History of the National Flag of Canada

The Canadian Flag is result of the contribution of many, extending over a century. The process of choosing the design however, was a long one that stirred national debate.

The process began in 1895 when heraldry enthusiast Edward M. Chadwick recommended to the Government that Canada should have its own national flag featuring a maple leaf. Almost 30 years later in 1925, a committee of the Privy Council began to research possible designs. However, the committee never completed its work. A parliamentary committee was given a similar mandate in 1946, but Parliament was never called upon to formally vote on the more than 2,600 designs received.

Early in 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson informed the House of Commons that the Government wished to adopt a distinctive national flag. As a result, a Senate and House of Commons Committee was formed and submissions were called for once again.

Creation of the flag

Throughout the process, the maple leaf and the colours red and white have been a recurring, common theme between experts and heraldry enthusiasts.

After various discussions over time, there were tree final designs to choose from:

  • a red ensign with the fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack ;
  • a flag with three joined maples leaves in between a blue border; and
  • the single leaf design in between a red border.

Alan Beddoe, a retired naval captain and heraldic adviser to the Royal Canadian Navy, brought forth the three joined maples leaves. That designed was favoured by heraldist and historian Colonel Fortescue Duguid.

Though, it was not the first time the single leaf design was suggested. In 1919, Major General (later the Honourable) Sir Eugene Fiset had recommended the single red maple leaf on a white field as Canada’s emblem. The device had been worn by all Canadian Olympic athletes since 1904. The same design was again proposed for the national flag in 1964 by Dr. George Stanley.

John Matheson, Member of Parliament from Ontario and the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary, played a critical role in the creation and selection of the Flag. He oversaw and coordinated the research and proposal throughout the process, and presented the single leaf design which is based on a strong sense of Canadian history. The combination of red, white and red first appeared in the General Service Medal issued by Queen Victoria. In 1921, red and white were proclaimed Canada’s national colours by King George V.

The final design of the stylized maple leaf was established by Jacques St-Cyr, the precise dimensions of red and white were suggested by George Bist, and the technical description of precise shade of red was defined by Dr. Günter Wyszecki.

On a Friday afternoon in the late autumn of 1964, an urgent request came from Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to the desk of Ken Donovan. Mr. Donovan was then an assistant purchasing director with the Canadian Government Exhibition Commission, which later became a part of the Department of Supply and Services.

The Prime Minister wanted prototypes of the proposals for the new flag to take to his residence at Harrington Lake the next morning. There were three proposals:

  • a Red Ensign with the fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack;
  • a design that included three red maple leaves; and
  • a red flag with a single, stylized red maple leaf on a white square.

The only design samples in existence were drawings on paper yet Mr. Donovan and his team of designers managed to do the impossible - the flag prototypes were assembled in just a few hours. Graphic artists and silk screeners Jean Desrosiers and John Williams were called in to work on the Friday evening and since no seamstress could be found, the flags were stitched together by the young Joan O’Malley, daughter of Ken Donovan.

After a great deal of work, the National Flag of Canada was proclaimed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on January 28, 1965 and raised for the first time in an inauguration ceremony on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965.

One of the three design proposals: a Red Ensign with the fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack
One of the three design proposals: three red maple leaves between two blue borders
One of the three design proposals: a red maple leaf on a white square between two red borders

A symbol of Canadian identity

The National Flag of Canada was approved by resolution of the House of Commons on December 15, 1964, followed by the Senate on December 17, 1964. It was proclaimed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, to take effect on February 15, 1965. The official ceremony inaugurating the new Canadian flag was held on Parliament Hill that same day.

The Canadian Red Ensign, bearing the Union Jack and the shield of the Royal Arms of Canada, was lowered and then, at the stroke of noon, our new maple leaf flag was raised. The crowd sang the national anthem, “O Canada”, followed by the royal anthem, “God Save the Queen.”

The following words, spoken on that momentous day by the Honourable Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate, added further symbolic meaning to our flag:

“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.”

First Canadian flags

Below are the flags used by Canadians for the past 400 years. The Red Ensign was never officially adopted as a national flag. Until the adoption of the present national flag, the Royal Union Jack was the only other official National Flag of Canada.

Fleur-de-lis (1647)

The fleur-de-lis was a symbol of French sovereignty in Canada from 1534, when Jacques Cartier landed and claimed the New World for France, until the early 1760s, when Canada was given to the United Kingdom. Although a number of French military flags were used in Canada during this period, including the white flag of the Marine royale after 1674, the fleur-de-lis held a position of some prominence.

The fleur-de-lis of 1647

Cross of St. George (1577)

The Cross of St. George traces its history back to the legend of St. George, who became the patron saint of England in the late Middle Ages. The red cross associated with St. George came into wide use as a national emblem of England in 1274, during the reign of Edward I.

