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Jun 29

History of the Canadian Flag

St. George’s Cross

I am probably safe in assuming that 99.9% of Canadians know that our neighbour to the south celebrates its Independence Day on July 4th. But sadly most Americans are unaware that Canada also celebrates its national day in the same month-July 1st to be precise.

Like Americans, Canadians are proud of their flag. But the distinctive Maple Leaf Flag wasn’t always our flag. Here’s a brief history.
The first flag known to have flown in Canada was the St George’s Cross carried by the explorer, John Cabot when he reached Newfoundland in 1497.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier planted a cross in Gaspé bearing the French royal coat of arms with the fleurs-de-lis. His ship flew a red flag with a white cross, the national flag of France at the time.

The Royal Union Flag has been used in Canada since the 1621 British settlement in Nova Scotia. Since the surrender of New France to the United Kingdom in the early 1760s, the Royal Union Flag, called the Union Jack, was used as the national flag, as in the United Kingdom, until the adoption of the current flag in 1965.

Union Jack
Shortly after Canadian Confederation in 1867, the need for distinctive Canadian flags emerged. The first Canadian flag was that then used as the Flag of the Governor General of Canada, a Royal Union Flag with a shield in the centre bearing the quartered arms of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick surrounded by a wreath of maple leaves. In 1870 the Red Ensign, with the addition of the Canadian composite shield in the fly, began to be used unofficially on land and sea and was known as the Canadian Red Ensign.
Canadian Red Ensign

As new provinces joined the Confederation, their arms were added to the shield. In 1892, the British admiralty approved the use of the Red Ensign for Canadian use at sea. The composite shield was replaced with the coat of arms of Canada upon its grant in 1921 and, in 1924, an Order in Council approved its use for Canadian government buildings abroad.

In 1925, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (the PM on our $50 bill)  established a committee to design a flag to be used at home, but it was dissolved before the final report could be delivered. Despite the failure of the committee to solve the issue, public sentiment in the 1920s was in favour of fixing the flag problem for Canada.

During the Second World War, the Red Ensign was the national flag Canadian troops carried into battle. A joint committee of the Senate and House of Commons was appointed on November 8, 1945, to recommend a national flag to officially adopt. By May 9 the following year, 2,695 designs were submitted and the committee reported back with a recommendation “that the national flag of Canada should be the Canadian red ensign with a maple leaf in autumn golden colours in a bordered background of white”. The Legislative Assembly of Quebec, however, had urged the committee to not include any of what it deemed as “foreign symbols”, including the Royal Union Flag, and Mackenzie King, then still prime minister, declined to act on the report, leaving the order to fly the Canadian Red Ensign in place.

Suggested 1945 flag
By the 1960s, however, debate for an official Canadian flag intensified and became a subject of controversy, culminating in the Great Flag Debate of 1964. In 1963, the minority Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson gained power and decided to adopt an official Canadian flag through parliamentary debate. 
Lester B. Pearson
The principal political proponent of the change was Prime Minister Lester Pearson. (Yes, Toronto Airport is named in his honour).
He had been a significant broker during the Suez Crisis of 1956, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. During the crisis, Pearson was disturbed when the Egyptian government objected to Canadian peacekeeping forces on the grounds that the Canadian flag (the Red Ensign) contained the same symbol (the Royal Union Flag) also used as a flag by the United Kingdom, one of the belligerents.

Pearson’s goal was for the Canadian flag to be distinctive and unmistakably Canadian. The main opponent to changing the flag was the leader of the opposition and former prime minister, John Diefenbaker, who eventually made the subject a personal crusade.

Diefenbaker
Pearson was leader of a minority government and risked losing power over the issue; however, he knew the Red Ensign with the Union Jack was unpopular in Quebec, a base of support for his Liberal Party, but the Red Ensign was strongly favoured by English Canada. On May 27, 1964, Pearson’s minority government introduced a motion to parliament for adoption of his favourite design of a “sea to sea” (Canada’s motto) flag with blue borders and three conjoined red maple leaves on a white field. This motion led to weeks of acrimonious debate in the House of Commons and the design came to be known as the “Pearson Pennant”. 
“Pearson Pennant)

Diefenbaker demanded a referendum be held on the flag issue, but Pearson instead formed a 15-member multi-party parliamentary committee to select a new design.

Through a period of study with political manoeuvring, the committee chose the current design, which was created by George F.G. Stanley and inspired by the flag of the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. The design was approved unanimously by the committee on October 29, 1964, and later passed by a majority vote in the House of Commons on December 15, 1964. The Senate added its approval two days later.

Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, proclaimed the new flag on January 28, 1965. It was inaugurated on February 15 of the same year at an official ceremony held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in the presence of Governor General Major-General Georges P. Vanier, the Prime Minister, the members of the Cabinet, and Canadian parliamentarians. The Canadian Red Ensign was lowered at the stroke of noon, and the new Maple Leaf flag was raised. The crowd sang “O Canada” followed by “God Save the Queen”. Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate, said, “The flag is the symbol of the nation’s unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief, or opinion.”

Happy Birthday to both our great nations!

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11 comments

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  1. Rose Anderson

    I had no idea. Interesting post Anna. I’ve been north often canoeing the Quetico. A lovely land.

    1. Anna Markland

      I used to live about 100 miles from Quetico Centre.

  2. Victoria Adams

    Oh Canada! we stand on guard for thee.
    Happy Canada Day.

    1. Anna Markland

      Indeed! Thanks, Victoria. (I live in Victoria, BC)

  3. Jacqui Nelson

    Great post, Anna! I had no idea either. I thought our flag was much, much older. Love all the pictures. Love our flag!

  4. Anna Markland

    Me too! It’s so distinctive, simple as it is. I’ll be hanging my Maple Leaf from my balcony here in Panama!

  5. Jodie Esch

    Thanks for the history. It was great to remember all the twists and turns before it became the flag we know today.

    1. Anna Markland

      You’re welcome, Jodie. Good luck with your latest book.

  6. Vamp Writer

    REALLY enjoyed your discussion of the Canadian Flag! I’m pretty old and remember seeing pictures of WW-II convoys of merchant marine ships running the U-Boat gauntlet in the North Atlantic. The ships, from many nations, flew their individual flags and I think I recall seeing the St. George’s Flag among the ships; however, my memory might be off. Do you know if the Canadian Merchant Marine or other Canadian Civilian Ships were flying that flag as late as WW-II? P.S. a belated Happy Canada Day…I often think of it as we approach our own “day” here at the bottom of the U.S.

  7. S. Campbell

    This is a great history of our flag.

    Our museum here in Argyle, Manitoba, Canada has our country’s 2nd largest flag collections. We hold over 1,100 flags that are truly Canadian.

    Thanks for your great website

    S. Campbell
    Settlers, Rails & Trails Inc.
    http://www.settlersrailsandtrails.com

    1. Anna Markland

      Interesting. My daughter-in-law’s family has ancestral roots in Argyle. Maybe I’ll visit someday.

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