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The flag of Canada

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On 15 February 1965, Canada introduced its own flag to symbolise its independence and unity.

The flag of Canada, also known as the Maple Leaf Flag or the One-leaved (in French: l'Unifolié), is unique from many standpoints:

  • It is the only flag tested under various wind velocities at a wind tunnel research laboratory.
  • Its commercial use is protected by trade mark laws.
  • It has what was termed a Canadian Pale by vexillologists and heraldists: A big pale centred on the flag which covers half of its width. Pales, in Vexillology and Heraldry, are vertical stripes that usually cover only 1/3 of a flag's width. Many municipal and local flags in Canada also have Canadian pales, but no other national flags employ this design.
  • Its symbol is a maple leaf, a reference to Canada's environment and natural beauty (although, eh, cold!). The leaf has 11 points but some old representations of the flag showed 15 points because they tripled the 2 bottom points.
  • Its official colours, designated by King George V of United Kingdom in 1921, are references to St. George's cross (national flag of England from 1277) and the French royal emblem since King Charles VII of France.
  • It is instantly recognisable by most people around the world because of the aforementioned unique characteristics.

Some history

Grand Banks

Canada was initially inhabited by the First Nations for more than 10000 years and the Inuit from 500 CE, before the Vikings visited Canada around the 11th century, who withdrew without establishing settlements after the violent reaction of the locals. In the 15th century Basque fishermen began fishing the Grand Banks near Newfoundland, one of the richest fishing regions of our planet. Later in the 16th and 17th centuries, first the French and later the British settled in Canada and built the first organised West-European colonies there. However, the colonisation was not a peaceful process, since the First Peoples were very determined to defend their land.

Although there were numerous armed conflicts between the two European powers in Canada, the French and the British, the Europeans finally became the dominant power in most of Canada and together with their culture they also brought their flags: In 1497 Cabot carried the St. George's Cross flag while approaching the east coast of Canada; before 1763 the most common flag in the colonies of New France (Nouvelle France) and Quebec was the fleur-de-lis; the Union flag was used in the British colonies of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

In 1812, the United States (population: 7.5 millions, force: 100000) declared war on United Kingdom and attacked Canada (population: 0.5 million, force: 50000). Canadians successfully defended their land and the Americans suffered much more casualties (12000) than the French/British-trained Canadian forces (5000). The war of 1812 caused a sudden rise of strong national identity sentiments in Canada and united its French and English inhabitants. A truly Canadian national identity was well established, and it was not too long until Canadians started feeling that they should have a distinct national flag.

Canadian Red Ensign 1957

By 1868, a new flag began to appear unofficially: The Canadian Red Ensign. In 1945 the flag became nearly official when its use in government buildings and the parliament was allowed. Later, in 1925, a committee was established to choose a new national flag for Canada, but its work was never completed. In 1946 there was another unsuccessful maneuver to change the flag.

The Maple Leaf flag

The centennial celebration of the Confederation was approaching and prime minister Lester Bowles Pearson informed the House of Commons in 1964 that the government wanted to introduce a national flag. Despite strong opposition by former prime minister John George Diefenbaker, a committee was set up to choose a new flag for Canada.

After about 5900 submissions, 3 proposed designs were selected for final consideration:

  • A Red Ensign with the fleur-de-lys and the Union Jack.
  • A design with 3 red maple leaves (prime minister preferred a version of this flag designed by Alan Beddoe, which had two blue borders symbolising the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, nicknamed the "Pearson Pennant").
  • A red flag with a single red maple leaf on a white square, created by designed by George Stanley.

Pearson Pennant

Several heraldists analysed the proposed flags and tried to find out which one was the most "Canadian". Fortescue Duguid, a historian with heraldy expertise, and Alan Beddoe, a heraldy adviser of the Royal Canadian Navy, both favoured the 3-leaf flag. Although most Canadians liked the idea of having a new flag, there was much opposition to the Pearson Pennant design by John Diefenbaker who, while speaking to the parliament, once said: "this flag will only be passed over by my dead body".

