By James Bone
From Confederation through to the Great Canadian Flag Debate of 1964, the quest to give visual identification to the Canadian nation through an official flag was an elusive one. At various times the Union flag of the United Kingdom and the Canadian Red Ensign stood in unofficially for Canada, but attempts to create our own flag never bore fruit. Prime Minister Mackenzie King made an attempt between 1924–31 and there were periods of renewed interest during the Second World War, however these invariably fizzled due to partisan differences in Parliament. At the end of the War, Mackenzie King again sought a solution to the problem. In November 1945, his government struck a joint House of Commons and Senate committee to consider and report upon finding a suitable and distinct flag for Canada. To achieve this task, the Committee announced its intention to accept design submissions from the public.
Flag Design Submissions
To say that the Committee was inundated with potential designs would be an understatement. By the submission deadline, the official count was 2,695 and many more continued to arrive. The Committee’s records, which include a sampling of correspondence thanking people for their submissions, reveal that among those to submit design proposals were people such as the artist David Milne and Dominion Archivist Gustave Lanctôt. There were also designs received from children, veterans and Canadians of all sorts. To facilitate discussion, voting and the elimination of designs, the Committee created a process to count and classify the elements found in each submission. Prominent elements were maple leaves, beavers, the Union Jack and the fleur-de-lys.
During its mandate, the Committee also received and kept correspondence from the public. Some Canadians supported the process to find a suitable national flag, while others felt that any new flag would dishonour the memory of the recent Second World War dead. Likewise, some correspondents felt it would be unacceptable to include any element of French identity, while others pushed for a flag that reflected both the British and the French heritages of Canada.
Donald Nelson Baird’s Submission
One submission to the Committee arrived by way of Dorothy Baird of Truro, Nova Scotia, on behalf of her younger brother, Donald Nelson Baird (1920–2001). Originally from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Donald had suffered the effects of polio as a child and had only limited use of his arms, hands and legs. Despite this hardship, he learned to draw and paint with watercolours and would soon find himself at the centre of a national debate on the future of the Canadian flag.
Baird’s design was not overly complex. As described in the Committee minutes, it was simply a “Canadian Red Ensign with a maple leaf in autumn golden colour replacing the Coat-of-Arms on the fly.” The design was submitted as a small watercolour painting on paper and, like all submissions, received an identifying number from the Committee.
The design appealed to many members of the Committee, which had received several similar designs. However, given its prominent use of the Union Jack, its red field, and the lack of a French symbol, this appeal was far from unanimous.
In the first quarter of 1946, the Committee deliberated over the many designs it had received in order to make a final selection. Votes were conducted periodically to eliminate certain submissions from the competition. By May 17, 1946, only five designs remained in competition and soon thereafter that number was whittled down to just two: Baird’s design and the Ligue du drapeau national’s design, the latter of which did not include a Union Jack.
The main proponent in the Committee for Baird’s design was R.W. Gladstone, Member of Parliament for Wellington South (Ontario). In the expectation that the Committee would select Baird’s design, Gladstone wrote to Dorothy Baird asking for a suitable photograph of Donald for publicity purposes. The letter also reveals that many similar designs had been received and that, of these, Donald’s seemed the most suitable and typified what Gladstone believed to be the desire of most Committee members. As discussed below, the final design proposed by the Committee for consideration by Parliament was modified slightly from Baird’s and officially was a product of the Committee itself, with no reference to Baird in its reports or minutes. Gladstone’s letter to Dorothy Baird is thus the best available evidence to show that it was indeed Baird’s design selected by the Committee.
With just two designs remaining in competition, Gladstone then moved to have Baird’s design designated the new Flag of Canada. Deliberations stalled and a separate subcommittee was formed to study the question of whether or not a symbol other than the Union Jack could be used that would satisfy the majority of the Committee. Newspapers began running pieces about the new flag, with most Anglophone papers supporting Baird’s design, while Francophone newspapers such as La Presse supported the design by the Ligue du drapeau national. Cartoonist Bob Chambers, in an editorial cartoon for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, depicted Baird being lifted into the history books by Betsy Ross, the apocryphal designer of one of the first American flags. Baird’s name was also included in the November 1946 supplement to the biographical dictionary periodical Who’s Who.
On July 10, 1946, the subcommittee returned and reported that no alternate symbol could be found. Two members of the Committee remained opposed to Baird’s design as it both included a Union Jack and lacked any element of French Canadian heritage. By the time the Committee reconvened the following evening, the subcommittee had negotiated a compromise that the golden maple leaf would be “in a bordered background of white.” According to the minutes, this was to represent the French presence in Canada. This small modification was, in essence, the only change made to Baird’s original submission. This altered design was put to the Committee and passed in a vote of 22 to 1—thus making it their non-unanimous recommendation for the new flag. The Committee then prepared a final report for both houses of Parliament and recommended the appropriation of funds for the Secretary of State to produce prototypes of the new flag. Artist Frances Gage painted small prototypes, one of which is at the Canadian Museum of History, and an unknown number of full-sized prototypes were made and used for publicity photographs.
Outcome and legacy
Despite all the work that went into the Committee and its selection process, the final report was never presented to Parliament. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was reportedly in favour of the design but, out of consideration for national unity, it was more politic to quietly forget about the episode by invoking the fact that the Committee’s final vote had not quite been unanimous. As Baird’s name was not associated with the design in the Committee minutes and with the final design having been technically the creation of the Committee, his work was largely unknown as having been its inspiration and was soon forgotten outside of his family and community. Like most of the designs for which the Committee had a return address, Baird’s work was returned to his sister Dorothy and was kept by the family. For the next two decades, Dorothy frequently wrote to members of the provincial and federal governments when the question of a national flag resurfaced, urging them to reconsider Donald’s design. The last attempt was made in April 1964, when a sympathetic Member of Parliament, Robert Muir, informed Dorothy that Donald’s design would certainly find no favour with the government, as Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson had promised that the new national flag of Canada would be without the Union Jack.
This author speculates that had Baird’s design been adopted for a national flag in 1946, it likely would not have lasted through the period of renewed interest in establishing a more distinct national identity that came about in the 1960s and that produced the current National Flag of Canada. Nonetheless, Baird’s design and the work of the 1945–46 flag design committee most certainly help to illustrate aspects of the national mood towards Canadian identity in this perhaps lesser-known event in our history. Today, reproductions of Baird’s design can sometimes be found in specialty flag stores, though probably few know its whole story.
Library and Archives Canada has recently acquired the Donald Nelson Baird fonds, which features the original watercolour flag design, correspondence from the Committee and members of the public, newspaper clippings about Baird, and family photographs.
James Bone is a philatelic and art archivist with the Private Specialized Media team at Library and Archives Canada.