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John Ross Matheson turned down Lester Pearson’s suggestion that he chair the committee to select a new flag design so he could fight for the best design.JUSTIN TANG/The Canadian Press

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.

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.

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