THE NATIONAL FLAG OF CANADA
 


 
FROM THE UNION JACK TO THE MAPLE LEAF
 

Notes
 

The national flag of Canada, popularly known as the Maple Leaf Flag (or, in French, l'Unifolié or "one leafed") is one of the world's most recognizable and, from a design standpoint, one of the most successful of all national flags. Yet though the Canadian confederation was created in 1867, and though Canada has been a fully independent country since the early twentieth century, it was only in 1965 that the Maple Leaf Flag was adopted. Canada's history as a confederation of provinces with very different origins and traditions—and, in particular, the inclusion of Francophone Québec—made the adoption of a flag a sensitive political issue. For a long time Canada had no distinctive national flag at all. The British Union Jack was the official national flag, and the Canadian Red Ensign was used as an unofficial, eventually quasi-official, flag of national identity. Between 1867 and 1965 there were hundreds of proposals for a new Canadian flag, many of which played a part in the long process that eventually produced the Maple Leaf Flag. Canada's vexillogical heritage is thus one of the richest and most varied in the world.

Note on the Flags of Québec: Francophone Canada—Québec and the French-speaking communities in other parts of the country—has a vexillogical heritage all its own. To avoid making this page too cumbersome, the flag history of Francophone Canada will appear as a separate page in a future update of HISTORICAL FLAGS OF THE WORLD.
 

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FIRST FLAGS OVER CANADA

 

THE ROYAL BANNER OF FRANCE

 

FRENCH MERCHANT ENSIGN
Early 17th Century

 

FRENCH MERCHANT ENSIGN
18th Century

 

THE CROSS OF ST. GEORGE

 

ENSIGN OF THE EAST INDIA COMPANY

The first flags to be flown over the lands that became Canada were those of the rival colonial powers: France and Britain. The early French explorers no doubt bore the French Royal Banner, and later the various French naval and merchant ensigns became a familiar sight in Canadian waters. The Cross of St. George was the first English flag to make its appearance, and in 1610 when the English explorer Henry Hudson sailed into the immense bay that was to be named after him, his ship, the Discovery, may have flown an early version of the ensign of the East India Company, which financed his final (and fatal) expedition in search of a Northwest Passage.

 

THE UNION JACK IN CANADA

 

FIRST UNION FLAG  •  1606-1801

 

THE METEOR FLAG  •  1707-1801

 

THE ROYAL UNION FLAG SINCE 1801

 

HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY FLAG

As in the territory of the future United States, the British Union Flag, popularly known as the Union Jack, was colonial Canada's national flag. From 1606 to 1801, the Union Jack combined the crosses of SS. George and Andrew, symbolizing the union of England and Scotland in the Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1801, when Ireland was added to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the diagonal Cross of St. Patrick was added to create the current Union Jack. This remained Canada's official national flag until 1965, when the Maple Leaf Flag was adopted. It was however, retained as an official Canadian flag (the Royal Union Flag) and it is flown together with the Maple Leaf Flag on designated days and certain occasions, e.g. the Queen's Birthday and Commonwealth Day. Except on the occasion of a royal visit, the Maple Leaf Flag takes precedence over the Royal Union Flag.

Of the Union Jack's numerous variants, the Red Ensign was also frequently seen in colonial Canada. Popularly known as the Meteor Flag, it was an ensign of the Royal Navy from 1707 to 1864 and the British civil ensign thereafter. Along with the British Blue Ensign, this flag was adapted for numerous colonies of the British Empire, usually by adding a badge in the fly. In Canada, the Hudson's Bay Company used a Red Ensign with the its initials in the lower fly.

 

THE CANADIAN RED ENSIGN

 

1892-1922

 

1922-57

 

 1957-65

 

PROVINCE OF ONTARIO SINCE 1965

In 1868, a year after the creation of the Canadian confederation, a Great Seal for Canada, combining the arms of the provinces of Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, was established by royal warrant. Soon thereafter, this device was applied to the British Red Ensign to create a distinctive Canadian flag. Though for many years it enjoyed no official recognition, this flag quickly became popular and in 1892 it was belatedly confirmed as Canada's civil ensign. Though intended purely for use at sea, the Canadian Red Ensign was widely flown on land as well and soon came to be regarded as Canada's de facto national flag. In the 1920s the Canadian government authorized it to be flown by the Canadian High Commission in London and the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. During World War II, the government directed the Canadian Army overseas to use it as a flag of nationality when appropriate. In 1945, a Canadian order in council authorized the Canadian Red Ensign to be flown on government buildings inside and outside Canada pending the adoption of a definitive Canadian national flag.

There were three official versions of the Canadian Red Ensign. In 1922 Canada's new coat of arms replaced the great seal, and in 1957 the maple leaves in the base of the shield were changed from green to red, white and red being Canada's livery colors. The Canadian Red Ensign's long career came to an end in 1965, with the adoption of the current national flag. In Manitoba and Ontario, however, sentiment in favor of the Union Jack remained strong, and in 1965-66 they both adopted provincial flags based on the Red Ensign.

