This is the Introduction from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



Nous avons la manie ou le goût de faire des drapeaux.1
(We have the mania or the passion to make flags.)
Edouard Blondel (1920)


The passion to make and display flags transcends cultures.

In 1577, on his second visit to the eastern Canadian arctic, Martin Frobisher observed the Inuit "wafting a flag, and makeing great outcries."2 A week later, the Englishmen, in their turn, went "marching with Ensigne displayed round about the Island, [and] gave a vollie of shotte."3

In 1861, nearly three centuries and a continent away, a sailor was carried to his grave in Victoria within a "coffin beneath a Union Jack."4 Meanwhile, just across the Coast Mountains in central British Columbia, "flags, emblazoned with the family emblem of the deceased, frequently mark[ed] the Indian graves."5

Whether native or imported, joyous or sepulchral, identity often wears a flag. In Canada, the passion, even the mania, for flags has roots in many cultures and branches in many activities.

Before Confederation, the flags of many nations flew over what is now Canada. They were carried by natives, explorers, traders, colonizers, and invaders. There is a rich story to be told of polychrome flags borne by polyglot men, but this is not the place to tell it. This work, in its celebration of the national, Maple Leaf Flag, confines itself largely, but not completely, to the post-Confederation era.

In this book the flags of the Canada are unfolded and placed on display.6 The National Flag is the centrepiece, but it is surrounded by a wealth of flags, which, in one capacity or another, has served us as a people. These range from the flags of officialdom, such as those of the head of state, to the ephemeral flags which mark occasions of national importance, such as the Centennial in 1967. Along the way we observe a panoply of other ensigns, jacks, and banners used both formally and informally to represent us as a nation, province, community, association, corporation, or to delineate other some aspect of our lives.

As a result, a substantial book is being published on a subject which would normally occupy no more than two column inches in most self-respecting newspapers, and, even then, only during the funny season. Consequently, the reader can be forgiven for suspecting that distinctions will be made, and terminology will be used, which are unfamiliar to many. That reader is astute. While a glossary accompanies the book, it is the burden of the introduction to make sure the glossary is needed only for nuance.


The Naming of the Parts

The primary function of a flag is to proclaim identity. But many other things also proclaim identity, not the least of which being a name. The characteristic of a flag is that the identity is proclaimed upon a pliable piece of material attached along a vertical edge, so as to allow it to move freely in the wind. Indeed, the word flag owes its origin to the Middle English word, flakken, meaning, to fly.

Any flexible material will do. The Inuit encountered by Frobisher used the bladders of animals; since Confederation, the materials have evolved from being mainly wool or cotton, to being most usually nylon. Silk, although used, was never common for Canadian flags.

Every conceivable technique has been used to produce the desired pattern upon the flag: painting, printing, piecing, appliquéing, and embroidering. Often, techniques were combined to produce a single flag. Usually, the attachment of the flag to a pole, mast or staff, would be accomplished through the use of a rope and toggle sown into a heading along the one side of the flag. Less often, grommets in the heading have been used for fastening. A heading in the form of a sleeve which slips over the pole, although an ancient technique, is now usually limited to flags used for indoor display, especially the little desktop flags which come with their own poles.

The parts of a flag with special names are few in number. The primary distinction is made between the hoist, which is the side attached to the line or pole, and the fly, which is the side free to flap. A common feature of flag design is for a special pattern, usually another flag, to occupy a rectangle in the upper hoist corner. When used in this way, that area is called the canton. Thus, the National Flag appears in the canton of the Canadian Forces Ensign, and the Union Flag appeared in the canton of the old, Canadian Red Ensign.

When an already established flag is modified with the addition of a distinctive emblem, that emblem is called a badge. Very often, the badge leads a separate life away from the flag, perhaps in the form of a seal, shield, crest, or logotype. When a badge is placed on the flag, it is said to deface the flag. The first official and distinctively Canadian flag, the 1870 flag of the governor general, was formed by defacing a Union Flag of Great Britain with a Canadian badge. That badge was a combination of the shields of the original four provinces. Similarly, the Canadian Red Ensign was created when the plain Red Ensign was defaced by a Canadian badge. Not all of the badges which were used had received any authorization. In this book, an ensign defaced with one of these bogus badges is referred to as an aberrant ensign.

The term, badge, by extension, can also be applied to an emblem placed on a newly created flag if that emblem leads a separate existence elsewhere. Thus, the emblem on the fly of the Canadian Forces Ensign is a flag badge, even though the flag was created with the emblem in place. That emblem, however, had been and continues to be used elsewhere. In the same sense, the emblem on the present flag of the governor general is a badge on the flag, for it already existed as the crest from the arms of Canada.

