The Canadian Maple Leaf Flag

On February 15th, 1965, the modern Canadian flag, bearing its hallmark maple leaf, was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill. Today, the maple leaf is a recognized symbol of Canada; it has also come to symbolize unity, tolerance, and peace. This article provides a history of Canada's modern flag, and describes the events and debates leading up to its adoption.

Historical Overview of Canadian Flags

Historical overview of the past flags used by Canada

A National Flag for Canada

Events leading up to the decision to adopt the Canadian maple leaf flag

Why the Maple Leaf?

Why was the maple leaf chosen as the official symbol on Canada’s national flag?

Links for Further Information

List of links for more information on this topic

Historical Overview of Canadian Flags

Historical overview of the past flags used by Canada

Flag Terminology

The following terms are used to describe the various parts of a flag:

  • The hoist is the half of the flag nearest the flagpole;
  • The upper hoist is the upper left-hand quadrant of the flag;
  • The lower hoist is the lower left-hand quadrant of the flag;
  • The fly is the half of the flag that is farthest away from the flagpole;
  • The upper fly is the upper right-hand quadrant of the flag; and
  • The lower fly is the lower right-hand quadrant of the flag.

A Commonwealth Symbol – The Union Jack

Until 1965, Canada did not have its own national flag. Since Confederation, the Union Jack, the national flag of the United Kingdom, served as Canada’s unofficial national flag. Accordingly, the Union Jack flew over government buildings in Canada, as well as other government-related facilities such as RCMP camps and military forts.

The Union Jack represents the political union of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The flag combines the following three heraldic emblems:

  • England: the St. George’s Cross, a red cross on a white background.
  • Scotland: the St. Andrew’s Cross, a diagonal white cross on a blue background.
  • Ireland: the St. Patrick’s Cross, a diagonal red cross on a white background.

The emblems on the Union Jack mark the union of England and Scotland in 1606, and the subsequent Act of Union — of Ireland, with England (and Wales) and Scotland — in 1801. The official name of the Union Jack is the Union Flag; in Canada it is called the Royal Union Flag.

Displaying the Union Jack Throughout the Commonwealth

The Union Jack design is displayed on the national flags of many Commonwealth countries, representing a given country’s historical ties to Britain. Normally, the Union Jack is displayed on the upper hoist, while symbols specific to the country are displayed on the fly (this is called defacing the fly), and possibly the lower hoist.

This pattern is found on the national flags of Australia and New Zealand. Both flags display the Union Jack on their upper hoist and the Southern Cross — the most visible star in the southern hemisphere — on the fly. The stars representing the Southern Cross on New Zealand’s flag have red shading and are larger than those on the Australian flag. The Australian flag also has the Commonwealth Star — a seven-pointed star representing the six Australian states and the territories — in the lower hoist. Like many Commonwealth countries, both flags also have a royal blue background to represent the sea that surrounds them.

Other Commonwealth countries that display the Union Jack on their national flag include Bermuda, Fiji, and Gibraltar.

From the Union Jack to the Red Ensign – Canada’s Quest for an Official Flag

While the Union Jack was Canada’s unofficial national flag at Confederation, over time another flag, the Canadian Red Ensign, began to overtake it in popularity. An adaptation of a British naval flag, the original version of the Red Ensign, consisted of a square red flag with the Union Jack on the upper hoist, and a shield containing the coat of arms of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick (the four provinces that originally entered Confederation in 1867) displayed on the fly. As other provinces joined Confederation, the shield design on the flag was updated to include their coats of arms.

The Canadian Red Ensign was first used on naval vessels, even before the British government officially gave Canada permission to display the flag in 1892. While Canadian troops fought under the Union Jack flag during World War I, some veterans have memories of the Canadian Red Ensign being flown (unofficially) as well. In World War II, Canadian troops fought under the Red Ensign.

One obvious reason for the Canadian Red Ensign’s growing popularity was that, in addition to the Union Jack, it also displayed symbols specific to Canada. Interestingly, one of the symbols found in both the earliest versions of the Canadian Red Ensign, as well as subsequent incarnations, is the maple leaf.

