Do you remember the Great Canadian Flag Debate of 1964? When our country’s Prime Minister, Nobel Peace Prizewinner Lester B. Pearson wanted a new flag for Canada? One that stood alone? In the end, it all narrowed down here at Kingston!
Here’s the story of a major player during that time. Kingston’s own Captain Don Button, an airline transport pilot with the Federal Department of Transport V.I.P Service was ordered to fly a ‘mysterious package’ to Jamaica and to rendezvous with ‘a black limousine’ upon arrival. And return ASAP! No questions asked...
Late January, 1965
A Lockheed Jet Star sat warming its four engines on the tarmac at Ottawa International Airport. Outside this late January morning the temperature hovered just above freezing. Clouds to the north threatened snow later that afternoon.
Inside the cockpit, pilot in command Don Button went over his pre takeoff checklist with co-pilot Gordon Macaninch one final time. The ten seater executive jet belonged to the Federal Department of Transport V.I.P. Civil Operation. Both pilots were on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their job was to fly everyone from the Prime Minister to Queen Elizabeth herself and anyone in between, anywhere and anytime. Often with very little notice.
Seated back aft in the passenger lounge, a lone passenger adjusted his seatbelt carefully. On his lap was a sealed package that he refused to have out of his sight. Or his hands. The pilot didn’t see him coming aboard. He was busy inside the terminal building filing his flight plan and checking weather charts down the eastern seaboard from Ottawa to Kingston, Jamaica.
“Any idea who he is, Don?” the co-pilot asked.
“No,” the pilot replied, “but our orders are from the office of the Prime Minister. It’s a document to be signed by Attorney General Guy Favreau. He’ll meet us the minute we land in Jamaica. Serious stuff, I guess.”
“Please tell me we have a couple of days there.”
“We fly back immediately. Prime Minister Pearson has to sign this document while we fly him to Montreal. He heads to England from there with it and to attend Churchill’s funeral...” the pilot glanced off to the north of the active runway. “I don’t like the look of the weather, though Gordon. We might be IFR part way back.”
Both pilots glanced at the windsock near the terminal building. Flying beside the building two flags matched the sock in direction and velocity. What both men didn’t know was that the proud Canadian ensign was aloft for the last time. They also couldn’t know that they would be responsible for this.
Getting clearance from the tower, pilot Button lined her up to the center of the runway. “All set?” he called. Both co-pilot and flight engineer nodded. With that, the captain pushed the throttles to their limit and soon the sleek aircraft was in the air, turning slowly on a southerly heading.
Canada Day, 2014
Today, fifty years later, Don Button has a clear view of Kingston harbour from his condominium on Ontario Street. Front and center through his living room window is the Canadian flag designed by Dr. George Stanley who was the Dean of Arts at RMC back in 1964. ‘Pearson’s Pennant’ as it was called during the great flag debate of the mid-sixties, flies proudly from the top tower of the administration building at the Royal Military College today.
While it can’t be compared to Lindbergh’s epic New York to Paris flight in 1927, Button had no idea of the importance of his historic flight that January morning. “No, I had no idea what it was about at all,” he said. “The flight was about three and a half hours down. We had to stop and refuel at Miami and get clearance to fly over Cuba. I had asked for it before we departed but no one got back to me. We couldn’t prove that we weren’t military so we flew around. I used the radar to navigate between Cuba and Haiti and we went in from there. Once we landed at Kingston, we were told that we had to hop over to Montego Bay the next morning. That was where Attorney General Guy Favreau was on vacation, so he came aboard and put down his signature.
“Once we landed back in Ottawa, we refueled then Prime Minister Lester Pearson came aboard. The document was opened again and placed down on one of the tables. I was by the cockpit door as he had his pen and started to write. It was in the wrong spot. Someone said, ‘No – not there – here!’” he laughs at the memory. “There was an ink spot but somehow it got removed. It’s not there anymore.”
The document or proclamation was designed by calligrapher Yvonne Diceman. The text was in black ink using a quill pen while the heraldic elements were painted in gouache with gilt highlights. The Great seal of Canada was applied in wax over a silk ribbon. Discreetly signed by the calligrapher herself, it became official once Attorney General Favreau, Prime Minister Pearson – ink smudge and all – and Queen Elizabeth II herself added their signatures. Queen Elizabeth then proclaimed Canada’s new flag on January 28, 1965. On February 15, the Red Ensign was lowered at noon and the new red Maple Leaf was raised on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Don Button’s living room today is covered in mementos from his flying career. Pictures of his flights carrying heads of state adorn the walls of his private study. On his desk is a small, mounted Canadian flag. “I was just 18 when I joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1949,” he says. “We went to Toronto first to see whether you were good enough or what you were best at. I said I wanted to be a pilot. I didn’t see much of a future as a radio operator or navigator. Anyway, they tested us by putting us in this big centrifuge, that spins around, which was interesting because I remember you just had to sit there. There were buttons to push – they had lights flashing to see how your peripheral vision kicked in and when it faded out altogether. Your blood forced out of your head so these buttons. Well, I pushed and pushed them till I went black. I wasn’t thinking clearly. A buzzer was going and I’m yelling ‘Where’s the fire!’”
After six years, Button left the Air Force and joined the Federal Department of Transport in the Aviation department. An opportunity to join the Civil V.I.P. service came soon after. “That was in 1957,” he remembers. “I stayed there for about nine years. We did all of our flying in Canada, the USA and the Caribbean. We flew the prime Minister as well as various cabinet ministers anywhere and anytime. I got to know Prince Philip, the Chancellor of Germany and even some dictators and secretaries. Even the prince of Sweden came into the cockpit once. He was also a pilot and was curious to see our aircraft.
“I don’t recall applying for security clearance,” he said. “I guess I was cleared to ‘Top Secret’ or whatever. The RCMP was around us almost all of the time anyway. And then there are the flights you don’t talk about. There was one time at Anchorage Alaska I picked up Alan Dulles, the head of CIA and flew him back to Ottawa. Just before our arrival in Ottawa, we were all over the place – CIA business. My job was to fly the plane. No questions.”
Fittingly, from the Buttons front window is a clear view of the Royal Military College. Historically, the actual birthplace of our red maple leaf. The Canadian flag is high on the tower of the administration building. Out on the point by historic Fort Frederick is the Royal Military College flag. In March of 1964, while viewing the college flag then on top of the administrative building from the parade square, Dean of Arts, Dr. George Stanley, realized that the RMC flag could form the basis of a new national flag. The proposal in his memorandum stated: “any new flag must avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are of a divisive nature and that it would be clearly inadvisable to create a flag that carried either the Union Jack or a Fleur-de-Lis”. After a great deal of speculation, debates and several sketches, Dr. Stanley’s idea passed. A proclamation was then drawn up and it needed signatures. Immediately.
Looking out at both flags, the man responsible for piecing the puzzle together is lost in thought. He picks up the small Canadian flag from his desk then smiles and, recalling another incident in his colourful career states flatly, “You know... you’ve never been lost... until you’ve been lost at 1.5 mach!”
By Brian Johnson, Wolfe Islander III captain
Brian Paul Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as captain. We often see him pass through the islands as captain of the Canadian Empress. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area he has written for the Kingston Whig Standard, Telescope magazine and the Great Lakes Boatnerd Website:“Seaway News”. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August. To see all of Captain Johnson’s article for TI Life, Click Here.
Editor’s Note: A similar version of this story appeared as a special ‘Canada Day story’ in the Kingston Whig-Standard on June 30, 2014 titled: ‘The flight of Canada’s Flag’.