the fleur-de-lis and the Union JackThree red maple leaves between two blue borders


“If they decided to include oak leaves or maple leaves, they did. Some even threw in another Canadian symbol — the beaver. It changed artist-by-artist as they followed a rough draft, but it wasn’t until 1965 that our current flag became official,” he tells NEWS 1130.

To mark that occasion National Flag Day was first observed in Canada on February 15, 1996 in a ceremony in Hull, Quebec, which was also marked by controversy and a heated exchange.

The presiding Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, was confronted by protesters demonstrating against proposed cuts to the unemployment insurance system.

While walking through the crowd Chretien grabbed one protester who had approached him by the neck and pushed him aside, later downplaying the incident.

“I dunno, what happened?” the PM from Shawinigan asked reporters in a media scrum right after. “I had to go, so if you’re in my way, I’m walking. I dunno what happened. Somebody should not have been there.”

Later, the Prime Minister’s Office said Chretien was simply trying to protect himself.

The incident went on to be known as the Shawinigan Handshake.