After an exploding German shell left him with six pieces of shrapnel in his head and initially paralyzed him from the neck down, John Ross Matheson returned to Canada, recovered all but the use of his right leg, and would play a masterminding role in the creation of Canada’s Maple Leaf flag, a rare unifying symbol in what was then a fractious country.
Along the way, he practised law, had six children, won an Eastern Ontario seat in the House of Commons and was later appointed a judge. He would also come up with the concept for the Order of Canada, another institution established as Canada came of age in the 1960s.
Mr. Matheson, an engaging personality whose expertise in heraldry came in handy as he championed the design of the flag, died on Dec. 27 in hospital in Kingston, Ont., of respiratory complications. He was 96.
“Canada has lost a great public servant,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement released on his Twitter account. “John R. Matheson played key roles in both the creation of the [Canadian] flag and the Order of Canada.”
It was 70 years ago last month, in December, 1943, when he was serving as a forward observation officer for Canada’s artillery near Ortona, Italy, when Mr. Matheson was seriously wounded and spirited away from the front. The story often told is that he wasn’t wearing his helmet because he preferred the look of his beret.
But his son, Roderick Matheson, who later also served in the military, said in an interview that his father once told him he had been wearing a helmet over his beret that night, although given the force of the blast it would have made little difference.
“I’ve seen a beret that has holes in it,” Roderick said. “The truth is: Who knows? But the story is, he liked the look of the beret. … They liked the dandy look of the beret and they didn’t like the helmets.”
The injury initially left Mr. Matheson paralyzed from the neck down. He would eventually be able to walk again, at times with a cane. But his right leg remained useless, and he would spend the rest of his life in pain, his son said. During his convalescence at a veterans hospital in Ste-Anne-De-Bellevue, Que., he met Edith Bickley, a radiologist’s assistant. They married in 1945, and would have six children.
After Mr. Matheson graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1948, the couple settled in Brockville, Ont., where Mr. Matheson co-founded a law firm. In a by-election in the area’s Leeds riding in 1961, he won the normally Tory seat for Lester B. Pearson’s Liberals, beginning a political career that won him friends across party lines.
He would eventually become the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary and share an office with then-parliamentary rookie Pierre Trudeau. But even before Mr. Pearson won a minority government in 1963, he gave Mr. Matheson a seemingly impossible task: Use his heraldry expertise to begin the process of developing a distinctive, modern flag to replace the Red Ensign before the 1967 Centennial celebrations.
An all-party committee of MPs was set up to cull suggested designs from a cluttered heap of beavers and fleurs-de-lis. Mr. Matheson refused Mr. Pearson’s suggestion that he actually chair the committee, thus ensuring he could fight for the best design, his son said, without having to worry about being impartial.
Various accounts have swirled around the creation of the flag and the contributions of Mr. Matheson, the late historian George Stanley and Quebec designer Jacques Saint-Cyr.
The official story has Mr. Matheson playing a co-ordinating role. Dr. Stanley, then dean of arts at Royal Military College in Kingston, suggested RMC’s distinctive red-and-white flag as a model to Mr. Matheson one day in March, 1964, as the flag fluttered over the campus. It was Mr. Matheson who fought to have the single Maple Leaf between two red bars unanimously approved by the committee and then passed by Parliament. The flag was further refined by Mr. Saint-Cyr, with the 11-point Maple Leaf appearing in the final design.
In remarks prepared for a speech at RMC after he and Dr. Stanley were honoured with a plaque on campus in 1991, Mr. Matheson noted that the Maple Leaf had been a Canadian symbol for more than a century, stressing that the flag was “more than the handiwork of two collaborators” and “resulted from agonizing deliberations of a 15-member parliamentary committee” as well as contributions from “many others who loved Canada more than life itself.”
But some say Mr. Matheson minimized his own role, both because he was not interested in accolades and as a tactical move to ensure the creation was not seen as a “Liberal” flag.