Thursday, December 15, 2011

Canada Approved New Maple Leaf Flag Amid Controversy

Note: Adapted from a post on February 15, 2011

Anyone who remembers watching Canadian fans celebrate their first-ever home Gold Medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics back in 2010 by swathing themselves in every possible variation of the scarlet and white Maple Leaf  Flag might think that they have always adored the emblem.  But controversy over what should be the official flag had dragged on for decades and threatened the very unity of the nation. 

The red and white banner was not officially adopted until December 15. 1964 and not flown until the following February.

Prior to that Canada did not really have its own official national flag.  When Great Britain’s North American possessions were united by Confederation in 1867 the Union Jack, known in Canada as the Royal Union Flag was flown by all government buildings and a military installations.  Each province had its own banner, but there was no distinctive national flag.

Beginning in the 1880s a flag based on the British Red Ensign for merchant shipping began to be uses informally, first at sea and then more commonly on land.  The red flag incorporated the Royal Union flag in its upper left corner with a crest made up of the coats of arms of the provinces against the “Fly”—the outer portion of the flag. This crest grew from the original four to seven as new provinces joined the confederation.

In 1922 the crest was replaced by the Canadian Coat of Arms which combined the heraldic symbols of the four major European populations groups—England, Scotland, Ireland and France—with a distinctively Canadian symbol, a twig with three maple leaves. The leaves were green until 1956 and red after. Although never adopted as a national flag it slowly gained acceptance. 

Canadian troops in World War I fought under the Royal Union but some units carried the Red Ensign as a secondary flag.  In World War II it was the primary flag of Canadian forces.  The Ensign was used on Canadian government building abroad from 1924 and was approved for use on domestic government building in 1946 until a National Flag was adopted.  

The Semi-official Red Ensign in its final form.
But there were bitter divisions over what the National Flag should be.  Those called Empire Loyalists, Anglophone conservatives insisted on retaining the Royal Union as the official flag or failing that, that the Royal Union be retained intact as a portion of the new flag.  Canadian war veterans, a revered sector of society, generally favored the retention of the Red Ensign. 

French speaking Quebec regarded the Royal Union as a symbol of British oppression and were not mollified by the inclusion of the fleur de lis motif in the Canadian Crest on the Red Ensign.  Brimming with nationalism and constantly at odds over language issues with the rest of the country Quebec clung to its own blue flag. 

A  design recommended by a Joint Commission of the Senate and the House of Commons recommended the Red Ensign with the crest replaced by a gold maple leaf as the official national flag.  The Quebec Legislative Assembly, however, had already insisted that the new flag not include any European symbols, especially the Royal Union.  Faced with possible rebellion Prime Minister Mackenzie King declined to act on the Joint Commission’s recommendation.

The flag issue continued to fester until the Liberal government of Lester Peterson in the 1960’s.  He proposed a new flag with a white field between two blue vertical bars and three joined red maple leaves on the field.  The blue was supposed to represent the two oceans that flanked transcontinental Canada, but many also thought that they were a sop to Quebec’s blue flag.  Empire loyalists and war veterans united against the Pearson design. 

After it was rejected in bitter Parliamentary debate, Pearson appointed a new multiparty committee to select a new design.  They settled on one created by George F.G. Stanley—a white field between red vertical bars with a single 11 point red maple leaf.  The design was approved by the House of Commons and the Senate in December, 1964. 

Queen Elizabeth, the official Canadian Head of State officially proclaimed the flag on January 25, 1965.  It was first raised with much ceremony on Parliament Hill at noon on February 15.

Dwindling numbers of Empire Loyalists still resist the flag, but are a fading force.  Both the Royal Union and the Red Ensign continue to be flown on some occasions.  But the Maple Leaf Flag is the official banner now.  And most Canadians are now madly in love with it.


  1. Thank you for the history lesson! Despite living within three hours of the Canadian border my entire life, my knowledge of Canadian history is woefully insufficient. I will admit that I did think this post was reporting that Canada just changed its flag :)

  2. My Canadian friend never cease to be amazed by how little we know about them. Living next to the Colossus they are mostly very will informed about American politics, issues, and history. In fact, often better informed than Americans ourselves. Sometimes wish they could vote down here!