Bob Harper, head of the 50 Years Our Flag Committee in Brockville, Ont. – a group trying to have the town officially recognized as the flag’s birthplace so it can host next year’s 50th anniversary celebrations – says the former MP’s role was much greater than is generally known. He insists Mr. Matheson was largely personally responsible for the final design.
“John was the nurturing father of the whole process,” said Mr. Harper, who knew Mr. Matheson and has researched the flag’s origins for a forthcoming book. “… It is one of the most recognized symbols in the world.”
Symbols and history were certainly very important to Mr. Matheson. He was a Mason, a former honorary president of the United Empire Loyalists and a driving force behind the founding of the Canadian Heraldic Authority. Born in Arundel, Que., the son of a church minister, he was proud of his Scottish heritage and a lifelong member of the United Church. For two decades, he was a trustee at Queen’s University, from which he graduated in 1940 with a degree in economics, and where up until recently he was a fixture at football games.
“He comes from a Scots family, he was very loyal to his clan and to everything to which he belonged, including Queen’s of course,” said John Meisel, professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s. “He believed in symbols. He had a great interest in history and continuity. … In this computerized world that we live in, that tends to be overlooked now.”
Mr. Matheson’s first cousin once removed is former Kingston-area Liberal MP Peter Milliken, who retired as Speaker of the House of Commons in 2011, and he remembers how Mr. Matheson took him around Parliament Hill in the mid-1960s when he was still a university student, introducing his young cousin to John Diefenbaker, Mr. Pearson and Mr. Trudeau.
“I had hardly ever watched the House before,” Mr. Milliken said, recalling that Mr. Matheson told him to subscribe to Hansard and answered his questions on Commons procedure by giving a copy of the rules, the Standing Orders. “It was a very informative thing at a young age, which got me quite keen on procedure and all that sort of stuff.”
Losing his seat by just four votes in 1968 – the year of Trudeaumania and a Liberal landslide elsewhere – was a disappointment, his son Roderick said. But Mr. Matheson was soon appointed as a judge, a job that ensured his family was well provided for but made him miss the cut-and-thrust of politics.
He was first appointed to the Judicial District of Ottawa-Carleton in 1968, before moving to the County Court of Lanark in Perth, Ont., in 1979. In 1985, he was appointed to the District Court of Ontario and served on the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division) from 1990 to 1992.
In 1982, he presided over a courtroom battle in Perth that captured the country’s attention and was seen at the time as a milestone in the rights of the disabled.
At the centre of the case was then-20-year-old Justin Clark, a man with severe cerebral palsy who could not walk, talk or care for himself and who had spent his entire life confined to an institution for the mentally disabled in Smiths Falls, Ont. He wanted to move into an Ottawa group home. But his parents wanted him declared mentally incompetent so they could block the move.
Mr. Matheson heard from various doctors and from Mr. Clark himself, who addressed the court using a communication tool called a Bliss board – the first time such a device had been used in a Canadian courtroom.
Mr. Clark smiled broadly and squealed when Mr. Matheson read his ruling out loud in court declaring that Mr. Clark could make decisions for himself.
“We have, all of us, recognized a gentle, trusting, believing spirit and very much a thinking human being who has his unique part to play in our compassionate interdependent society,” the ruling reads.
Mr. Matheson’s son Roderick said the former judge received Christmas cards from Mr. Clark and his caregivers every year since.
He slowed down in his later years and began using a wheelchair. But he appeared to lose little of his trademark enthusiasm. In recent years, he urged the federal government to adopt an official tartan and donated an island he owned on the St. Lawrence River to Thousand Islands National Park.
At 80, he celebrated his 53rd wedding anniversary with his first skydive. Among his many awards, he was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1993, an honour he helped create in the 1960s.
Mr. Matheson leaves his wife Edith, three sisters, his six children,18 grandchildren and one great-grandson.