The background area or colour of the flag is called the field. Thus, the old Canadian Red Ensign has a red field and the present governor general's flag has a blue field. Finally, the vertical dimension of a flag is called the width, while its horizontal dimension is the length. Convention demands that the width be stated first. Thus, when a flag's size is stated as 45 cm by 90 cm, or its shape as 1 by 2 (1:2), the width is 45 cm, or the width is one half the length.


Types of Flags

That flags are used to express identity in a wide variety of ways is evident. However, it is only in the last three centuries that the word, flag, has encompassed all of these uses. Still in general use are many of the older, more specialized terms: words such as ensign, jack, banner, standard, pennant, and colour. Their explanation will be easier after the meaning of a national flag has been clarified.

The term, national flag, covers six different uses. Most countries do not use the same flag for all six functions; Canada is one of the few which does. Yet, it was not always thus, and even today Canada uses supplementary flags for some of the functions. Distinguishing among the six different usages helps to clarify both historical and present usage.

The six functions arise as a product of the number of groups which might be distinguished by a special flag, and the number of locales where it might be flown. Three groups are usually distinguished: the civilian, the government, and the military. Two venues are distinguished: over land, and over water.

While on land, the national flag is called just that; at sea, it is generally called the national ensign. For years, although Canada had no formal national flag, it did have a national ensign; indeed, for over half a century, it had three different ones. There was one for each of the three groups: civilian ships flew the Canadian Red Ensign, governmental ships flew the Canadian Blue Ensign, military ships flew the White Ensign. The generic terms for these named flags are, respectively: the civil ensign, state ensign, and war ensign.

Corresponding flags exist on land, so that the national flag can be divided into the civil flag, state flag, and war flag. At various times prior to 1965, Canada did have official state and war flags; what it lacked was a national civil flag. For example, since 1924, the civil flag was the Canadian Red Ensign, at least for governmental use abroad, and, in the early years of the Second World War, the war flag was the Battle Flag. So, the clamor for a national flag for Canada was, in fact, a striving for a national civil flag. When that was achieved, all the other flags were changed to comply with it.


Abundant Ambiguities

With the delicious ambiguities of language, it can be seen that the term, national flag, has a hierarchy of embedded meanings: that flag used by civilians to represent the nation on land; those flags used by anyone to represent the nation on land; those flags used by anyone to represent the nation anywhere.

As discussed, ensign has the meaning of a national flag used on (the stern of) a ship. At least, it used to mean that before ensigns snuck onto the land. Ensigns had a characteristic design: the canton contained another version of the national flag. Before long, a flag merely having this design was called an ensign, even if it were used on land. Thus, before 1965, the Canadian Red Ensign was used on land as well as at sea. Since 1968, the Canadian Forces Ensign has been used as an auxiliary war flag, but is, despite its name, prohibited at sea. Its design rather, than its usage, provided the name.

The ensign was not the only version of the national flag to be flown at sea. An ensign, placed at the stern of a ship, was not readily visible from the bow, especially in the days of sail. Thus began the practice of flying a somewhat different and smaller national flag at the ship's bow. Owing to its smaller size, this flag was given the diminutive, jack. An important flag of Great Britain arose from this usage, and, as a result, has retained an informal epithet, the Union Jack, even when used elsewhere.

Throughout the book, this flag, used by the United Kingdom as its national flag, is generally referred to as the Union Flag, rather than as the Union Jack. (The exception being in direct quotations, where the author's original usage is followed, or where its use as a jack is being discussed.) The Union Flag, or the Royal Union Flag is the formal name of the flag in Canada, and, as such, it is the name used not only in military and civilian publications of the government, but also in popular books on the flags in Canada such as The Story of Canada's Flag, by George F.G. Stanley.

In Canada, the use of the formal name has proved to be a convenient way of emphasizing that this royal flag is being flown to show allegiance to our Queen, rather than being flown to indicate loyalty to another country (the United Kingdom, which uses the flag unofficially as its national flag).

This distinction, while very important in Canada, does not arise in the United Kingdom where flag books sometimes use one name, and sometimes the other. The distinction also does not arise in the egalitarian world south of our border where popularity is apparently considered to be the proper measure. Thus an American author tells us that "only a pedant insists that the familiar Union Jack, if appearing other that on the jack staff of a vessel, be referred to as the Union Flag."7

The term, banner, is open to many meanings, one of them being merely any flag. In another meaning, banner refers to a flag-like device which is either hung from its upper edge, or supported from both sides between two poles. This book only treats flags (flown from one vertical edge) and so banners in this latter sense are not considered. However, there is one other meaning of banner which will prove of concern. When used to describe an [armorial banner], it is a type of flag formed by spreading the shield of a coat of arms across the field. The Queen's Personal Flag for Canada, is an banner of the Canadian Arms, to which her personal badge is affixed.

