Gateway Gazette

Maple Leaf Forever

A Rhodes Scholar and prominent historian, UAlberta alumnus George Stanley was also the designer of Canada’s national flag.

Canada's iconic maple leaf flag was designed by UAlberta alumnus George Stanley. (Photo: marke1996 via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Canada’s iconic maple leaf flag was designed by UAlberta alumnus George Stanley. (Photo: marke1996 via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

“It meets all the tests for a distinguished flag. It is a flag of dignity and grace, worthy of a great sovereign nation.” —John Matheson

A noted historian, Rhodes Scholar and lieutenant-governor, George Francis Gillman Stanley, ‘29 BA, ‘71 LLD (Honorary), made a singular contribution to Canada’s identity as the designer of its distinctive maple leaf flag.

Like many parents, George Stanley’s mother and father wanted him to be a lawyer, and in the autumn of 1925 he moved from Calgary and entered the combined program of arts and law at the University of Alberta. Initially planning to article with R.B. Bennett—a friend of his father’s who would go on to become Canada’s 11th prime minister—Stanley instead fell in love with history, and was mentored by U of A historian A.L. Burt. Burt, a graduate of Oxford, encouraged Stanley to apply to be a Rhodes Scholar. Stanley was accepted, and headed for England in 1929.

George Stanley (far right) on the U of A campus with his fellow students in 1928-29 (Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2968-50)
George Stanley (far right) on the U of A campus with his fellow students in 1928-29 (Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2968-50)

At Oxford, Stanley played for the Oxford University Hockey Club, also known as the Blues. Many prominent Canadians have played for the Blues, Europe’s oldest hockey team, including Governor General Roland Michener, National Hockey League President Clarence Campbell, Supreme Court Justice Ronald Martland, and current member of Parliament Randy Boissonnault. All four men, along with Stanley, have the distinction of being U of A Rhodes Scholars.

The Oxford University hockey team in St. Moritz, Switzerland, 1930-31. Ronald Martland is to the left of goalie L.H. Little, with Stanley to his right. (Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2968-3)
The Oxford University hockey team in St. Moritz, Switzerland, 1930-31. Ronald Martland is to the left of goalie L.H. Little, with Stanley to his right. (Photo: Glenbow Archives NA-2968-3)

In 1931 Stanley was part of Oxford’s Spengler Cup winning team, and it was while he was there that he wrote his seminal work The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions. According to U of A historian Rod Macleod, the book, published in 1936, “was the first scholarly study of the 1885 Rebellion and one of the first scholarly works on Western Canadian history.”

Upon his return to Canada, Stanley joined the history department at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. In 1949, he moved to the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., where he taught for 20 years before returning to Mount Allison as director of the Canadian Studies Program, the first undergraduate program of its kind in the country.

During his time in academia, Stanley pioneered the study of Western Canadian history, publishing 15 books and teaching a lifetime’s worth of courses. The subject, according to Macleod, “will always be identified with his name.” In spite of his academic accomplishments, however, Stanley is mostly remembered for another extraordinary accomplishment: designing the Canadian flag.

In 1964, the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson—himself a former Rhodes Scholar and Oxford Blue—established a joint House and Senate committee to choose a uniquely Canadian flag. Liberal MP John Matheson, who was on the committee, sought out Stanley for advice. Stanley replied with a five-page letter providing background information on the history of Canadian heraldry, its national emblems and some advice on developing a new flag.

“I told them that it had to be red and white,” said Stanley. “It had to be distinct—completely identifiable—and it had to be something children could draw.” At the end of his letter, Stanley provided a sketch with two options, including one he preferred: a single stylized maple leaf centred on a white background between two vertical bars.

Stanley’s sketch of two concepts for the Canadian flag (Image: Library and Archives Canada)
Stanley’s sketch of two concepts for the Canadian flag (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

Feelings about a new flag were mixed across the country, with many, including Conservative leader John Diefenbaker, wanting to keep the Royal Union or Red Ensign flag. Following heated debate in which the government had to invoke closure, Parliament approved Stanley’s version of the flag on Dec. 15, 1964. It was raised for the first time on Feb. 15, 1965, in Ottawa. In true Canadian fashion, Stanley wore a Hudson’s Bay coat to the ceremony.

Stanley’s design was criticized by many at the time for replacing the Union Jack and the Red Ensign, but he shrugged it off. “I told them calmly, ‘Just give it 30 years.’” In 2015, the Stanley flag, the Canadian flag, celebrated its 50th year.

Postcard from Liberal MP John Matheson to Stanley congratulating him on the approval of the Canadian flag in 1964. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)
Postcard from Liberal MP John Matheson to Stanley congratulating him on the approval of the Canadian flag in 1964. (Image: Library and Archives Canada)

From 1982–1987, George Stanley served as lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick. He was named a companion of the Order of Canada and a Knight of Justice of the Order of St. John. He received a Canadian Forces Decoration, was a recipient of 12 honorary degrees and was a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, the Royal Society of Canada, the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada and the Royal Historical Society. In 1971 he received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, and in 1998 he received the U of A Alumni Association’s highest honour, the Distinguished Alumni Award.

George Stanley died on Sept. 13, 2002, at the age of 95, receiving full military honours. He was buried in Sackville, N.B., near the school where he had taught for much of his life, surrounded by the flag he had helped create.

“Canadians from the four corners of our country have long looked upon the maple leaf as their symbol. They have seen it on the Coat of Arms of Canada; they have worn it on their uniforms; they have sung its glories…. The new flag is the symbol of our pride, our independence and our destiny. It is now the focus of our loyalty to our great northern land.” —George Stanley

The proclamation of the national flag of Canada (Image: Library and Archives Canada, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The proclamation of the national flag of Canada (Image: Library and Archives Canada, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This story is updated from previous stories in New Trail magazine and on the UAlberta Centennial page.

University of Alberta

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