History of the Canadian Flag

September 07, 2019

History of the Canadian Flag

The Canadian flag is one of the most recognizable symbols in Canada, fluttering high above buildings across the nation.  But do you know its history?

Before the red and white maple leaf flag was designed, Canada flew the British flag as its heraldry.  However, in 1895 Edward M. Chadwick started what would become a decades-long debate when he argued that Canada should have its own flag, featuring the ubiquitous maple leaf.  The Canadian Government was interested, but it took until 1925 for a committee to be formed to research possible designs.

It isn't surprising that efforts to design a new flag stalled with the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II, and in 1946 a new committee with a similar mandate was formed to take up the work once more.  Despite receiving more than 2'600 designs, Parliament was never called upon to vote on any of them.

All this changed in 1964 when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson informed the House of Commons that the Canadian government once again wished to adopt a distinctive Canadian flag and stop using the British ensign.  By this point, Canada had proven it was its own nation, separate from British sovereignty, and it was time the heraldry reflected the independence of the nation.  

Throughout the design process, incorporation of red and white and the maple leaf symbol was a constant.  Red and white had been declared Canada's national colours by King George V in 1921, and Canadian Olympic athletes had been wearing maple leaves on a white background since 1904.

In late autumn of 1964, Prime Minister Pearson sent Ken Donovan an urgent message: he wanted to see prototypes of the final three flag designs.  He gave Donovan less than 24 hours to deliver the prototypes to his Harrington Lake home.

The final three flag designs. Images from canada.ca

Donovan sprung into action.  No physical prototypes had been made, so graphic artists and silk screeners used the sketches to create each piece of the flag.  No seamstresses were available on such short notice, so Donovan's young daughter, Joan O'Malley, did the sewing.

The next day the prototypes were delivered to Prime Minister Pearson, exactly as he requested.

After some debate and a great deal of work, the flag design we recognize today was proclaimed by Queen Elizabeth II on January 28th, 1965, and raised for the first time over Parliament Hill on February 15th.

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