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Flag Day's forgotten history: My uncle Ed

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Long before there was Christy Clark and "her" Family Day, long before Manitoba's Louis Riel Day and even long before the 1996 proclamation of National Flag of Canada Day, there was my Uncle Ed.

Relegated by political history to a trivia question at best (Who sent Ray Perrault packing to the Canadian Senate?), Uncle Ed remains a forgotten figure amid all the hoopla over the 50th anniversary of the good old Canadian flag.

Yet it was Ed Nelson who stood in the House of Commons in the late afternoon of February 15, 1973 to introduce private member's bill C-136. That bill brought forward by the guy lucky enough to have married my mom's sister marked the first official effort to have February 15 proclaimed as a national holiday in celebration of the Canadian flag.

If the parliamentarians of the day had had the wisdom to pass Uncle Ed's bill, the hodge-podge of February holidays across the country would not exist, and we would be united in easing our mid-winter blues all at the same time with Canada Flag Day. It was a near thing, too. Bill C-136 came very close to passing. More about that in a moment. But first, a bit of background.

 

Tommy Douglas gets his revenge

In 1972, Ed Nelson, wonderful high school English teacher, former first vice-president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation and longtime member of the CCF/NDP, decided to give federal politics a whirl. He survived a tough fight to win the NDP nomination in Burnaby-Seymour. Then, as a political neophyte, he had to face the riding's seasoned Liberal incumbent, Ray Perrault. Not only was Perrault a former leader of the provincial Liberal Party, he was loathed by the NDP for knocking off their beloved Tommy Douglas during the Trudeaumania juggernaut of 1968.

Yet, on election night, after a tense, nip-and-tuck count that lasted far into the night, the NDP got their revenge. My uncle upset the mighty Perrault by 289 votes. When he finally showed up at NDP headquarters, the roof nearly came off the place. The next day's papers, hailed him as a political "giant-killer". (After his loss, Ray Perrault was rewarded by Trudeau with an appointment to the Senate, where he spent 28 years during which, thanks to Allan Fotheringham, he became widely known as Senator Phogbound. All Uncle Ed's fault.)

Alas, that night was probably the high point of my uncle's brief political career. In politics, it's not enough to be a good, decent guy like Ed Nelson. You have to be seen to be doing something -- make the newspapers, create controversy with partisan sound bites, ask flamboyant questions in QP, and so on. My uncle didn't really know how to do that kind of stuff. In the rough and tumble world of politics, diligently helping constituents with their problems, and making passionate speeches in favour of peace, women's rights and Canadian unity didn't cut much ice. In the next election, just 18 months later, he finished up the track, and that was that.

But he did have that one moment in the sun, when he moved second reading of his bill to "establish February 15 or the Monday following as a legal holiday, to be known as Canada Flag Day."

Bill C-136 had been positively received from the beginning, rocketing to the top of the list of private member's bills, which normally wind up where the sun don't shine. In prior, all-party discussions, everyone seemed in favour. No less than parliamentary legend Stanley Knowles congratulated my uncle in the House "because if, as a new member, he should get a private member's bill through during the first session he is here, what a future he has ahead of him. If I stick around long enough, I might have the same success."

No one disagreed that a holiday between New Year's and Easter was a good thing. During debate, however, the piling-on began. What about the Red Ensign and the Union Jack? Why not a day for John A. Macdonald? How about a general "Discovery Day" to celebrate all the country's history?

The Honourable Member for Burnaby-Seymour responded to the foofaraw, thusly: "We Canadians are not normally flag waving, but I feel deeply that we should recognize the official flag of our country in a concrete way. Still further from my intent would be the encouragement of any jingoistic form of nationalism, because I believe that pride in our country and its institutions is best expressed by a quiet but deep respect for this symbol of our nation." Nicely said, Uncle Ed. If only our current Prime Minister embraced that concept of quiet nationalism, without using the Canadian flag as a backdrop for his controversial, anti-terrorism polices…

 

 

The upshot was that, instead of just my uncle's bill proceeding to committee, three bills were sent forward. The other two proposed John A. Day and Discovery Day as potential holidays. Still, there was general expectation that Canada Flag Day was the holiday mostly like to be proclaimed.

Sadly, when Bill C-136 came back to the House of Commons, the earlier consensus to let the bill whoosh through was gone. "Yukon" Erik Nielsen, brother of The Naked Gun's Leslie Nielsen, and a few other MPs denied the necessary unanimous consent to move the bill along to the next stage, and it died. More than 40 years later and more than 18 years after my uncle passed away, we still don't have such a national holiday.

So, Happy Canada Flag Day, Uncle Ed. You were a man ahead of your time.

 

 

(Ignore the goof on the left. That's Uncle Ed on the right.)

 

 

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