The Canadian Flag

Image of the Canadian Flag

Description and Proportions of the Canadian Flag


    The flag is red and white, the official colours of Canada as appointed by King George V in 1921, with a stylized 11-point red leaf in its center.


    Two by length and one by width

History of the Canadian Flag

The First "Canadian Flags"

Image of St. George's Cross The St.George's Cross, an English flag of the 15th century, was carried by John Cabot and flown over Canada when he reached the east coast in 1497.

Image of the fleur-de-lis Thirty-seven years later, Jacques Cartier planted the fleur-de-lis on Canadian soil when he landed here and claimed the land for the King of France. The fleur-de-lis was flown until the early 1760s, when Canada was ceded to the United Kingdom.

Image of the Royal Union Flag Although first flown over Canada in 1621, the Royal Union Flag (with the Crosses of St. George and St. Andrew) replaced the fleur-de-lis after 1759. Following the Act of Union (1801), the Cross of St. Patrick was added to the flag that we now know more commonly as the Union Jack.

The Red Ensign The Red Ensign was created in 1707 as the flag of the British Merchant Marine. A form of the Red Ensign, with quartered arms of Canadian provinces (later the shield of the Arms of Canada), gave rise to the Canadian Red Ensign , various forms of which were flown for approximately 1870 to 1965, as well as the Union Jack.

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The Birth of the Canadian Flag

The search for a new Canadian Flag started in earnest in 1925 when a committee of the Privy Council began to research possible designs for a national flag. However, the work of the committee was never completed.

Later, in 1946, a select parliamentary committee was appointed with a similar mandate, called for submissions and received more than 2,600 designs. Still, the Parliament of Canada was never called upon to formally vote on a design.

Early in 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson informed the House of Commons that the government wished to adopt a distinctive national flag. The 1967 centennial celebration of Confederation was, after all, approaching. As a result, a Senate and House of Commons Committee was formed and submissions were called for once again.

The exercise captured the imagination of the country. The committee held 46 sittings. It listened to hours of testimony from heraldic experts, historians and ordinary citizens. It was flooded by more than 2,000 proposed designs. Thousands of Canadians responded with flag designs of their own, using everything from beavers munching on birch trees to the northern lights shining over the Arctic Ocean to represent the country.

In October 1964, after eliminating various proposals, the committee was left with three possible designs - a Red Ensign with the fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack, a design incorporating three red maple leaves, and a red flag with a single, stylized red maple leaf on a white square. Mr. Pearson himself preferred a design with three red maple leaves between two blue borders.

Two heraldry experts, who both favoured a three-leaf design, played a decisive role in the choice of our flag: Alan Beddoe, a retired naval captain and heraldic adviser to the Royal Canadian Navy, and Colonel Fortescue Duguid, a heraldist and historian.

The names of Mr. John Matheson and Dr. George Stanley are well known in the story of the evolution of a new Canadian flag. Mr. Matheson, an Ontario Member of Parliament, was perhaps one of the strongest supporters of a new flag and played a key advisory role. Dr. Stanley was Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College in Kingston, and brought to the attention of the committee the fact that the Commandant's flag at the College - a maple leaf on a red and white ground - was quite attractive.

Yet no one single person can be credited with the design of Canada's National Flag. Indeed, the design arose based on a strong sense of Canadian history and a result of a collaborative effort involving several Canadians. The combination of red, white and red first appeared in the General Service Medal issued by Queen Victoria. Red and white were subsequently proclaimed Canada's national colours by King George V in 1921. Three years earlier, Major General (later the Honourable) Sir Eugene Fiset had recommended that Canada's emblem be the single red maple leaf on a white field - the device worn by all Canadian olympic athletes since 1904.

A key element of the National Flag - the stylized maple leaf - was designed by Mr. Jacques St. Cyr while the proportions of the flag were outlined by Mr. George Bist, a World War II veteran, and the precise coloration of the flag defined by Dr. Gunter Wyszechi. The final determination of all aspects of the new flag was made by a 15-member parliamentary committee, which is officially credited with the design.

The committee eventually decided to recommend the single-leaf design, which was approved by resolution of the House of Commons on December 15, 1964, followed by the Senate on December 17, 1964, and proclaimed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, to take effect on February 15, 1965.

The National Flag of Canada, then, came into being - almost 100 years after the Dominion was created in 1867.

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The Making of the First Canadian Flag

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 new residence at Harrington Lake the next morning. The three proposals on the table included the single maple leaf design.

The only design samples in existence were drawings on paper. So 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. Since no seamstress could be found, the flags were stitched together by the young Joan Donovan, daughter of Ken Donovan. Today Joan Donovan, the first Canadian flag seamstress, is Joan O'Malley.

During a ceremony celebrating the 30th anniversary of the flag, Joan O'Malley recounted her experience:

    "I really didn't realize what I was getting into when I got that phone call from my father in 1964. I was just doing my father a favour; not participating in history. Let me tell you, I don't think of myself as the Betsy Ross type.

    And sewing the flag was not easy. I was no professional - I had just sewed some of my clothes before this. My sewing machine wasn't made for such heavy material. But eventually, the flag came together.

    At the time, it wasn't the best way I could think of to spend a Friday night. In fact, my father was more excited than I was about the whole thing - he was the one who got to deliver the prototypes to Mr. Pearson's house.

    Even though I may not have realized the importance of what I had been asked to do then, I felt good about sewing the prototypes for the flag. It was certainly not a request people got every day."

Excerpts from speaking notes on a speech delivered by Ranald Quail, Deputy Minister, Public Works and Government Services Canada, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Canadian flag.

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The Raising of the Flag

The maple leaf flag was raised for the first time at noon, February 15, 1965 during special ceremonies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Those ceremonies were replayed countless times across the country that day as Canadians gathered together in small towns and villages and in city neighbourhoods to celebrate a flag that was of their own making and uniquely Canadian.

© 1995 Department of Canadian Heritage

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