An anniversary and a loss in the world of good design

Canadian flag outside the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Image: Jared Grove, Creative Commons

Canadian flag outside the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Image: Jared Grove, Creative Commons

February 15 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most recognizable flags in the world, the red Canadian Maple Leaf.

The event comes with a curious lack of funding and pomp in Canada, when compared to the hoopla directed toward the 200th anniversary of a generally-forgettable war. (Yes, yes. The War of 1812 was a very big deal in our listening area. But Canada wasn’t even an actual country then. Just saying.)

This CBC article includes a clutch of flag and patriotic-themed videos from the past several decades, including the famous beer ad. Who can forget your-average-Joe getting a little excited talking about “I am Canadian.

I remember some discussion of the flag change, which I read about thanks to the Scholastic Company’s “Weekly Reader“. (Expo 67 shows off Canada’s new flag, or something like that.) With absolutely no idea I would ever visit Canada – let alone move there – even little Lucy thought the new national banner had a pleasing simplicity.

Fifty years is recent enough for there to be plenty of personal anecdotes about how that flag came to be. Here’s a  post from 2014 about Joan O’Malley, a young Ottawa woman who sewed the flag’s prototype as a favor to her civil servant Dad.

For background’s sake, here is a timeline of flags used to represent Canada across the centuries. (Just because I think it’s fun to look at, here’s a timeline of various U.S. flags too.)

This sea-to-sea finalist that included the historically-important colors of red and blue was not chosen.

This sea-to-sea finalist that included the historically-important colors of red and blue was not chosen.

As could be expected, the idea of creating a new flag as an exercise in improving national unity was hugely controversial. Complains were raised (then and since) that what emerged was too red (suggesting Britain or the Liberal Party), or that a different nominee was a better pick.

But 50 years on, the Maple Leaf has definitely taken root. It’s instantly-recognizable and celebrated as a icon of national identity. A fine example of good, clean design.

Many individuals had a part in creating the Maple Leaf. Writing for Maclean’s, John Geddes argues the man who should get more credit for the final flag was Jacques St-Cyr, part of a top-notch design team for Montréal’s up-coming Expo-67:

The designer had grown up in Trois-Rivières, Que., served in Europe during the Second World War, then studied in New York before coming to work for the government. [Patrick] Reid says St-Cyr was a somewhat introverted man, but a strong Quebec nationalist who seemed “ a bit stunned” to be asked to work on Canada’s flag. “Anyway, he gulped a bit and grinned and said, ‘Okay, sure, let’s go.’ ”

Could anyone do as well with a similar task today? Geddes suspects not.

Pleasing to the eye and hand, the soy sauce bottle by Kenji Ekuan just works.and it works. Image: Creative Tools, Creative Commons

Pleasing to the eye and hand, the soy sauce bottle by Kenji Ekuan just works. Image: Creative Tools, Creative Commons

Speaking of good design that proves its worth over and over, I must add that the world lost a great creative force earlier this month. Kenji Ekuan wasn’t exactly a household name in North America. But the chances are you’ve used his most popular design: the classic soy sauce bottle. His range was amazing, from the little drip-free dispenser to the bullet train.

Ekuan was remembered in this NPR obituary:

A native of Hiroshima, Ekuan was 17 when the city was hit by an atomic bomb toward the end of World War II. In the blast, he lost his sister and father, who was a Buddhist priest. He later said the devastation motivated him to start building things.

“Faced with brutal nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for something to touch, something to look at,” he told Japanese broadcaster NHK. “The existence of tangible things is important. It’s evidence that we’re here as human beings.”

Is there any connection between a shoyu bottle and a flag? Well, I think it’s suggested in Ekuan’s comment. The  best designs are practical, beautiful and evocative. This flag suggests the heart-felt connection of people to their land, as symbolized by the humble leaf of an iconic tree.

If you’d like to actually do something connected with the Maple Leaf’s 50th anniversary, you need go no farther than Brockville, which is holding a (first- annual) flag festival on the 15th.

And? So? Did Canada pick the right flag?

Older readers, what do you remember about that change?

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4 Comments on “An anniversary and a loss in the world of good design”

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  1. bill shaver says:

    Without question it is the right flag, no more hyphenated peoples, but as one, hence the lone maple leaf. a very beautiful flag that did many things and to implement at the time rectified many probles with no end in sight. The 100th aniversary of the Creation of the Dominion of Canada, perfect, welcomed in everyone where they could come be new Canadians & not lose their Identity from where they came from, drastically different from other places Also the pm at the time THE RIGHT HONARABLE LESTER B.PEARSON…the prince of peace, maple leaf forever would work today the upgraded one certainly, but i like O’Canada better as its sung in both languages. This has to do with founding nations and the quebec act of 1774. Which cannot be revoked. in usa i notice they say not much about the land called usa when it was under control of france & land/fur company of 100 associates, land between the two mountain rages from Mexico gulf to Arctic circle, and East to mouth of Stlawerence river. Des plus arpent de glassage et neige, ( the many arpent of ice & snow),so said Voltaire.

  2. bill shaver says:

    THe so called great flag debate started with the govt of Quebec establishing the current Fleur de lis flag as the flag of quebec in 1948, and of course just like tom Sawyer getting his fence painted others jumped in, the maple leaf idea came out of Mr Pearson over what Mr Nasier of Egypt told him durring the cooling off period in the 1956 Suez crisis( Mr Pearson came up with idea of peackeepers, at the time Mr Pearson was Canada ambassador to UN), canadian troops were offered up as peackeeper, but Mr Nasier said they dressed & looked to English, But mr Nasier accepted the idea, the world stepped back from the brink & Mr Pearson recieved credits to the point of the nobel peace prize for this….not many in nehibour to south know these stories, sad, but others around the world remember…sad but true….

  3. Peter Klein says:

    Not Canadian but I love that flag. It is one of the most beautiful flags in the world.
    Naturally, being American, I do prefer the Stars and Stripes.

  4. bill shaver says:

    Quite so, and not beating my own drum, but have heard this from many around the world.when Mr P.Trudeau passed, at the visitation in Ottawa, you’d See on Tv the people interviewed about who they were & when they came to Canad, most were in 60’& 70 arrivals, the good times or better yet still the happy times, most stated why they came was because of that flag & the ideals that were being brought forth by those in govt at the time, namely Mr L.B.Pearson & Mr P.E.Trudeau… said a great deal, most in usa think they were not men of consequence, but yet outside usa they mattered….on what they said & stood for, that flag…MAPLE LEAF FOREVER…CHECK IT OUT ON YOUTUBE ARTICLES RELATED TO ALL AFORE MENTIONED…even the kiniscopes about Expo76.

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