Are the Conservatives playing politics with the Canadian flag?

Watch: The parliamentary secretary to the heritage minister says past politics are have nothing to do with the national flag’s relatively muted 50th anniversary commemorations. 

OTTAWA — The Harper government may not be completely ignoring the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag, but the relatively modest plans to mark the day have some claiming the flag is getting the shaft.

Technically, plans in the works; one page of Heritage Canada’s website invites citizens to celebrate the flag … by doing their own thing.

“Canadians are invited to join together and celebrate our flag by organizing their own public events or by showing their pride on social media,” Heritage Canada’s website suggests.

Another page on the site offers activity ideas for the proactive patriots among us. Suggestions include: drawing a mural at school, organizing and inviting a veteran to a singing of the national anthem or flag raising ceremony, and hosting a bake sale with a National Flag of Canada theme.  

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Is the beaming red and white flag — the one Canadians wave proudly when the country’s athletes win gold, sew to backpacks when touring foreign countries and draw on their cheeks every July 1 — being brushed off?

The Liberals think so.

“It’s unfortunate because Canadians are proud of their flag,” Liberal heritage critic Stephane Dion said in an interview.

It was Feb. 15, 1965 when the maple leaf flag was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill, the successful end to a project Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson spearheaded. Today, the same familiar design tops each of the three main buildings on the Hill. It hangs from buildings and balconies each Canada Day and is lowered to half-mast when the nation mourns the deaths of those who helped shape the country. 

WATCH ABOVE: The Canadian flag is marking a big milestone – its 50th birthday. Here are some facts about the flag that you may not know.

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As of Feb. 11, the calendar of events on Heritage Canada’s main page listed Sir John A. Macdonald Day (celebrated every Jan. 11) and Winterlude (an annual Ottawa-area winter celebration running Jan. 30 to Feb 16). 

The flag’s anniversary does receive billing elsewhere on the site, but clicking a 50th anniversary link only gets a visitor to a page inviting them to do their own thing or to share a photo of the flag on social media.

A spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Shelly Glover wrote that government representatives would attend some events suggested online (flag-raising ceremonies in communities), are “partnering” with organizations like Royal Canadian Legions to promote the anniversary and that there will be a flagraising and some birthday cake at Winterlude on Sunday.

Additionally, the Museum of History will have an exhibit on the creation of the flag, and the Canadian Mint and Canada Post are introducing commemorative coins and stamps, the spokeswoman wrote.

Though she offered these events, the spokeswoman didn’t comment directly on the comparatively small scope of the celebrations.

“It’s the bare minimum,” Dion said of the Conservatives’ plans for the anniversary. “Why not a national celebration on the Hill? It’s very strange the government is not doing that.”

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GALLERY: The Red Ensign, the proclamation for the new flag, and some rejected ideas

Vintage Harvard aircraft perform the Missing Man formation as the Candian Red Ensign flag flies at an early Remembrance Day ceremony at the Southwold Township ceremony in Shedden, Ont. southwest of London, Sunday, November. 9, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Dave Chidley
The proclamation, signed by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, of the new National Flag of Canada. Library and Archives Canada
Two of the final three flag designs considered in 1964 to replace Canada's red ensign flag. One features a trio of red maple leaves with blue stripes on either side while the other features the accepted design with Union Jack and Fleur-de-lys. CP PHOTO/Files
A flag design suggested by A.R.C Jones in 1964. A.R.C. Jones. Library and Archives Canada
A suggested flag design submitted by Germain Tremblay from Montreal, in 1964. The accompanying text reads, "Blue, white red for element of French and English. Ten maple leafs represent the 10 provinces, coming together in a circle surrounding a symbolic beaver." . Germain Tremblay/Library and Archives Canada.
A suggested design for the new Canadian flag submitted by Annis Thompson in 1964. Annis Thompson/Library and Archives Canada
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A suggested design for Canada's new national flag, submitted by W. Howard Ellis in 1964. W. Howard Ellis/Library and Archives Canada

By contrast, the day last month when Canada’s first prime minister, Conservative John A. MacDonald, would have turned 200 years old attracted the prime minister to Kingston, Ont., as well as former prime ministers Kim Campbell and John Turner, government House leader Peter Van Loan and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, among other distinguished guests.

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A celebration for the War of 1812, meanwhile, warranted its own government website,, and five years worth of news releases.

“The Liberals think the flag should have been celebrated at least as much as the War of 1812,” Dion said. “We are very proud of what Sir John A. did for the country. To celebrate him is very important. But it’s also important to celebrate the flag.”

