Midwifing the Canadian Flag


I was contacted this week by the daughter of Don Watt, a well known Canadian graphic designer responsible for the branding and logos at many large companies including Loblaws and WalMart. Watt had just died at the end of December, and she was looking for more information from me about her father's account of how he had secretly been the designer of the modern Canadian Flag. She contacted me, because in his story, my father, Charles Templeton, had been the go-between for Watt and the government leaders who picked the flag.

There's a bit about Watt's story in this Toronto Star Obituary for him. His version contradicts the official version quite markedly, and there is evidence on both sides. Many of the players, however, are deceased.

As the story goes, there was a plan to give Canada its own flag, replacing the colonial Red Ensign. A national contest was held, and people could submit designs. Don Watt worked at Hathaway-Templeton, a design firm co-founded by my uncle Bill Templeton in Toronto. My father was also working at Hathaway-Templeton at the time -- his brother gave him a job to help him recover from his expensive 2nd place run for leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. (Or this may have been just before he worked there, during his various visits to his brother's company.)

Watt came up with a flag design, supposedly like the current one but with blue bars ("From sea to sea" being the motto.) He says he did this because my father told him the government didn't like the designs that were coming in through the competition. Watt did a design and my father took it to the leadership in Ottawa -- the Liberal party was in power at the time under Prime Minister "Mike" Pearson, and they were the ones driving the controversial flag change. In one version of the story Pearson likes the design but prefers red bars (the Liberal party colours after all, but also the national colours.) Contradictory reports say Pearson liked an alternate design with blue bars but 3 maple leaves in the middle.

According to Watt, when his flag was chosen, it was also felt it would be bad if it were known that the design came from a professional logo designer, and worse, from one working for a design firm with many government contracts and tied to a prominent person in the Liberal party (ie. my father.) This was very far from the impression they had of a populist contest.

So it was, according to Watt, agreed that his role and my father's would be kept silent. Many others had similar designs, bars and maple leaves in various sizes and configurations were common in many of them. Other names got the glory, but Watt was content with that.

Watt told his family, and later after the secrecy period was over, others in the industry but never made big public declarations about it. He told it to my cousin with whom he worked closely.

Is the story true? It's hard to evaluate. The others did have similar designs, and even if Watt's version is correct, I suspect they honestly believe it was their designs that were used. And of course, it may be true. From what little I know of Mr. Watt, he seems to have a good reputation and many other claims to fame, so it does not seem the sort of story he would need to make up.

However, my prime reason for some skepticism comes from the fact that my father never told me this story, nor put it in his memoirs. He wasn't the sort of person to avoid bragging. If the story is true and he never told of it, he must have had a particularly strong sense of honour on the temporary bond of secrecy, and did not want to disrupt the official story. Nor did Watt until his later years.

Still, it was an interesting anecdote to hear. The Canadian experience is different from the U.S. one. Things like the Candian flag and constitution are events in living memory, while for the USA, they are distant history. If true, it would be a fun thing to add to the list of family stories.

On a side note, the Canadian flag is considered one of the better ones from a graphic design standpoint by some.


Most people believe Apple created the "Think Different" slogan. Others are a little more informed and believe that TBWA created the slogan only they'd be wrong as well. I'm the guy who first created the slogan "Think Different" and claimed it as a trademark. This took place in a well known high traffic forum where I had a rep as a crazy muthafucker and where I also outlined what "Think Different" meant. Little did I know that two weeks later TBWA pulled together a similar pitch to squeak within Apple's submission deadline.

The first thing I knew about TBWA's plagiarism was when Apple's "Think Different" campaign rolled out six months later. It took a few years for the behind the scenes information to leak out so I could piece together a timeline but that's about how it was. The evidence was lying around on the web for a few years afterwards but it's all gone now. I never registered the trademark claim and any ownership claim I may have legally had is almost certain to have expired by now.

Am I pissed about this? Sure. Is anyone going to acknowledge my claim? Not a chance. Sometimes you can be right and people will stick to a narrative for purely political reasons. They may know they got it wrong, or stole something, or didn't pay what they should've paid because it would ruin the myth. You see this sort of thing all over the place and what happens if you take it on. Staying quiet is often the least worst option.

"I never registered the trademark claim and any ownership claim I may have legally had is almost certain to have expired by now."

As Brad points out in his section on copyright, trademarks have to be used if one wants to claim them. One can't just register it and do nothing, like parking a domain.

You don't have to formally register a trademark. Claiming (TM) is enough. All a formal registration does is add your trademark to a searchable list and give you an additional element of proof. In theory I could've sued over "Think Different" and the advertising campaign that followed but I didn't have anywhere near the amount of money needed to pursue it. I may still have some form of legal claim to "Think Different" and the advertising concept but the last of the online evidence evaporated a couple of years ago. The joke is it's also possible I could be sued for libel for alleging my IP was stolen.

I'm feeling a bit pissed about this which is understandable but if I could get some formal acknowledgement by Apple or TBWA that I created the slogan and concept that would be enough to keep me happy. I'd settle for that especially as the IP is mostly played out now and people have moved on. I might look into that as it's just possible the evidence has been archived offline but without that or a formal acknowledgement by Apple and TBWA I'd look like a right tool. Can't remember the name of the woman but Martin Luther King's "I had a Dream" routine was swiped in a similar way and most people don't know or even care when the evidence is undisputed.

It's hard to swallow this especially as great ideas are pretty rare but the pitch I'm selling to myself is that if I'm so damn clever and capable then I should spend time developing that. It's a tougher road to walk but if you've got something about you developing that can be its own reward. Sure, some other guy has the big name recognition and a mountain of money but that doesn't mean they're the real deal and that's something they have to live with. The alternative is just to get angry and bitter and that doesn't do anyone any good. To be fair, Apple did spot a winner and TBWA did make a polished campaign out of it, and I can appreciate that. Damn shame they're not so generous.

I'm writing a story about the flag, looking ahead to its 50th birthday, and was hoping to ask you a few questions about what you've written about the story involving Don Watt and your father. Thanks John Geddes, Maclean's, Ottawa Bureau Chief, 613 670-8423

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