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Unfortunately, there's no way to put this delicately.

It's just embarrassing.

With Sunday being the 50th anniversary of the raising of the Canadian Flag over Parliament, one would think there might be something special under way in Ottawa, the country's capital.

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It was with some satisfaction, then, that an announcement came that the renamed Canadian Museum of History directly across the Ottawa River from the Peace Tower would be mounting a special exhibition.

The tribute – "Notre Drapeau a 50 ans/Our Flag at 50" – opened Feb. 6 and will close July 5, four days after Parliament Hill will again be a sea of red-and-white maple leaf celebrants.

It costs $12 to get into the museum ($11 for a senior) and $7.50 to park for a couple of hours. It takes about five minutes to go through the entire exhibit and, sadly, you'd be reluctant to pay a nickle for the experience.

This is not because the museum lacks the talent to put on excellent displays – the two shows that bracket the flag birthday, "Empress of Ireland" and "1867 – Rebellion and Confederation" – are superb. The obvious reason is money, and commitment.

The federal government has allocated a mere $50,000 to celebrate the flag's birthday – a banner first raised by a Liberal government, after all – compared to nearly $4-million to mark 200 years since the birth of Conservative prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald.

Two young visitors from Stuttgart, Germany, Alina Klopfer, 22, and Michael Rehme, 21, were working their way through the display this week and seemed, well, rather underwhelmed, albeit diplomatic about being so. "A nice bonus for people already coming to the museum, I guess," Mr. Rehme said, "but not worth going to see."

The special exhibition of the Canadian flag does not even merit its own room. Instead, it is nothing but a glass case along an outside wall that stretches for 10 paces or so and holds a few grainy photographs of then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson, some light historical reference and various designs studied by a parliamentary committee prior to the actual choice of the flag that first flew on Feb. 15, 1965.

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The designs are somewhat intriguing. One known as "Pearson's Pennant" had three leaves rather than one and two blue stripes on each side to represent the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That, of course, would cause the political fur to fly this century, as the Arctic Ocean would suffer that common Canadian affliction of being neglected and insulted.

"These paintings," a small sign says, "never before exhibited, offer a behind-the-scenes look at the committee's deliberations."

But there is so much more to tell about this difficult birth 50 years ago. The committee struck in the 1960s wasn't even the first, as squabbling over a unique flag for Canada went back to the 1890s and through similar committees set up in 1925 and 1946. Hundreds of designs were proposed, only to have opinions boil to the point where politicians decided it was wiser just to walk away and forget about it.

It was another anniversary, in fact, that led to the country finally getting its own flag. Centennial Year was fast approaching and Mr. Pearson used the opportunity to try, try again. He took his idea to Winnipeg, where he introduced it to a largely Legion crowd, the veterans booing loudly every time he mentioned a maple leaf and cheering wildly each time the Red Ensign came up.

It didn't help that the species of maple that the early designs featured wasn't found west of Ontario, but this being Canada, noses out of joint were expected. Mr. Pearson called for "a patriotism that will put Canada ahead of its parts," while many in the crowd called for the prime minister's own head.

"Go home!" they roared. He did, but he was determined to see the flag debate through, and did.

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A much more interesting behind-the-scenes look at the committee that finally completed the task would have been a wider display of some of the stranger designs put forward. One was of a beaver surrounded by her 10 little kits (provinces, get it?). There was also a leaping salmon flag, several moose and, hard as it might be to believe, one featuring crossed hockey sticks over a puck.

As Rick Archbold showed in his 2002 book, I Stand for Canada: The Story of the Maple Leaf Flag, that debate over the flag stands among the nastiest in our history. And that's pretty stiff competition. Just wander into the next-door exhibition on Confederation and see where Agnes Macdonald wrote in her diary on July 5, 1867, four days after her husband presided over the country's birth, that "The atmosphere is so awfully political – that sometimes I think the very flies hold Parliament on the Kitchen Table cloths."

And yet, despite the best efforts of former prime minister John Diefenbaker and his allies who wanted to stick with the Red Ensign, Mr. Pearson's initiative eventually won the day, the House of Commons voting 163-78 on Dec. 15, 1964, to go with the maple leaf – even if certain factors believed then, and some may still today, that the bright red looks like "Liberal electioneering bunting."

That, surely, was a long time ago. No one thinks politics when Olympic athletes drape this flag around their shoulders for a victory lap or break into tears and song as it is raised to the roof. That flag is on backpacks and ball caps as quite another statement: pride in one's country.

It seems, at times, that ordinary Canadians care more than those who are elected. The government of the day puts up some extra flags and brags about the museum exhibition and a collector's coin and commemorative stamp – but that's about all that's officially acknowledging this 50th birthday.

Retired Ottawa advertising executive Roy Mayer has had a campaign going since 1981 to have "Flag Day" recognized as a statutory holiday. He dutifully sent off his annual letters of plea knowing they will once again fall on deaf ears, but he has no intention of stopping.

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Mr. Mayer finds the government's effort this year, given the significant milestone, "pathetic."

"Disgraceful," adds Mr. Archbold. "But the flag flies on."

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