The earliest recorded use of the Cross of St. George in Canada is found in a watercolour painting by John White. It depicts English explorers struggling with Inuit, most likely on Baffin Island during Martin Frobisher’s expedition of 1577. It was also carried by John Cabot when he reached the east coast of Canada in 1497.

The Cross of St. George of 1577

Royal Union Flag (1707-1801)

In the early 1760s, the official British flag was the two-crossed jack or the Royal Union Flag. It is commonly referred to as the Union Jack.

The Royal Union Flag of 1707 to 1801

Red Ensign (1707)

The Red Ensign, a red flag with the Union Jack in the upper corner, was created in 1707 as the flag of the British Merchant Navy.

The Red Ensign of 1707

Royal Union Flag (1801-1965)

Following the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, the diagonal Cross of St. Patrick was incorporated with England’s Cross of St. George and Scotland's Cross of St. Andrew. This gave the Royal Union Flag its present-day configuration. This flag was used across British North America and in Canada, even after Confederation from 1867 until 1965.

The Royal Union Flag of 1801 to 1965

Learn more about the Royal Union Flag.

Red Ensign (1871-1921)

The Red Ensign was commissioned to include a fly bearing the quartered arms of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1871. From approximately 1873 to 1921, as new provinces entered Confederation or received some mark of identification (sometimes taken from their seal), that mark was incorporated into the shield. By 1921, it was made up of the coats of arms of the nine provinces then in Confederation. It was unofficially used on land and sea as Canada’s flag.

The Red Ensign of 1871 to 1921

Canadian Red Ensign (1921-1957)

In 1921, this unofficial version of the Canadian Red Ensign was changed by an order in council and the composite shield was replaced with the shield from the Royal Coat of Arms of Canada, more commonly known as the Canada Coat of Arms. This new version was approved for use on Canadian government buildings abroad. In 1945, an order in council authorized its use on federal buildings within Canada until a new national flag was adopted.

The Canadian Red Ensign of 1921 to 1957

Canadian Red Ensign (1957-1965)

In 1957, the approved artistic interpretation of the Canada Coat of Arms changed the maples leave on the Canadian Red Ensign from green to red.

The Canadian Red Ensign of 1957 to 1965

Ceremonial dress flag

A ceremonial dress flag is a flag with a gold fringe around it. The size of the flag is in no way altered and should certainly not be altered.

In the view of history and law, fringe on a flag has no symbolism. While each person is free to interpret the meaning of fringe, it has no inherent or established universal symbolism.

The fringe is often used on military flags, in formal settings such as a parade, public meetings and offices of government officials. It is also widely used in the private sector.

Fringe is, and always has been a purely decorative addition – an optional enhancement of the beauty of a flag, added on a discretionary basis when the flag is purchased.

The royal proclamation on the National Flag of Canada neither prescribes nor proscribes the use of cords and tassels, heading, sleeve, fringe and other accessories to the Flag. It is universally recognized that the symbolic aspect of the Flag is found in its colours and symbols, not in the physical characteristics of the Flag or the things added to it when it is displayed.

Protocol does not demand that a dress flag be displayed, just like it does not prevent from being displayed. It is left to the discretion of the user. However, protocol does establish that it should always be free (no writing, pinning, etc.).

Dipping the flag

Dipping a carried flag means lowering it from a vertical position to 45 degrees, to a horizontal position, or, even further, touching the ground.

When carried, the National Flag of Canada is never dipped or lowered to the ground.

Within the Canadian Forces, some military units do not have “Colours” (the flag of a military unit, often used in plural form as pair of flags frequently issued to units). The units, when on parade, may carry the National Flag of Canada and the Canadian Forces ensign. When salutes are given, the flags are not dipped but are left to fly. The flag bearer extends his or her hand and lets the flags fly free. At the end of the salute, the flags are gathered in. This procedure applies during inspection or on a march past.

Pledge

There is no official pledge to the Canadian flag. However, there are no laws or statutes which prevent an association or a person from adopting a form which will suit the purposes.

Commercial use of the flag

The Trade-marks Act protects the National Flag of Canada against unauthorized use. Requests to use the Flag should be addressed to:

State Ceremonial and Canadian Symbols

Department of Canadian Heritage

Gatineau, Quebec

K1A 0M5
Telephone:
819-953-6800
Fax:
819-997-8550
E-mail:
PCH.ceremonialetsymboles-ceremonialandsymbols.PCH@canada.ca

Please note that a sketch of the intended use must be submitted by e-mail or fax. The turnaround time is ten (10) business days.

The National Flag and representations of it should always be shown, represented or used in a dignified manner. It should not be defaced by way of printing or illustrations or masked by other objects; it should be displayed in a manner which may be described as in-the-air and free, in which all symbolic parts of the Flag can be identified.

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