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Canada 150

Feb. 15, 1965 – the first time Canada raised the Maple Leaf – is a day Peggy Forde won't soon forget

Peggy Forde recalls being chosen by her teacher to receive the class’s flag and carry it from the inauguration ceremony in the gym back into the classroom.

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It was the proudest moment of my scant 8½ years, prouder than when I was allowed to hold the squalling bundle that was my new baby brother, prouder than the first time I rode my brand new red two-wheeler down the street and prouder than when I won a prize for highest academic standing in my Grade 2 class.

I don't exactly remember getting ready for school that day. But I'm certain that my mother made sure I was wearing a clean white blouse and that the pleats on my navy tunic were crisply pressed. My dad would have polished my lace-up oxfords until they shone like the patent-leather Mary-Janes I coveted. I would have been bundled up for the bus ride – leggings and a snow jacket, warm, hand-knit mittens and a hat that tied under my chin.

It was Feb. 15, 1965, the day that Canada's long-awaited, controversial new flag was to be inaugurated. At noon on Parliament Hill, and in ceremonies all across the country, the Maple Leaf would be raised for the first time. Every classroom in Canada was to get a new flag to replace variations of the old Canadian Red Ensign, which had been our country's unofficial flag since 1921. Northview Elementary School in Pointe-Claire, Que., was no exception.

Who would have the privilege of receiving the class's flag? The anticipation was high. When my teacher announced my name, I was thrilled and then nervous. I would be carrying it from the inauguration ceremony in the gym back into the classroom. Would the flag be heavy? I might trip! Worse, I might get a nosebleed to which I was prone.

I don't know why I was chosen. I didn't particularly like my teacher and I don't think she liked me. She was a stylish young woman who wore her blonde hair in a beehive and favoured cat's-eye glasses. She once caught me giggling behind a book at something she said in a Geography lesson and sent me out into the hall to stand facing the wall with the other miscreants. I was terribly ashamed and hated her forever after.

Whatever the reason, I felt honoured and I didn't want to let anybody down. We all lined up at the classroom door – I was the shortest and we usually lined up according to height – so I led the class into the gymnasium. I remember the sound of hundreds of hard-soled shoes marching down the hallway (no sneakers allowed in those days, except in phys ed). As the rest of my classmates found their row on the gym floor, I was directed to a chair at the front. My little legs dangled but didn't swing, as I tried to behave according to the honour bestowed upon me.

There were the crisp new flags on poles waiting for the small hands that would carry them to their new homes. More than 600 voices, students, teachers and parents sang God Save the Queen and O Canada. There were speeches. Throughout this whole event, I was blissfully unaware of the controversy surrounding the design of the Maple Leaf and then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson's push for a new flag, which caused much debate in Parliament and in the streets.

At 8½, I didn't care that Pearson's favoured design – three red maple leaves, joined at the stem on a white background, with blue borders – had been dubbed "Pearson's Pennant" by those who opposed the design. I didn't know about the flag's many roadblocks and how a new parliamentary committee was given six weeks to come up with a solution. How this 15-person panel met 35 times and received thousands of design submissions from across the country (including maple leaves, Union Jacks, beavers and fleurs-de-lis). Or how it was a suggestion from George Stanley, dean of arts and history professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, to model the flag after RMC's own – three equal panels, red-white-red. Stanley suggested a red maple leaf in the white centre would make a striking flag.

On Feb. 15, 1965, I didn't know that the committee's report, proposing Stanley's design, had met with intense opposition, debate raging until, on Dec. 15, 1964, a vote was held. The Maple Leaf was accepted 163 to 78, with Senate approval following two days later. Canada now had its own distinctive national flag.

In his address to the nation that day, prime minister Pearson stated, "This ceremony today is not a break with history but a new stage in Canada's forward march from a group of separate and scattered and dependent colonies, to a great and sovereign Confederation stretching from sea to sea and from our Southern border to the North Pole."

Although the memory is hazy, I like to think The Maple Leaf Forever was playing as we marched out of the gymnasium that day, flags carried high, hearts bursting with pride.

In 1997, CBC mounted a contest to rewrite the dated, colonial lyrics of The Maple Leaf Forever. I love its new chorus, written by the winner – actor and poet Vladimir Radian, who came to Canada from Romania in the 1980s.

"Long may it wave, and grace our own,

Blue skies and stormy weather,

Within my heart, above my home,

The Maple Leaf forever!"

Peggy Forde grew up in Pointe-Claire, Que., and now lives in Mississauga, Ont.