 

PROPOSALS FOR A NEW CANADIAN FLAG

 

1930 PROPOSAL

 

 

 

1946 JOINT PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE PROPOSALS

 

GODBOUT'S 1947 PROPOSAL

 

HOLLINGSWORTH'S 1955 PROPOSAL

In the years following confederation, and particularly after World War I, there were numerous proposals for a distinctive Canadian flag. Most of them were based on the Union Jack and many incorporated the maple leaf, which had come to be accepted as a symbol of Canada after its appearance in the coat of arms of Ontario, but none ultimately found favor. The inclusion of Francophone Québec in the confederation was the primary complicating factor, but even among English-speaking Canadians there were divisions of opinion between those who cherished the British connection and those who wished to emphasize a purely Canadian national identity. One interesting design proposed in 1930 drew inspiration from the Australian flag, which depicts the Southern Cross constellation. The Canadian proposal, like the much later state flag of Alaska, displayed the Big Dipper, plus a "confederation star." In 1946 a parliamentary joint committee formed for the purpose of selecting a new flag for Canada recommended a Red Ensign with a golden yellow, white-bordered maple leaf in place of the Canadian arms. But Francophone Canadians were opposed to any new flag that retained the Union Jack and the prime minister, Mackenzie King, shelved the committee's proposal.

Francophone Canadians were generally in favor of a national flag whose symbolism was neutral: Canadian rather than British or French. Adélard Godbout, a former premier of Québec suggested in 1947 that a flag diagonally divided from upper hoist to lower fly, red over white, charged with green maple leaf, would make an acceptable Canadian flag. This was in fact the flag of the of the League of the Canadian Flag, an organization devoted to the adoption of a distinctive flag for the nation. Godbout's proposal pointed the way forward, incorporating the elements of the future Canadian flag: the colors red and white, and the maple leaf. But the Red Ensign remained popular with many English-speaking Canadians. When Liberal MP  A. H. Hollingworth introduced a bill for the adoption of a new flag in 1955, he thought it essential that the Union Jack be retained. The white field of his proposed flag was intended to appeal to Francophone Canadians, white being the color of royalist France. But neither these flags nor the many other designs proposed in the 1950s found favor, and the Canadian Red Ensign soldiered on.

 

THE GREAT CANADIAN FLAG DEBATE

 

1964 PROPOSAL

 

THE PEARSON PENNANT

 

ROYAL MILITARY COLLEGE OF CANADA

 

 

Group B Finalist     1964 PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE DESIGNS     Group C Finalist

The long-running flag debate came to a head in 1964 when the new Liberal Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, placed the issue before Parliament. Pearson, who had campaigned on the promise of a new flag for Canada, favored a design with the three red maple leaves from the Canadian arms on a field of white between two vertical blue stripes. This flag had the advantages of being distinctively Canadian, of incorporating the colors of the Union Jack, of including blue for Francophone Canada and of suggesting the national motto: "From Sea to Sea." But the Pearson Pennant, as it came to be called, had the disadvantage of being too closely associated with Pearson and the Liberals. John Diefenbaker, leader of the Progressive Conservatives and former prime minister, not only opposed the Pearson Pennant but argued strongly that the Red Ensign should be retained. The result was an extended and acrimonious parliamentary debate. Finally a committee of fifteen MPs was formed to consider the large number of proposals. The flag eventually selected was designed by George F.G. Stanley and inspired by the flag of the Royal Military College of Canada. The committee considered two variants: one with a red maple leaf on a white field between two vertical red stripes and one with the Union Jack and the Banner of France added. Both variants had 1:2 proportions, with each red stripe taking up a quarter of the flag's total area. Stanley's original, simple design (Group B Finalist) was approved unanimously by the committee on 29 October 1964, and adopted by a majority vote in the House of Commons on 15 December 1964. The Senate's approval came two days later.

 

THE MAPLE LEAF FOREVER

 

NATIONAL FLAG SINCE 1965

 

CANADIAN CUSTOMS ENSIGN

As finally adopted, the new flag was slightly modified to depict an eleven-point maple leaf. In this form it was submitted to Queen Elizabeth II for her royal assent, which was duly given on 28 January 1965. The Maple Leaf Flag was officially hoisted for the first time on 15 February 1965. The ceremony took place on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, in the presence of the Governor General of Canada, the Prime Minister, the members of the Cabinet, and members of Parliament. At the stroke of noon, the Canadian Red Ensign was lowered and the Maple Leaf Flag was raised. The crowd then sang "O Canada" followed by "God Save the Queen."

Since 1965, a number of Maple Leaf Flag variants have been adopted, mostly by the armed forces. An exception is the ensign of Canadian Customs, which is similar to the British customs ensign, with the Maple Leaf Flag replacing the Union Jack.

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