Teacher’s poem saluted nation’s new flag
Joanne Stethem, in Grade 8 at the time, recalls unfurling of first flag
Canada’s flag turns 50 on Sunday. It’s an anniversary sufficiently advanced to hold a hefty amount of gravitas, yet young enough that many Canadians have recollections of the day and event.
Flag Day, Feb. 15, 1965, fell on a Monday — a mostly cloudy one in Ottawa that saw a late-morning warm front move in and the temperature rise from -20 C to just above zero throughout the afternoon and evening.
At York Street Public School, many students wore their Sea Scout, Girl Guide, Boy Scout, Army Cadet and Air Cadet uniforms to school that morning to mark the occasion, as the Union Jack flying outside was lowered and the new Maple Leaf flag raised in its place.
Grade 8 student Joanne Stethem described the event in the school’s York News newspaper, “As we saluted, our hearts swelled with pride when we saw the bright red flag against the blue-grey sky. It was very quiet as we stood there at attention. We thought of this great moment in Canadian History.”
In the Grade 7 and 8 history and geography classes she taught at the school, Mrs. Ann Lazear liked to focus on Canadian history, and not simply the events of the previous centuries. She recognized history as it was happening, and tried to impress that significance upon her students. “We used current events whenever we could,” she recalls, “and tried to make it as exciting as possible.”
When then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson asked Canadians the previous fall to submit designs for a new flag, Lazear sent one in; a red maple leaf she’d traced and painted on an all-white cardboard background.
“I was very excited when they announced the winning design,” she recalls.
On the day the new flag was raised over schools and buildings from sea to shining sea, Lazear finished writing A Canadian Flag, a poem she’d written to honour the event in verse.
Her students — who two years later would follow flute-playing Bobby Gimby in a parade to Parliament Hill, singing Gimby’s Canada song to celebrate the country’s centennial anniversary — memorized Lazear’s poem, and recited it the following day at a school assembly. The poem was subsequently framed and hung in the school.
Fifty years later, in her Sandy Hill home, Lazear pores through an album of Canadiana she’s collected related to A Canadian Flag. In 1990, to mark the flag ’s 25th anniversary, she sent a copy to prime minister Brian Mulroney, and received a reply from Gerry Weiner, Secretary of State and Minister responsible for Multiculturalism and Citizenship, who forwarded the poem to all MPs and senators, some who shared it with their constituents.
Two years later, to mark Canada’s 125th, her granddaughter, Natalie’s Grade 4 class recited the poem for friends and family.
There’s a photograph of her grandson, Benjamin, presenting a framed copy of the poem to thenprime minister Jean Chrétien in 1996; a 2005 letter from then-RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, thanking her; another from one-time Ottawa mayor Jacquelin Holzman; and one from former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty.
And on Sunday — Flag Day — Lazear will attend an invitationonly ceremony on Parliament Hill, hosted by Ottawa-Vanier Liberal MP Mauril Belanger for riding association members and other guests, at which her poem will be read aloud in both English and French.
When she looks at the flag today, Lazear says she’s filled with the same pride she felt 50 years ago.
“I’m always moved by it,” she says. “By the flag and the words. It’s allinclusive. I’m moved when I see the flag, especially when it’s a soldier wearing it, or when I see a sportsman winning gold or silver and waving the flag. It stirs me a little.
“It’s good to have something distinctive,” she adds. “So when people around the world see that flag, they know it’s Canada. When we come around with hospitals and doctors to help the needy, they see the Canadian flag and they know who we are.”