Canadian Flag History
Canada’s national flag was officially proclaimed on February 15, 1965, almost a hundred years after Confederation. During the divisive flag debate that led up to its adoption by Parliament, the choice of the sugar maple leaf as its sole symbol was far from certain. Yet the origins of the maple leaf flag are far older than Canada. How the maple leaf became the primary symbol that stood for Canada is the central story of Canadian flag history.
First Contact to Confederation
The first conventional flags to fly over any of the territory that we now know as Canada were planted by emissaries of European royalty seeking to extend their sovereignty over vast stretches of what they called the “new world.” Likely the first of these royal standards was raised by a Genoese seafarer in the employ of the King of England—Giovanni Caboto—in the early summer of 1497. We’re not even sure exactly where John Cabot, as he’s known in English history books, came ashore—probably Newfoundland, maybe Labrador, or possibly the coast of Cape Breton—and we know that the flag he raised was the royal royal banner of Henry VII of England, which bore two distinct heraldic emblems: three gold lions “guardant passant” on a red field and three gold fleur-de-lys on an azure (blue) field. The former represented the king’s actual dominion over England, the latter his claim to hereditary lands in France.
The second royal banner planted in future Canadian soil came ashore on the Gaspé Peninsula at what is now known as Gaspé Harbour. It was raised by Jacques Cartier on behalf of François I of France, whose claim was soon backed up by actual settlers, first in Acadie (later Nova Scotia) and then New France (later Quebec). French dominion extended over much of the northeastern part of the North American continent until the Treaty of Paris of 1763 awarded Great Britain most of France’s New World possessions As a result the British Union Jack became the flag of the colonies collectively known as British North America.
The maple leaf symbol made its first documented appearance in Montreal in 1836, when the president of the fledgling Société-Saint-Jean-Baptiste told those gathered for its third annual banquet, “The maple leaf is the king of our forest; it is the emblem of our Canadian people.” By “Canadian” he meant “Canadien,” or French-Canadian, but it wasn’t long before Anglo-Canadians adopted the maple leaf as their own. When the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) visited British North America in 1860, native-born Upper Canadians wore “a maple leaf as an emblem of the land of their birth.”
A Flag for the Dominion
Nonetheless the flag that flew over Parliament Hill following Confederation was a derivative of the Union Jack that came to be known as the Canadian Red Ensign. What made this flag Canadian was the shield in its fly, which bore the emblems of each of the provinces. Despite the ensign’s growing popularity, however, it had no official status on land. You were at least as likely to see the Dominion of Canada’s only official flag—the Union Jack—flying from schools and libraries and other town halls from sea to sea.
During the years leading up to World War I all sorts of proposals were floated for a distinct Canadian flag, but the troops that fought in France and Belgium did so under British commanders and the British flag. In fact, the only sure way of knowing a Canadian soldier from an Aussie or a New Zealander was by the maple leaf badge he invariably wore on his cap or collar. Canadians’ great military accomplishments during the war, above all their role in the capture of Vimy Ridge, served to embed the maple leaf in popular consciousness. It soon became shorthand for “Canadian solder serving overseas.” As one poem published in the Toronto Globe would put it, “The maple leaves were heroes all.”
Following the war, a first legislative attempt was made by Parliament to come up with a national flag. Predictably it foundered on disagreements between English Canada and French, as would a second effort that followed the end of World War II. As the years passed, the unofficial Canadian Red Ensign moved closer and closer to official status, but the home-grown maple leaf continued to proliferate as a symbol for Canada in myriad official and unofficial ways, including on the trademarks of countless Canadian-made products.
A Flag at Last
In 1963, when newly elected Prime Minister Lester Pearson promised to make good on his election promise to give Canada its own, distinct national flag, few would have guessed that the final choice would bear symbols of neither France nor England. Canadian flag history came to a climax with the Great Flag Debate of 1964, which coincided with the rise of separatism in Quebec. The adoption of the maple leaf flag was thus a significant, if symbolic, step toward the creation of a country that was more than sum of its regional and ethnic parts. (The process continues to this day.)
The new flag for Canada was proclaimed in a ceremony on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965. In surprisingly short order, the tempestuous debated that had preceded its adoption seemed like a quaint memory. Few Canadians born after 1960 would have the faintest notion what all the fuss was about. But without the striking, elegantly simple flag often known simply as the Maple Leaf, it is hard to imagine 21st century Canada existing at all.