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.
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 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.
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