Flags of Canada
A flag might be little more than a piece of coloured cloth hanging on a pole, but to those taught to respect it, it can wield enormous symbolic power.
Canada is home to a wide variety of flags representing the full scope of the country’s geography, history and culture. As a result, they remain some of the most important emblems of the nation, easily recognized and much beloved — even if they’re not always the easiest things in the world to draw.
The Canadian Flag
Canada’s national flag, the Maple Leaf, is probably one of the most famous and recognizable in the world. But it’s also a fairly recent flag and was actually quite controversial at first.
During the country’s early history as a British colony, Canada had no flag other than the Union Jack, the proud banner of empire. But even the British needed a way to tell their colonies apart, so in the late 19th century it became fashionable to make what were known as ensigns for the colonies; red or blue flags with little Union Jacks in the top left corner and some sort of crest or symbol in the bottom right. The Canadian version of this set, featuring a red field and the Canadian coat of arms was called simply the “Red Ensign” and started being used as Canada’s de facto national flag in 1922.
As Canada became more and more politically independent from the Brits, however, the Red Ensign became more and more controversial. Why give up so much space on your flag to a picture of someone else’s? Prime Minister Lester Pearson (1897-1972, served 1963-1968) was particularly offended. Having worked as an international diplomat, he claimed other countries could not look at the Red Ensign without thinking “colony,” while back at home, sensitive French-Canadians (and other minorities) could not see it without thinking “Anglo domination.” So he proposed the Maple Leaf as a new flag, with the leaf and colours not representing anything other than the unity of the country.
The suggestion spawned one of the longest parliamentary debates in Canadian history. Older, conservative Canadians said the Red Ensign was the flag that Canadians had fought and died under during two world wars, and one that reflected Canada’s historic ties to Britain and current ties to the monarchy. Though these people obviously lost the argument and the Maple Leaf was officially proclaimed on July 1, 1965, it’s not too uncommon to meet older or very right-wing people in Canada who are still bitter over losing the Ensign.
Interestingly, the Union Jack retains official status as a Canadian flag to this day, though very rarely seen. This was Pearson’s great sop to the traditionalists; according to law, the Jack can still be trotted out once in a while as a “symbol of membership in the Commonwealth and allegiance to the Crown.”
- Canada’s flag debate, Saskatchewan Council for Archives & Archivists
- The national flag of Canada, Canadian Department of Heritage
Each province and territory of Canada has its own flag, too. Like the Maple Leaf, most are fairly recent creations, often the result of contests and committees held during the 1960s and 1970s, when many provinces were getting ready to celebrate their centennial anniversaries. Prior to that, some provinces occasionally flew ensign-style flags with their provincial coats of arms in the corner, in the style of the national red ensign mentioned above.
Though diverse in design, the 13 provincial/territorial flags share a number of common traditions. Most are based on their province’s coat of arms in some form or another, and the majority feature some medley of preexisting, government-designated “official symbols” of the place.
|The Alberta flag has a simple design featuring the province’s coat of arms on a blue background. The coat itself features a stylized representation of the Alberta landscape topped by the English Cross of St. George.|
|British Columbia’s flag was created in 1960 during the activist reign of premier WAC Bennett (1900-1979). Based on the B.C. coat of arms, it’s supposed to personify that old trope about how “the sun never sets on the British Empire” and shows a never-setting sun against the waves of the Pacific coast — at one time one of the Empire’s most distant points.|
|Manitoba and Ontario are the only two provinces that never engaged in the flag re-designing fad that swept the rest of Canada in the late 20th century, and still use fairly generic-looking red ensigns as a result. The Manitoba flag features the province’s coat of arms, which has a buffalo — the official provincial animal — on it.
|The Maritime provinces’ flags are all quite rich in British heraldic symbolism. The New Brunswick flag features a golden lion, representing England, and an old-timey sailing ship as a nod to the province’s historic status as a major centre of Maritime trade and ship-building.
|The newest flag of any province, the flag of Newfoundland was drafted by a graphic design firm in 1980. It’s supposed to resemble a stylized Union Jack with the blue representing the sea and the white the frozen north. The other colours represent stuff like hope, pride and forward-thinking.
|Very similar to the Yukon flag, the Northwest Territories flag features the coat of arms between two blue bars, representing the territory’s rivers, lakes and oceans. The crest itself features a white fox, a traditional animal of northern Canada.
|The flag of Nova Scotia is an inverted version of the Scottish flag, the Cross of St. Andrew, with the provincial coat of arms in the centre.
|Nunavut is Canada’s newest territory and the Nunavut flag was created by a local artist in 1999. It features a red Inukshuk, a traditional stone formation made by the territory’s native peoples. In the top right corner sits the North Star, another traditional symbol of northern Canada.
|A vocal critic of the Maple Leaf, in 1965 Ontario premier John Robarts (1917-1982) designated the Ontario red ensign as his province’s official flag to help ensure that the Union Jack would continue to fly in Ontario. Like Manitoba’s flag, it features the Ontario coat of arms in the bottom-right corner.
|Prince Edward Island’s flag is also a stretched-out version of the provincial coat of arms. The lion and the big tree represent mother England, while the three little trees represent the Island’s historic three counties.
|Always a hotbed of nationalistic sentiment, in 1948 Quebec became the first province in Canada to create their own distinctive flag. Like the Maple Leaf flag, it doesn’t have any specific symbolism but uses the Fleur-de-lis and cross to evoke memories of the medieval banners of royal France.
|Designed as part of a province-wide contest in 1969, the Saskatchewan flag displays a stylized depiction of the prairie province’s flat landscape, with the coat of arms in the top left corner and the provincial flower, the red lily, on the right.
|Another contest-winner, the Yukon flag has the territorial coat of arms surrounded by a green bar, representing the forests, and a blue bar representing rivers and lakes.
With national and provincial flags happily established, in recent years many of Canada’s cities and towns have begun to create flags of their own, too. These tend to vary in quality quite a bit, with the worst often bearing obvious signs of being designed by some art-illiterate municipal board — which of course they often were. While some cities will fly their municipal flag proudly, many more will be largely unknown to the general public and exist primarily for the sake of existing.
Here’s a few of the official banners of Canada’s biggest cities:
Canada is truly a country with a flag for every occasion. A good way to measure the importance of someone or something in Canada, in fact, is whether or not they have an official banner of some sort.
Some of the more notable examples include:
- Canada’s Queen and governor general have official flags that are flown from any building they’re visiting at that moment.
- The three branches of the Canadian military (army, navy, and air force) all have flags, and there are usually flags representing dozens of individual regiments as well.
- Canada’s two recognized ethnic minority groups, first nations and French-Canadians, have a vast array of Francophone and aboriginal flags to recognize their different communities.