The Images of a Country
Saskatchewan Council for Archives & Archivists
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"This Flag Question"

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Canada was only two years away from celebrating the centennial anniversary of its founding as a nation when Parliament finally agreed upon the design for a distinctive Canadian flag. The debate concerning a flag had been a recurring theme in Canadian politics since the late 1800s and became a particularly emotional, explosive issue for the government of Wiliam Lyon Mackenzie King in 1925; so much so that twenty years later he still shied away from any firm action on adopting a new design. It was not until Lester Pearson assumed power in 1963 that another Prime Minister would seriously confront the issue of creating a distinctive Canadian flag. In the debate that ensued, many feared the country would be torn apart.

In every debate over the "official" flag for Canada, topical political considerations have played a role; but for many Canadians, the issue was one of properly defining Canada, her relationship to other nations and her emerging international status. Canadians have been designing "distinctive"' Canadian flags since the 1890s but in the debate that raged during 1964 and 1965, Parliament Hill was flooded with literally thousands of designs. Canadians were trying to express what Canada meant to them with these designs: providing images of a country through symbols on "pieces of coloured cloth."

The first flag flown in Canada probably was the Royal Banner carried by John Cabot in 1497 when he claimed Labrador and Newfoundland for King Henry VII of England. Similar claims of authority were made by Jacques Cartier at Gaspé on behalf of King Francis I of France in 1534. The flags of Royal France were the first to fly over permanent settlements in Canada.

Choosing a flag was not an immediate concern at the time of Confederation. In 1865 the Blue Ensign had been authorized by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and this was reconfirmed in 1870. The Red Ensign was authorized for use on Canadian vessels by an Admiralty warrant on 2 February 1892; to distinguish Canadian from British vessels, the 1867 Canadian shield was put on the fly. By custom, this flag grew to be regarded as Canada's flag, although officially, it only could be flown at sea.

By an Order-in-Council in 1924, the Red Ensign was authorized to be flown by the High Commissioner in London; in 1927, the same privilege was granted the Canadian Embassy in Washington. As one writer noted, the Union Jack, which had previously flown there, could not "distinguish a Canadian from a British diplomatic headquarters."

Illustration of the Prince of Wales laying the corner stone of the Canadian Parliament Buildings, showing both Union Jacks and Ensigns being flown at the ceremony.

"Englishmen in a skirmish with Eskimos"

In this watercolour, the flag is the Cross of St. George with the arms of Elizabeth I in the centre; the image is probably intended to illustrate the 1577 expedition of Martin Frobisher to Baffin Island. (reprinted by permission of the British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings)

Illustration of the Royal Banner of King Henry VII of England. Illustration of the White Ensign of Royal France.

"Frontenac on the way to Cataraqui, 1673"

The flag in this illustration is the white ensign, a banner of Royal France: numerous gold fleurs-de-lis on a white background. (Original illustration by C.W. Jeffrys; reprinted with permission of McGraw-Hill Ryerson Publishers.)

"Cartier erecting a cross at Gaspé, 1534"

Illustration showing a cross with shield bearing three fleurs-de-lis, suggesting the Royal Arms of Francis I. "[we had] a cross made thirty feet high...under the cross-bar of which we fixed a shield with three fleurs de lys in relief, and above it a wooden board, engraved in large Gothic characters, where was written VIVE LE ROY DE FRANCE." The Voyages of Jacques Cartier (Original illustration by C.W. Jeffrys; reprinted by permission of McGraw-Hill Ryerson Publishers.)

Red Ensign - correct version

Most Canadians assumed the Red Ensign, flown on most Canadian public buildings, was "Canada's Emblem." Initally assigned to the British Merchant Marine in 1707 by Queen Anne, the Red Ensign was authorized by an Admiralty warrant in 1892 to include a Canadian shield on the fly. The intention was to provide a means to distinguish ships at sea; the Ensign never was adopted officially as a land flag.

 2003 Diefenbaker Canada Centre Archives