For more than 30 days there was very intense controversy in the parliament, and Diefenbaker and his party issued over 200 speeches. Because of the debate, discussions for other programmes (which could be considered much more important for the people's daily life), like the Canada Pension Plan, were completely stalled. To resolve the situation, the prime minister assigned to a 15-member committee headed by Liberal MP John Matheson to make the final decision.

In 1964, George Francis Gillman Stanley, a Calgary-born author, historian, public servant, soldier and teacher, who was educated in the University of Alberta and the Oxford University, and held several advanced academic degrees (D.Phil., M.A., M.Litt. and two B.A.), was at the Royal Military College. The college was using a red-white-red 3-pale flag featuring a college crest with 3 maple leaves held by a mailed fist. This design inspired Stanley to propose a similar red-white-red theme, but with a red maple leaf instead. In October, Matheson and NDP MP Reid Scott seemed to like Stanley's flag.

The single maple leaf design had many advantages: It was neutral and it could help Quebec to stay content within the Confederation. According to Matheson's book "the fight for a flag was a fight to save Canada" (source). Several people were afraid that the Confederation could someday collapse and that the French-speaking Quebec could separate from the rest English-speaking provinces. Back in 1946 Quebec demanded the exclusion of all foreign symbols from any Canadian flag. By 1963 the police was concerned by the activities of a small but very violent terrorist organisation calling itself Quebec Liberation Front (Front de Libération du Quebec) which was seeking to establish a socialist independent state in Quebec by force. There was surely some anti-Confederation or anti-British sentiment in Quebec which needed to be balanced with a neutral symbol of unity and inter-cultural cooperation. What could be better than a maple leaf, which symbolises the land that all Canadians love?

The maple leaf has a long history in the Canadian psyche. Its first documented use was in 1834 by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and in 1836 a newspaper (Le Canadien) proposed that it would be a suitable symbol for Canada. In 1860 it was used for decorations during the visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada. Alexander Muir wrote "The Maple Leaf Forever" in 1867, and it was considered a national song for many years then. In 1904 the athletes of Canada in the Games of the III Olympiad (in St. Louis, Missouri, USA) used maple leaf symbols on their uniforms. Later, in the First World War, the maple leaf was a symbol of the Canadian forces. It was used again in the Second World War, when many Canadian tanks were featuring a maple leaf on them, together with many heroic Canadian soldiers, many of them volunteers, who helped to save Europe from the Nazi invaders.

There are many maple species, and the committee relied on photographs produced by the Dominion Forest Service to choose the exact variety which was the most familiar to Canadians: The hard sugar maple tree leaves. The natural leaf has about 23 points, but the stylised version has only 11 because, according to Matheson's book, they can "visually multiply as the wind speed increases".

The exact size and the placement of the leaf on the flag was selected after thorough study and tests under varying wind velocities at the National Research Laboratory Wind Tunnel.

The flag was finally approved by the committee in December 1964 and on 15 February 1965 the maple leaf flag became the official national flag of Canada, with the agreement of Queen Elizabeth II.

Commercial use of the Canadian flag is protected by the trade-marks act. Typically, the flag must always be displayed in a dignified manner.

The text of this article is (C) Copyright 2005 by Nikolaos S. Karastathis. You are welcome to use the text under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence, as long as this copyright notice and the link to its original location remain intact:


  • The National Flag of Canada
  • Matheson and the national flag of Canada
  • CBC documentary
  • Matheson's book, hosted by Canada's Digital Collections
  • Flag proposals
  • Matheson
  • The Flags of Canada
  • Old French flags
  • Educational activity
  • How to immigrate to Canada

Local links:

  • Discuss in Wikinerds Forum

Notice: The Grand Banks picture was found here and it is in the public domain (Source: In The Physical Geography of the Sea (1855) by M. F. Maury., Courtesy of NOAA Photo Library). The Pearson Pennant flag picture was found here and it is in the public domain. The Canadian Red Ensign picture was found here and it is in the public domain.

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