The price tags for the celebrations are also revealing; Ottawa earmarked $50,000 for celebrations for the flag’s birthday, compared to almost $4 million for the celebration of Sir John A.’s birth, and $5.2 million for advertising related to the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to the heritage minister, explained the discrepancy by saying the government doesn’t need to spend any significant sum to promote a flag already so well-known around the world.

“I think a lot less people knew and know about what happened during the War of 1812,” Dykstra said. “Ensuring that there is an awareness and educational aspect to the celebration of 1812 certainly is a lot different than people’s understanding, Canadians’ knowledge and belief and love of the Canadian flag. If money were necessary to celebrate the flag we’d spend it.”

Asked why he believes the Conservatives are doing only the “bare minimum,” Dion said he didn’t want to “speculate about something that should be so far above partisanship.”

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Although a Liberal prime minister was in power when the national flag was born, the flag has come to symbolize the country — not a party or dogma or class of people, Dion said.

“It’s clearly Canadian. It’s beautiful, it’s a celebration of our immense nature,” he said.

By the time Pearson even launched his hunt for a flag, Parliament had been bouncing the idea around for a half century.

It began with a committee struck in 1925 that never finished its job.

Twenty years later, another committee was tasked with researching potential Canadian flags and received upwards of 2,500 submissions. Again, this committee never settled on anything, and Parliament was never called to vote on a favoured design.

GALLERY: Canadians across the land wrote to the prime minister in 1964 with their ideas for a new national flag. Some featured beavers, geese and fleurs-de-lys.

This proposed design for the new national flag was submitted in 1964. The unknown artist combined the triple maple leaf and beaver on a blue, white and red background. Library and Archives Canada
This suggestion from George Bist, received likely a bit too late for consideration, resembles the current flag, save for blue bands instead of red. George Bist/Library and Archives Canada
Marcel Therrien submitted this design in September 1964 as a proposal for how Canada's new national flag should look. Marcel Therrien. Library and Archives Canada
A suggested design for Canada's new flag, submitted by Louise C. Savage of Edmonton, in 1964. Louise C. Savage/Library and Archives Canada
This proposed design for the new national flag features three Canadian geese, nine maple leaves and a fleur-de-lys. QaSena/Library and Archives Canada
This design, submitted to the government in 1964, was one of the thousands of suggestions Parliament received as it looked for a new national flag. The person who submitted this design is unknown. Library and Archives Canada
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This suggested design for the new national flag came with a legend to show where each province and territory was represented on the proposed flag. D.F. Stedman/Library and Archives Canada
Jennifer Robinson submitted this colourful design in 1964 as a suggestion when Parliament was on the hunt for a new national flag. Jennifer Robinson/Library and Archives Canada

Finally, in 1964, Pearson set a goal to adopt a Canadian flag ahead of the centennial Confederation celebrations three years down the road. An all-party committee soon shortlisted three designs.

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Settling on one of the three wasn’t easy — different influencers preferred different designs. Pearson preferred the blue flag with three red maple leafs on a white square in the middle; others preferred the design similar to the winner, but adorned with a Union Jack and three fleurs-de-lys.

Those embellishments — the triple maple leaf, Union Jack and fleurs-de-lys — were all throwbacks to the Red Ensign, the flag that had long represented Canada though never officially adopted.

These are two of the final three flag designs considered in 1964 to replace the Canada\’s red ensign flag. One features a trio of redmaple leaves with blue stripes on either side while the other features the accepted design with Union Jack and Fleur-de-Lys.
These are two of the final three flag designs considered in 1964 to replace the Canada\’s red ensign flag. One features a trio of redmaple leaves with blue stripes on either side while the other features the accepted design with Union Jack and Fleur-de-Lys. THE CANADIAN PRESS

Eventually, the committee chose the now familiar flag, bearing a red maple leaf on a white square between two vertical red bands. The design was brought to Parliament for a vote, which it passed, 163 to 78.

Liberal stalwart Jean Chretien and party leader Justin Trudeau will host a public event on Sunday afternoon at the University of Toronto Mississauga athletic centre. 

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Five flag facts:

1. Canadians can sign up to receive a flag flown on the Hill, but patience is required. The wait list for a Peace Tower flag, which is changed every weekday, is 48 years. The wait list for flags flown atop East Block and West Block, which are changed weekly, is 34 years.

2. The government stores new flags in the basement of Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

3. King George V designated red and white Canada’s official colours in 1921, though the colour combination first appeared on Queen Victoria’s Service Medals.

4. In an effort to bolster unity during the Quebec referendum, then-heritage minister Sheila Copps hatched the idea to give away a million flags. The program ended up costing taxpayers $15 million.

5. The Reform party once presented a motion to grant MPs permission to display the flag on their desks. The House of Commons in 1998 debated the motion for weeks, eventually defeating it.

With a file from The Canadian Press

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