In 1924, under the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the provincial shields on the Canadian Red Ensign were replaced with the shield from the Canadian Coat of Arms. The shield from the Canadian Coat of Arms contains five features (the first four represent the European peoples who founded Canada, while the fifth is meant to be a distinctly Canadian symbol):

  • On the top left, three golden lions, serve as symbols of England;
  • On the top right, a Scottish red lion is bordered with a red fleur-de-lis, alternately pointing inward and outward;
  • On the middle left is the Irish harp of Tara;
  • On the middle right is the golden fleur-de-lis of France; and,
  • On the bottom half are three maple leaves set against a white background.

The federal government approved the use of the newly designed flag on Canadian buildings abroad, such as at Canada House in London. In 1945, its use was expanded to federal buildings within Canada.

Why Didn’t the Canadian Red Ensign Become Canada’s National Flag?

Given the similarity in design between the Canadian Red Ensign and the national flags of other Commonwealth countries, it is interesting to speculate why it never became Canada’s national flag. Partially, federal officials feared a negative backlash from the French Canadian population. Many French Canadians viewed the Union Jack — which is featured on the Canadian Red Ensign — as a symbol of colonialism, representing France’s defeat at the hands of the British on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City in 1759. French Canadian hostility to the Union Jack (and all British symbols) increased during World War I, as Robert Borden, the Prime Minister at the time, was forced to bring in conscription (compulsory service in the military). French Canadians resented being forced to serve under British commanders and a British flag in war, even if they were defending France.

Although the Canadian Red Ensign contained other symbols in addition to the Union Jack — including the French fleur-de-lis — French Canadians still rejected it. Quebecers were more loyal to their own provincial flag, consisting of a white cross on a blue background, with a white fleur-de-lis in each of the four quadrants, and no British symbols. Any move to make the Canadian Red Ensign Canada’s national flag would inevitably inflame ethnic tensions between English and French Canada, particularly within the province of Quebec.

To complicate matters, many British descendants felt the Canadian Red Ensign did not do enough to emphasize Canada’s ties to Britain. Groups such as the Imperial Order of the Daughters of Canada argued that the Union Jack — the flag under which Canadian soldiers had laid down their lives during World War I — should remain Canada’s official flag. These two groups would continue to play a prominent role in subsequent debates over choosing a national flag for Canada.

A National Flag for Canada

Events leading up to the decision to adopt the Canadian maple leaf flag

In 1925, capitalizing on the patriotic fervour following the Allied victory in World War I, Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King made his first attempt to adopt a national flag for Canada. King appointed a parliamentary committee to recommend a design for a national flag; however, it quickly became evident that it would be impossible to gain widespread agreement. The Prime Minister quietly dissolved the committee before it released its final report.

Following World War II, when patriotic fervour was again high, Prime Minister King made a second attempt to adopt a national flag for Canada. In 1946, King appointed a parliamentary committee to choose a flag design. This time, the committee submitted a final report to Parliament. The design they recommended was a variation on the Canadian Red Ensign. The proposed flag still included a Union Jack; however, the shield from the Canadian coat of arms was replaced with a gold maple leaf with a white border.

The flag was designed to strike a compromise between English speaking Canadians who wanted to keep the Union Jack, and French speaking Canadians who wanted a flag that did not contain any British symbols. Predictably, the proposed design pleased no one. The Prime Minister let the issue drop without bringing it to a vote in Parliament.

The Flag Debate

Well over a decade later, during the 1963 federal election campaign, Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson promised that if the Liberals formed the next government, Canada would have a new flag within two years. Following the election of a minority Liberal government, Pearson was true to his word; in the early months of 1964, the new Prime Minister met with several flag experts to discuss flag design.