Anyone or any institution with arms can use them in the form of an armorial banner. For example, British Columbia has had an armorial banner since arms were granted in 1906, but only chose to designate it as the provincial flag in 1960. As with most of the other terms, a standard, has many meanings, but for our purposes it just refers to the armorial banner of a very important person. Thus, the Royal Standard, the flag used to represent the sovereign in Canada up until 1962, is just a banner of the Royal Arms.


Of Arms Seals, and Flags

In Canada, no discussion of flags can long avoid the topic of arms or seals, each of which is often colloquially called a crest. Yet each of these is a very different thing.

In some graphic symbols, the design itself holds the meaning. This is the case with a coat of arms. Independent of the medium in which it is reproduced-paper, brass, plastic, ceramic-it remains the arms. Other graphic symbols depend upon both the design and the medium. This is the case with a flag, which requires the medium to be not only pliable, but free to move on all but one side. So it is that this book contains the actual arms of Canada, but only illustrations of its flags. In like manner to a flag, a seal depends upon both design and construction. It must be made out of a hard, engraved material capable of imprinting a softer material such as wax or paper.

An important function of a seal is to authenticate and give authority to documents. The Great Seal of Canada, or that of any of the provinces, provides the formal sanction of the Crown to a document, such as one containing legislation. Seals are usually circular, but the motif upon the seal has often been borrowed and used as the basis for arms, and subsequently even for a flag. This was the case with Prince Edward Island.

Sometimes the borrowing goes the other way. Canadian arms were granted in 1921, but it was not until 1940 that these arms were incorporated into the Great Seal of Canada, and not until 1965 that an element of the arms, the red maple leaf, was incorporated into the National Flag.

The full achievement of arms is a complex affair containing many separate elements. Only rarely is the full achievement placed on a flag. The present flag of the Hudson's Bay Company and some flags of Canadian municipalities bear the full achievement; generally, both good visibility and good aesthetics demand a simpler flag design.

Two elements of the arms are effectively incorporated into flags: the shield and the crest. The shield is the central element of the arms, and is identifiable because it looks like-well-a shield. When spread over the field of the flag it forms an armorial banner, as discussed above. It is sometimes used as a badge upon a flag, as in the case of the provincial flags of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Not all arms have a crest; when they do, it sits at the crest, that is, at the top of the arms. The crest of the Arms of Canada is a crowned lion holding a red maple leaf. This crest appears on the present flag of the governor general.


Context to Contents

As with many histories before it, this work assembles widely dispersed information into an easily available form. However, this service is probably not as important as another one. Of greater moment is the structure imposed upon the information as seemingly disparate ideas are organized and linked.

In most histories, chronology provides order. The story of the flags used by Canada as a nation has so many interweaving threads that a simple chronological order would be anything but simple to follow. Consequently, the story is broken into eight parts, each of which is told from beginning to end, more or less, independently. Yet, because many of the same people and ideas surface in different chapters, there will be some advantage to following the order presented.

As background information for the flags, Chapter I treats other Canadian symbols, both the informal symbols of the beaver and the maple leaf, and the formal symbol of the Arms of Canada. With this in hand, Chapter II treats the flags of Canada's head of state. Not only do these flags distinguish the highest authority in the land and take precedence over all other Canadian flags, but their evolution tells the story of the changing sovereignty of the nation. Chapters III and IV recount Canada's long love affair with the Royal Union Flag and the Canadian Red Ensign. Theirs is a story of proclamations and passions, but one where fact must be carefully separated from myth.

The centrepiece of the book, Chapter V, tells the saga of the long quest to establish a Canadian flag for Canada. A flag speaks for a people, but for too long a time, the nation could not agree on what it should say. The chapter opens with a background discussion of the national schizophrenia, and then tells of the attempts first to establish a Canadian beachhead on a British flag and then to capture the whole flag for Canada.

Chapters VI and VII discuss flags arising from various activities of the federal government. The flags of national defence are given their own chapter while all other flags are squeezed into Chapter VII. Finally, Chapter VIII discusses the ephemerae of the flag world, the flags of occasion. These flags flare in brilliance for a week or a year and then vanish with barely a trace. Yet, they serve to chronicle a nation's joys and sorrows.



