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The passing of a great Canadian

The passing of a great Canadian

When John Matheson died on December 27 in Kingston at age 96, the former soldier, lawyer, judge and politician was saluted across Canada as “father of the Canadian flag” and designer of the order of Canada. By any measure, he was one of this university’s most illustrious grads.
John Matheson

John Ross Matheson, BA’40, DSA’77, LLD’84, was born on November 14, 1917 in Arundel, Quebec. Both his parents were Queen’s grads: Dawson Matheson, MA 1912, BDiv 1916, and his mother Gertrude (McCuaig), BA 1915.

John arrived at Queen’s in the autumn of 1936 to begin his studies and graduated in 1940 (winning the  Tricolour Award), then went off with the Royal Regiment of Canada Artillery to serve in the war in Europe. In December, 1943, while serving near Otona in Italy, he was badly wounded, but he was saved by Army Chaplain Waldo Smith from Queen’s who carried John from where he lay on the ground to a field hospital. Life saved.

Back home in a hospital near Montreal, John met his wife-to-be Edith. They were married in August, 1945 in the Queen’s Chapel by John’s father and went on to have six children. John became a lawyer, practising law in Brockville, Ontario. In 1961, he ran as the Liberal candidate in a by-election in the riding of Leeds and was successful. He was reelected in 1962, 1963, and 1965, before being defeated in 1968. Subsequently, he was appointed a judge in Ottawa-Carlton area, then the Perth area (Lanark), and the Ontario Court of Justice, living at Rideau Ferry until his retirement. John then settled in Kingston, where he spent many years attending various functions locally and elsewhere in Canada.

John’s connections to his alma mater were very significant and important to him. His mother and three of her siblings were all Queen’s graduates: Stanley, Homer, and Carl McCuaig. One of John’s uncles, Homer, lived in Kingston. John visited regularly with Homer and his family both while at Queen’s and when he was living in Brockville. John’s sisters also went to Queen’s, Dorothy Parnell, Arts’40; Catherine Carty, Arts’42; and Margaret Slemon, Arts’46.

QAR cover with Matheson photo

Once elected to the House of Commons in 1961, John played a significant role as a highly competent member of various committees and particularly, the one that recommended the adoption of a new Canadian flag. His knowledge of heraldry and history were key to his ability to persuade others to look at alternatives. He served as Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson for a while. There were two such Parliamentary Secretaries at the time. The other was young Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, with whom John shared an office. His narrow defeat in 1968 – by just four votes! – came as quite a surprise given the Liberal majority won in that election for the first time since 1953.

John was active in many organizations while he was a judge and afterward, and he was always enthusiastic in his support of Queen’s and of alumni events. Doubtless his move to Kingston after retirement was in part so he could attend more time at Queen’s events, which he did, having made many friends while serving on the Board of Trustees for 20 years, on Theology’s Board of Management, and the University Council. Thanks to his motorized wheelchair and the enabling friendship of retired teacher Gordon Brown, Ed’73, John didn’t miss many events on campus, at RMC, or CFB Kingston, where the storytelling Honorary Colonel was always welcome. 

John’s passing is mourned by many friends and relatives, his wife Edith, his children and their spouses, 18 grandchildren, and one great grandson. His work in creating and campaigning for our Maple Leaf flag and in establishing the Order of Canada, which honours outstanding Canadians including John himself in 1993), earned him many wonderful and well-deserved tributes.

John Matheson is fondly remembered and will be much missed in the Queen’s and Kingston communities and by his countless friends across our country.

Editor’s note: Peter Milliken is John Matheson’s first cousin, once removed. Peter, the retired Liberal

QR for Kingston and the Islands (988-2011), was much admired by John Matheson as the longest-serving Speaker in the history of the House of Commons.