From the outset, Pearson rejected following the route of many other Commonwealth countries whose flags included the Union Jack to represent their ties to Britain. Pearson had vivid memories of the 1956 Suez Crisis, when, as Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, he had played a key role in brokering an agreement between the relevant parties over the future operation of the Suez Canal. When Pearson suggested the United Nations create a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to keep the peace in Egypt while a political settlement was being worked out, President Nassar of Egypt objected to including Canadian troops in the UNEF because their flag, the Canadian Red Ensign, was too British-looking.

This incident made a lasting impression on Pearson. He wanted a “made in Canada” flag — one that contained a uniquely Canadian symbol to promote Canadian unity, one that would also assist in buffering a growing separatist climate in Quebec.

In May 1964, Pearson formally announced the new flag design. Pearson’s proposed national flag consisted of three red maple leaves on a white background, bordered by two vertical blue bars to represent the fact that Canada stretched “from sea to sea.”

Before making the official announcement on May 19th, Pearson tested the new flag design with an audience of Veterans at a speech in Winnipeg. Their reaction was indicative of what was to come. The Veterans, who had fought under the Canadian Red Ensign — unofficially in World War I, and officially in World War II — heckled the Prime Minister throughout his speech.

Reaction to the proposed flag design among Members of Parliament from the Progressive Conservative opposition was equally negative. Progressive Conservative Leader (and former Prime Minister) John Diefenbaker quickly dubbed the proposed maple leaf flag “Pearson’s Pennant.” Diefenbaker’s opposition to the flag design was based on the fact that it did not include any historical symbols recognizing Canada’s British and French heritage. He favoured the Canadian Red Ensign, as it contained both British and French symbols, specifically the Union Jack and the fleur-de-lis (the Union Jack is found on the upper left-hand-side of the Canadian Red Ensign, while the fleur-de-lis forms part of the shield from Canada’s coat of arms which is on the fly). In a memo from Diefenbaker’s personal files he wrote:

The Pearson flag is a meaningless Flag. There is no recognition of history; no indication of the existence of French and English Canada; the partnership of the races; no acknowledgement of history. It is a flag without a past, without history, without honour and without pride.” (Source – I Stand for Canada: The Story of the Maple Leaf Flag).

Throughout the summer of 1963, the Progressive Conservatives used techniques such as ‘filibustering’ to prolong debate on the flag design, so that a vote on the matter could be postponed.

While the remaining opposition parties generally supported Pearson (with some modifications to the basic design), the Liberals needed the support of the Progressive Conservatives in the House of Commons to support the legislation that would officially give rise to the new flag. Furthermore, for the flag to be a unifying symbol, it would need an overwhelming show of support from Parliament.

Reaction outside of the House of Commons to the new flag design was mixed. Some groups, including Veterans’ organizations and the Imperial Order of the Daughters of Canada, actively lobbied for the Red Ensign. At the same time, the new flag, which was supposed to be a unifying force between French and English Canada, proved to be a relative ‘dud’ with French Canadians; it received a largely lukewarm reception.

By September, it was clear to Pearson that he would need to change tactics. The following outlines the detailed sequence of events that ultimately led to the adoption of the Canadian maple leaf flag as Canada’s new national flag:

  • In September 1964, Pearson agreed to refer the matter to a 15-member all-party Parliamentary Committee. The Committee's makeup was designed to ensure regional representation and include a mix of English and French speakers. (The Committee also included one woman.) With respect to political party representation, the Committee consisted of seven Liberals, five Progressive Conservatives, one New Democrat, one Social Credit, and one Créditiste.
  • Over the next four weeks, the Parliamentary Committee considered more than 2,000 designs, including hundreds submitted by the public.
  • On October 22nd, following weeks of heated debate among its members, 14 committee members voted unanimously (the 15th member was only to vote in the case of a tie) for a modification of Pearson’s proposed flag, with a red background and a single, stylized 11-point maple leaf on a white square in the middle.
  • Although the Committee members from the Progressive Conservative Party voted for the new design, they did so with the mistaken belief that the Liberals would vote against it, since the modified design did not include the three maple leaves originally proposed by Lester Pearson. The Progressive Conservative members of the Committee also voted against a subsequent motion to submit this flag design as the Committee’s choice for the country's national flag. (The motion passed anyway.)
  • With a few minor alterations, the final version of the design, which had been submitted to Cabinet, was approved.
  • Over the next two weeks, Members of Parliament debated the new design. During this period, Diefenbaker, and the members of his party who sat on the flag Committee, resorted to ‘filibustering’ to forestall any real debate on the design.
  • Several Conservative MPs became concerned about media and public backlash to the filibustering. On December 9th, Diefenbaker’s Quebec Lieutenant, Léon Balcer, rose and invited the Liberal government to invoke ‘closure,’ so the new flag design could be put to a vote.
  • On December 11, following further debate, the Prime Minister invoked closure; that is, a motion to end debate on the flag, and thus the filibuster. On December 14th, the closure motion passed by 152 to 85 votes, meaning that a vote on the actual flag could proceed in the House.
  • On December 15 1964, following a speech by Pearson, Parliament approved the new flag in a crucial vote, with 163 MPs voting in favour of the new flag and 78 voting against it. This vote occurred despite significant opposition from former Prime Minister Diefenbaker to the new design.

On January 28, 1965, the Queen signed the Royal Proclamation giving Canada a national flag. On February 15, 1965, an official flag-raising ceremony was held on Parliament Hill, as Canada’s new national flag was flown for the first time.

Why the Maple Leaf?

Why was the maple leaf chosen as the official symbol on Canada’s national flag?

Some may question why the maple leaf was eventually chosen as the symbol used on Canada’s flag, particularly given that the sugar maple, used as the model for the maple leaf design on Canada’s national flag, is found only in eastern Canada. Further to this, the majority of Canada’s maple trees are, in fact, only found east of Manitoba. By contrast, the beaver, a symbol of industriousness, and responsible for Canada’s burgeoning fur trade in the 1800s, is found widely across the country. In 1849, when famous Canadian engineer Sandford Fleming was asked to design Canada’s first adhesive postage stamp, he chose to portray a beaver building a dam near a waterfall.

There are several reasons why the maple leaf was a more appropriate choice. For one thing, the maple leaf is simply easier to draw. For another, the maple leaf is red, one of Canada’s national colours (the other is white). Finally, the fur trade is a part of Canada’s historical past, and the image of the beaver no longer resonated with Canadians in the same manner that it would have in the nineteenth century.

Further to these arguments, historically speaking, the image of the maple leaf has frequently been used as a symbol of Canada. To cite a few examples:

  • In 1860, the design of the badge for the Prince of Wales Royal Canadian Regiment included a maple leaf. Also in 1860, the maple leaf featured prominently in decorations for a visit by the Prince of Wales.
  • In 1867, Alexander Muir penned “The Maple Leaf Forever” as a song for Confederation.
  • Between 1876 and 1901, the maple leaf was featured on all Canadian coins; today, the maple leaf is found on the penny).
  • Between 1899 and 1902, Canadian soldiers fighting in the Boer War (a conflict in South Africa between the British and descendents of South Africa’s Dutch settlers) wore a maple leaf on their helmets.
  • In 1904, Canadian athletes competing in the Olympic Games wore shirts displaying the maple leaf.
  • In World Wars I and II, the maple leaf was displayed on soldiers’ caps, badges, and military equipment.
  • In 1921, the Canadian shield was revised so that the provincial emblems were replaced with a maple leaf.
  • In 1980, for his ‘Marathon of Hope’ run across Canada, Terry Fox wore a white T-shirt with the maple leaf embedded on a map of Canada.
  • Throughout the 20th century, Canadian teams wore the maple leaf on their uniforms in international competitions.

Today, around the world, the maple leaf is inextricably linked with Canada.

On a final note, and a little ‘closer to home,’ when the founders of were looking for a name, and a visual symbol that would immediately communicate the website’s focus on Canada, the maple leaf proved to be an obvious choice.

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