The Red Maple Leaf: How Canada's Flag Came to Be
A red maple leaf against a blue sky. A quintessential Canadian symbol, and one recognized throughout the world. Even the least patriotic Canadian can’t help but see it and know it marks the place they call home.
The Canadian flag as we know it is only 50 years old this week. It came into being after intense debate and hundreds of years of, well, not making a decision. For Canada, which became a nation in 1867, simply could not decide what to do about a flag, and for most of its history, pre- and post-Confederation, just let things slide.
The St. George’s Cross was probably the first European flag to fly over what is now Canada, when John Cabot, a Venetian exploring under English colours, reached the Atlantic coast in 1497. The other major flag was the fleur-de-lis from 1534 when Jacques Cartier claimed North America for France. Elements from both these flags still appear on Canadian provincial flags and coats of arms.
After the English and French conflict for the New World and the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the Royal Union Flag of Great Britain (aka the Union Jack), which was a combination of the English St. George’s Cross and the Scottish St. Andrew’s Cross, flew over all British colonies in North America. When the Thirteen Colonies broke away to form the United States, many people who remained loyal to Britain relocated to Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, causing the Union Flag to sometimes be called the Flag of the United Empire Loyalists. In 1801, after the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland, the Cross of St. Patrick was added to create the current Union Flag. In Canada, under an act of parliament, it was known as the Royal Union Flag.
Meanwhile, sometime in the late 17\P century, the Red Ensign, a red flag with the Union Jack in the corner, was used by the British navy and later specifically by the British merchant marine. It was widely used on land and sea in Canada, and around the time of Confederation, a coat of arms bearing the symbols of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick was added to the fly. This was officially approved by the British Admiralty in 1892 for Canadian use, but only at sea. This is how it came to be known as the Canadian Red Ensign. On land, it was still only used by custom, not official sanction.
As new provinces joined Confederation, their symbols were added, and the flag changed several times. In 1924, this unofficial version was modified and authorized by an Order in Council of the Canadian government. It used the Royal Arms of Canada granted to this country by King George V of Britain in 1921, and was approved for use on Canadian buildings abroad. A second Order in Council in 1945 authorized the use of the Canadian Red Ensign on federal buildings in Canada, “until a new national flag was adopted.” Yes, that’s right. Canada fought two World Wars without an official flag.
All that time, and still no official flag for the country, passed by the Parliament of Canada and representing all her people. How Canadian, eh? It wasn’t for lack of trying—or argument. According to Conrad Swan, author of Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty, “designing flags became something of a recurrent national pastime.” In 1946, a committee of the House of Commons received 1500 (!) designs from across the country. They failed to decide on one.
But during the Suez Crisis in the Middle East in 1956, then Canadian Minister of External Affairs Lester Pearson was shocked and embarrassed when the Egyptian government refused to allow Canadian troops on their soil, claiming they fought under the flag of Egypt’s enemy, Britain. Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his solution to the Suez Crisis, believed Canada needed a new symbol to represent its nationhood, and its independent voice. When he became Prime Minister six years later, he vowed to make a new flag a top priority.
In 1964, Pearson announced to the House of Commons that the government wished to adopt a distinctive Canadian flag, as the centenary of Confederation approached. He proposed a flag with three joined maple leaves on a white background, with blue bars at either end. There would be a free, non-partisan vote in Parliament. Debate on the “Pearson pennant” raged through the summer of ’64, in Parliament, in the press, in homes and communities across Canada. Descriptions of the flag design included “monstrosity”, “picayune” and “a nosebleed”. Descriptions of the prime minister included “dictator”, “Mussolini”, and “sawdust Caesar”. (Our current parliament may be no less polite, but the rhetoric is certainly less colourful.)
More than insults, it became a litmus test of racial and national identity. What was the place of the British or French or any other group in a national symbol? Were the symbols of Britain colonial fetters or sustaining bedrock? Was choosing a flag a sign of forward thinking or desecration of tradition? Was the maple leaf a symbol of Canada and all its peoples, or a catchall that could mean anything or nothing?
Pearson speaking at the Canadian Club in September 1964, called the flag debate an example of “this strange, almost psychotic soul-searching we are going through nationally today.”
That month, Pearson formed a multi-party flag committee in an effort to create some spirit of co-operation. By October, the committee had three designs left: a Red Ensign with the fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack, the three red maple leaves and blue borders, and a red and white flag with a stylized red maple leaf. Eventually the committee unanimously recommended the single leaf design.
Then it went to the House of Commons. The debate lasted for 33 days, as Conservative party leader John Diefenbaker staunchly (and in the opinion of some, including members of his own party, insanely) defended the Canadian Red Ensign.
By December 10, Diefenbaker’s Quebec lieutenant Léon Balcer was at odds with his leader—this issue was blocking all other business, and could destroy Conservative support in Quebec—and called for closure to the debate. On a vote, the House, including 31 Opposition members, imposed closure. The final vote was taken in the early morning hours of December 15. Shouts of “flag by closure” and “that pinhead” (referring to the Prime Minister) were hurled. But by 2:15 AM, the decision was made.
That day the Toronto Star headlined: “Howling House gives OK to the new flag”. The National Flag of Canada was a reality, almost a century after Canada became a nation.
The flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965. In the words of the Honourable Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate:
“The flag is a 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.”
And that’s pretty Canadian too, eh?
For more on the Canadian flags:
A Flag for Canada, 2nd ed. by Rick Archbold traces the history of the maple leaf as a Canadian symbol, the selection of the maple leaf flag, and its growing meaning since 1965.
Liberal MP John Matheson's Canada's flag: a search for a country gives a rousing (yes, really) account of the flag debate. A must for political junkies. Don't miss the section on citizen's letters to the government.
There are several accounts of the maple leaf flag for children. Available in book and eBook.
If you're flying the flag, consult Flag etiquette in Canada.
Check here for a selection of pre-1965 flag histories.
A special treat is Saluting the Canadian Flag: (a patriotic exercise) from 1917, a play-let to be performed by school children. Its patriotic fervour is expressed partly in verse, though there is a little confusion about which flag they're celebrating--the "tattered old ensign" or, as here, "O list to the story, 'tis filled full of glory,/This tale of our own Union Jack". Available at the Toronto Reference Library, and the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books at the Lillian H. Smith branch.