A national flag is a simple, effective way of identifying a country and expressing its collective will and sovereignty. Its symbolism should be expansive, representing perspectives from across the country, and singular, offering a picture of unity. It should also be accessible and above all recognizable, and a symbol like that just doesn’t grow on trees.
For almost a century, Canada did not fly a flag of its own. There were instead the Union Jack and the Canadian Red Ensign, which took turns flying above Parliament. But neither was distinctly Canadian nor permanent. Though the issue was raised in Parliament twice (in 1925 and 1945), it was dropped both times due to a lack of consent. Some clung to tradition, and none could agree on a unifying symbol.
When Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson re-opened the debate in 1964, he offered Canadians the chance to “say proudly to the world and to the future: ‘I stand for Canada.’” A joint committee of the Senate and House of Commons was assembled in order to decide on a suitable design, and after months of vigorous debate, the final design was unfurled at Parliament Hill on 15 February 1965.
The design process was open to the public, who submitted thousands of interpretations. This exhibit looks at 12 of those designs and includes explanations for the symbols found in each. They express a vision for Canada, still young, still sounding out its self-expression.
Artist: Forrest C. Nickerson, an established wildlife illustrator and graphic artist who founded the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf (see also Deaf Culture).
The silhouette of a beaver at the centre of this flag is wreathed by 10 green maple leaves, representing the provinces, and set on a white background. A blue horizontal band decorates the top of the flag while a red band decorates the bottom, colours that signify both France and Britain.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the beaver was honoured by such communities as the Wendat. European settlers learned about the beaver not long after their arrival, with Jacques Cartier trading for furs in 1534. In fact, the pursuit of beaver pelts led to the colonial exploration of vast regions of North America.
Because of the beaver's impact on the development and history of Canada, it is one of Canada's official national emblems, appears on the coat of arms of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and has been immortalized in 1,000 place names across the country.
This design depicts the northern lights, or arsaniit in Inuktitut. A Canadian symbol inextricably linked to the North, the aurora borealis have both haunted and inspired the imaginations of spectators for centuries. Inuit stories and myths give life to the arsaniit and, according to the Nunavik Tourism Association, some describe the dancing lights as “sky people playing in the dark of winter” and claim that “whistling out loud will make them dance even more furiously.”
Birch trees are best known for their paper-like bark. Aboriginal peoples used birch trees, especially the paper birch species, for the construction of baskets and kitchen utensils. The birchbark canoe was the principal means of water transportation for Aboriginal peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, and later for voyageurs, who used it extensively in the fur trade in Canada.
The Canada goose, a species that flocks coast to coast, is a symbol of the Canadian wilderness. The Royal Union Flag (or Union Jack) was once a stand-in for Canada’s national flag and also appeared in the upper left corner of the Canadian Red Ensign, the flag previously flown at Parliament Hill and above Canadian government buildings abroad.
The fleur-de-lys, a symbol of francophone cultural identity, appears on the Canadian coat of arms, but also on the flag of Québec, known as the Fleurdelisé, which was unfurled in 1948. The fleur-de-lys also appears as a symbol of Canada’s francophone communities on flags and other emblems.
Little evidence suggests that the maple leaf was viewed as a Canadian emblem before the early 19th century. The first known written mention of the maple as an emblem of francophone Canadians was within an epigram in a 29 November 1806 issue of Le Canadien addressed to its rival English newspaper, the Mercury. In it, the maple accuses the thorny rose (symbol of England) of maliciously tearing at passers-by.
The maple leaf, an emblem for Canada since at least the 1830s, was officially recognized for the first time in 1859 when the Prince of Wales presented the 100th Regiment (Royal Canadians) with its colours in England. A maple leaf was present at each corner of the regimental flag. The next year, the regiment incorporated branches of maple into its badge, and that year the leaves were used extensively in decorations for the Prince of Wales' visit.
In 1867, Alexander Muir composed "The Maple Leaf Forever," a song which for decades was regarded as a national hymn. The designs of arms granted to Québec and Ontario in 1868 each incorporated a sprig of three maple leaves. The maple leaf was the badge of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War. When national armorial bearings were assigned in 1921, a sprig of leaves was an important feature.
Group of Seven submissions
“I trust you will forgive me for intruding my views into this rather confusing situation,” wrote Jackson in a letter to Prime Minister Pearson, dated 10 June 1964. The letter references the flag sketch shown here, about which Jackson wrote:
“[In the] back of my mind was the memory of camping with Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park just 50 years ago. I made a sketch which became a canvas entitled The Red Maple […] It represented a tree with red leaves and the Ox Tongue River prancing by in the background.”
He continued, “when one thinks of how all this country was discovered and explored by men in canoes, running down or poling up rapids […] the wild river is far more associated with our history than any ocean and the rollicking line can be the expression of it on a flag.
“Apart from that, I believe the leaf of the sugar maple in its natural state is much more beautiful than the simplifications made of it in most of the flag designs.”
In 1964, artist and heraldic advisor Alan B. Beddoe presented Lester B. Pearson with a flag design depicting a sprig of three red maple leaves on a white background flanked by two vertical blue bars. The simple message “Canada from sea to sea” seemed to please Pearson, who introduced the design to Parliament in June 1964. The concept for the three maple leaves was likely derived from the coat of arms of Canada granted by King George V in 1921.
One major player in the design of Canada’s flag was George Stanley , dean of arts at the Royal Military College of Canada. A letter he wrote to MP John Ross Matheson, member of the flag committee, in March 1964 contains a drawing of a flag divided vertically, with red, white and red in equal parts and a red maple leaf in its centre. Stanley preferred one well-stylized maple leaf on the flag, which communicated unity and could be immediately recognized as Canadian.
Matheson did not reject Stanley’s proposal, although he felt that something was missing. A design submitted by George Bist [far left], a war veteran, was close to Alan Beddoe’s conception, but with a single maple leaf in the centre on a square, which made room to enlarge the leaf. On his submission, Bist typed: “I believe in Canada… Its historic past… Its potential for growth… Its future role in world affairs.”
Matheson combined Stanley’s design with Bist’s square and introduced it quietly among the designs.
The Flag of Canada is unique among national flags in that it displays a white square in its centre, which is twice as wide as an ordinary “pale” (a vertical band occupying one third of a flag’s surface).
The original leaf as depicted by Beddoe had 13 points. Matheson studied the behaviour of a model flag bearing the sugar maple leaf when flapping in the wind tunnel of the National Research Council’s laboratory. He finally opted for 11 points, and supervised the stylization of the leaf by the graphic artist Jacques Saint-Cyr of the Canadian Government Exhibition Commission.
Everything became so precise that, when the proportions and stylization of the leaf are not respected, the flag loses much of its beauty and impact.