No book such as this could be done without the considerable help and advice of a legion of individuals, people who gave unstintingly of their council whenever it was sought. Not only did we rely heavily on these people for basic information and sometimes material, but many of them spent hours reviewing and critically commenting on portions of the manuscript. Fundamentally, this book is a study of Canadian cultural history. But, the author is not a professional historian, but a scientist and teacher. Indeed, in all his schooling, the author has never attended so much as a single course labeled History. With these insights, the reader can surely appreciate the deep indebtedness the he feels to those who have helped then in the creation of this work.

There is one person, whose knowledge and counsel was paramount to the success of this venture: Bishop D. Ralph Spence, of the Anglican Diocese of Niagara. Without his unstinting advice and receptive ear, this book would have never proceeded past the fantasy stage.

While many have provided modest help, the individuals mentioned below have gone out of their way to be supportive of this work, and merit a special mention.

Those who were particularly helpful for Section A: The Nation

M.V. Bezeau, Director of Ceremonial, NDHQ, Ottawa
Philip Chaplin, military historian, Ottawa
Raymond Denault, Canadian Microfilming Co., Montréal
Peter Edwards, Toronto
Dorothy M. Fraser, Lemont, Pennsylvania
R. Thurlow Fraser, deceased.
Captain Steven Gannon, Ceremonial, NDHQ, Ottawa
Professor Fred Gibson, Queen's University
Michael Halleran, Victoria
Professor Deryck Holdsworth, Pennsylvania State University
Judge John Ross Matheson, Rideau Ferry, Ontario Professor
Blair Neatby, Carleton University
Professor Fernand Ouellet, University of Ottawa Dr.
Whitney Smith, Flag Research Center, Winchester Mass.
Shirlee Smith, Keeper of the Hudson's Bay Archives, Winnipeg
Julie Swettenham, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull
Auguste Vachon, Saint-Laurent Herald, Canadian Heraldic Authority

Many others in the Department of Defence have provided help, particularly branch advisors who supplied material and extensive information. Further, help is acknowledged from the public-relations directors for the many crown corporations, governmental departments, and commissions who similarly supplied information and material.

Those who were particularly helpful for sections B: The provinces, and C: the organizations are:

The Lieutenant Governors of each of the provinces who supplied their personal vice regal flags.
The mayors, town managers, or directors of public relations who supplied the flags of their municipalities.
The directors of public relations who supplied the flags of their corporations or associations.
Nancy Hern, Archivist, C.N.E., Toronto;
Malcolm R. Innes of Edingight, Lord Lyon King of Arms, Edinburgh, Scotland;
Ronald B. Worley, Poway, California;
Robert Pichette, New Brunswick

Finally, the author, who wrote this book as an extracurricular activity, thanks his employer: the Pennsylvania State University. This inestimable institution has provided considerable help, albeit often unwittingly.


Copiosae Culpae

Despite the considerable help from colleagues, the author undoubtedly will have introduced errors and inconsistencies into the text. Part of this will be owing to the ignorance the author brings to the topic, and part to his inability to adequately track the many interweaving stories. Notwithstanding the traditional insincerity of the previous two sentences, the author will make every attempt to get it right if corrections are submitted to him.


This is the Introduction from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



1. Edouard Blondel, "Les drapeaux canadiens" La Presse, April 10, 1920, pp. 1, 8.

2. "A true report of such things as happened in the second voyage of captaine Frobisher...," Hakluyt's Voyages, Vol. 5 (London: J.M. Dent, 1923), p. 219. Such incidents are recorded a number of times, and it is further noted that the flag was white and "made of bladders sowed together with the guts and sinewew of beasts" (p. 223).

3. "A true report...," Hakluyt's Voyages, Vol. 5, p. 225.

4. C.P.V. Akrigg, and Helen B. Akrigg, British Columbia Chronicle: 1847-1871 (Vancouver: Morriss, 1977), p. 229.

5. Matthew Macfie, Vancouver Island and British Columbia (London: Longman, et alii, 1865), p. 447.

6. Many people may be prompted to turn to this book for information on flag etiquette or the ceremonial aspects of flag display. For such issues, the reader should turn to pamphlets such as General rules for flying and displaying the Canadian Flag and other flags in Canada / Conseils relatifs au déploiement du drapeau canadien et d'autres drapeaux au Canada published by the Secretary of State (1978), or for greater detail, Manual of Ceremonial Procedures / Guide des procédures relatives au cérémonial, by Public Works Canada (1987).

7. Whitney Smith, Flags through the ages and across the World (New York: McGraw­Hill, 1975), p. 186.


This is the Introduction from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.


Alistair B. Fraser |