Remembering the “father” of Canada’s flag

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John Ross Matheson, OC CD QC (1917 - 2013), a Canadian lawyer, judge, and politician who helped develop both the maple leaf flag and the Order of Canada, died on December 27, 2013, in Kingston, Ontario.

He is survived by his wife Edith Bickley and his six children: Duncan, Wendy, Jill, Donald, Roderick, and Murdoch; 18 grandchildren, one great-grandson, and his sisters Dorothy Parnell, Catherine Carty, and Margaret Slemon.

Matheson was born in Arundel, Quebec, the eldest child of the Reverend Dr. Dawson Matheson and his wife Gertrude. It is interesting to note that Rev. Matheson was the minister of Chalmers-Wesley United Church in Quebec City from 1922-1931.

Matheson began training at the Royal Military College of Canada in 1936 and graduated from Queen's University in 1940. During World War II, he served as an officer with the 1st Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, 1st Canadian Infantry Division in Italy, where he was wounded. He held honorary militia appointments with the 30th Field Artillery Regiment, Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery from 1972 to 1982.

Matheson received a Bachelor of Laws degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master of Arts degree from Mount Allison University, and a Master of Laws degree from the University of Western Ontario. He was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1948 and was created a Queen's Counsel in 1967. He practised law with the firm of Matheson, Henderson and Hart in Brockville, Ontario.

Matheson was first elected as a Liberal in the Ontario riding of Leeds in a by-election in 1961 and was re-elected in 1962, 1963, and 1965. He was defeated by only four votes in 1968.

During his political tenure, Matheson was a leading member of the multi-party parliamentary committee whose mandate was to select a new flag design. It was George F.G. Stanley's idea that the new flag should be red and white, and that it should feature the single maple leaf. Matheson wrote a book, Canada's Flag: A Search for a Country, about the creation of the new flag.

A plaque at Royal Military College marks the historical day. It reads: "Near this Parade Square, in March 1964, while viewing the College Flag atop Mackenzie Building, Col. the Hon. G.F.G Stanley, then Dean of Arts RMC, first suggested to Col. the Hon. J.R. Matheson, then MP for Leeds, that the RMC College Flag should form the basis of the National Flag. The two collaborated on a design which was ultimately approved by Parliament and by Royal Proclamation adopted as the National Flag of Canada as of the 15th of February 1965."
Matheson also played an important role in the creation of the Order of Canada.

In 1968, he was appointed a judge of the Judicial District of Ottawa-Carleton. In 1984, he was appointed a judge of the County Court of Lanark. In 1985, he was appointed a judge of the District Court of Ontario. From 1990 to 1992, he was a justice of the Ontario Court of Justice.

Judge Matheson received many honours:
• In 1993, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
• In 1999, he was the inaugural recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, awarded to a former parliamentarians "who has made an outstanding contribution to the country and its democratic institutions."
• Knight of Justice Venerable Order of Saint John
• Knight Commander of Merit Order of Saint Lazarus
• Canadian Centennial Medal (1967)
• Canadian Forces Decoration (1977)
• Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977)
• 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal (1992)
• Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
• Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
• "Father of Our Flag"

Matheson was a lifelong member of the United Church of Canada, most recently Chalmers United, in Kingston, Ontario, where a Celebration of Life ceremony will be held in the spring of 2014.