History of the National Flag of Canada

The search for a new Canadian flag started in 1925, when a committee of the Privy Council began to research possible designs. However, the committee never completed its work. A parliamentary committee was given a similar mandate in 1946, but Parliament was never called upon to formally vote on the more than 2,600 designs received.

Early in 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson informed the House of Commons that the Government wished to adopt a distinctive national flag. As a result, a Senate and House of Commons Committee was formed and submissions were called for once again. The official ceremony inaugurating the new Canadian flag was held on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965.

 
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Creation of the Flag

On a Friday afternoon in the late autumn of 1964, an urgent request came from Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to the desk of Ken Donovan. Mr. Donovan was then an assistant purchasing director with the Canadian Government Exhibition Commission, which later became a part of the Department of Supply and Services.

The Prime Minister wanted prototypes of the proposals for the new flag to take to his new residence at Harrington Lake the next morning. Three proposals were on the table:

  • a Red Ensign with the fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack;
  • a design that included three red maple leaves; and
  • a red flag with a single, stylized red maple leaf on a white square.

The only design samples in existence were drawings on paper. So Mr. Donovan and his team of designers managed to do the impossible. The flag prototypes were assembled in just a few hours. Graphic artists and silk screeners Jean Desrosiers and John Williams were called in to work on the Friday evening. Since no seamstress could be found, the flags were stitched together by the young Joan O’Malley, daughter of Ken Donovan.

Final design of the Flag

There were two final designs to choose from:

  • a flag with three joined maples leaves in between a blue border; and
  • the single leaf design in between a red border.

Alan Beddoe, a retired naval captain and heraldic adviser to the Royal Canadian Navy, brought forth the three joined maples leaves. Colonel Fortescue Duguid, a heraldist and historian, favoured this design instead of the Union Jack.

John Matheson, Member of Parliament from Ontario, played a critical role in the selection of the Flag. He presented the single leaf design, created by Dr. George Stanley. Stanley was Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College in Kingston, and based his design on the Commandant’s flag at the College – an emblem consisting of a mailed fist, on a red and white background.

Dr. Stanley’s design is based on a strong sense of Canadian history. The combination of red, white and red first appeared in the General Service Medal issued by Queen Victoria. Red and white were later proclaimed Canada’s national colours by King George V, in 1921. Three years earlier, Major General (later the Honourable) Sir Eugene Fiset had recommended that Canada’s emblem be the single red maple leaf on a white field – the device worn by all Canadian Olympic athletes since 1904.

The final design of the stylized maple leaf was established by Jacques St-Cyr, the precise dimensions of red and white were suggested by George Bist, and the technical description of precise shade of red, defined by Dr. Günter Wyszecki.

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A symbol of Canadian identity

The National Flag of Canada was approved by resolution of the House of Commons on December 15, 1964, followed by the Senate on December 17, 1964. It was proclaimed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, to take effect on February 15, 1965. The official ceremony inaugurating the new Canadian flag was held on Parliament Hill that same day.

The Canadian Red Ensign, bearing the Union Jack and the shield of the Royal Arms of Canada, was lowered and then, at the stroke of noon, our new maple leaf flag was raised. The crowd sang the national anthem, “O Canada”, followed by the royal anthem, “God Save the Queen.”

The following words, spoken on that momentous day by the Honourable Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate, added further symbolic meaning to our flag:

“The flag is the symbol of the nation’s unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion.”