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Midwifing the Canadian Flag

I was contacted this week by the daughter of Don Watt, a well known Canadian graphic designer responsible for the branding and logos at many large companies including Loblaws and WalMart. Watt had just died at the end of December, and she was looking for more information from me about her father’s account of how he had secretly been the designer of the modern Canadian Flag. She contacted me, because in his story, my father, Charles Templeton, had been the go-between for Watt and the government leaders who picked the flag.

There’s a bit about Watt’s story in this Toronto Star Obituary for him. His version contradicts the official version quite markedly, and there is evidence on both sides. Many of the players, however, are deceased.

As the story goes, there was a plan to give Canada its own flag, replacing the colonial Red Ensign. A national contest was held, and people could submit designs. Don Watt worked at Hathaway-Templeton, a design firm co-founded by my uncle Bill Templeton in Toronto. My father was also working at Hathaway-Templeton at the time — his brother gave him a job to help him recover from his expensive 2nd place run for leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. (Or this may have been just before he worked there, during his various visits to his brother’s company.)

Watt came up with a flag design, supposedly like the current one but with blue bars (“From sea to sea” being the motto.) He says he did this because my father told him the government didn’t like the designs that were coming in through the competition. Watt did a design and my father took it to the leadership in Ottawa — the Liberal party was in power at the time under Prime Minister “Mike” Pearson, and they were the ones driving the controversial flag change. In one version of the story Pearson likes the design but prefers red bars (the Liberal party colours after all, but also the national colours.) Contradictory reports say Pearson liked an alternate design with blue bars but 3 maple leaves in the middle.

According to Watt, when his flag was chosen, it was also felt it would be bad if it were known that the design came from a professional logo designer, and worse, from one working for a design firm with many government contracts and tied to a prominent person in the Liberal party (ie. my father.) This was very far from the impression they had of a populist contest.

So it was, according to Watt, agreed that his role and my father’s would be kept silent. Many others had similar designs, bars and maple leaves in various sizes and configurations were common in many of them. Other names got the glory, but Watt was content with that.

Watt told his family, and later after the secrecy period was over, others in the industry but never made big public declarations about it. He told it to my cousin with whom he worked closely.

Is the story true? It’s hard to evaluate. The others did have similar designs, and even if Watt’s version is correct, I suspect they honestly believe it was their designs that were used. And of course, it may be true. From what little I know of Mr. Watt, he seems to have a good reputation and many other claims to fame, so it does not seem the sort of story he would need to make up.

However, my prime reason for some skepticism comes from the fact that my father never told me this story, nor put it in his memoirs. He wasn’t the sort of person to avoid bragging. If the story is true and he never told of it, he must have had a particularly strong sense of honour on the temporary bond of secrecy, and did not want to disrupt the official story. Nor did Watt until his later years.

Still, it was an interesting anecdote to hear. The Canadian experience is different from the U.S. one. Things like the Candian flag and constitution are events in living memory, while for the USA, they are distant history. If true, it would be a fun thing to add to the list of family stories.

On a side note, the Canadian flag is considered one of the better ones from a graphic design standpoint by some.