How the Canadian Flag Came to Be

In today’s article, we’re once again going to look into Canadian culture by learning about how the Canadian Flag came to be.

The National Flag of Canada may have a simple design when compared to others but its colours and the maple leaf symbolize pride and strength.

Originally, the search for a new Canadian flag began in 1925 when the committee of the Privy Council began to search for designs but actually never completed the work.

In 1946, a parliamentary committee once again started to search for a design.  However, more than 2600 designs were received and the Parliament never voted to choose one.

In 1964, the House of Commons was informed by the Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, that the government wanted to adopt a national flag.  Because of this, a Committee was formed to receive possible designs.

The new Canadian Flag was inaugurated on February 15, 1965.


The Creation of the Flag

Ken Donovan, an assistant purchasing director with the Canadian Government Exhibition Commission received an urgent request from the Prime Minister on a Friday afternoon in late autumn of 1964.

The Prime Minister wanted prototypes of proposals for the flag the next morning.

The only samples that existed were drawings on paper so Donovan and his team assembled the prototypes in just a few hours.  Jean Desrosiers and John Williams, graphic artists and silk screeners, were called and because no seamstress was available the flags were stitched by Donovan’s daughter,  Joan O’Malley.


Three flag prototypes were made.

1.  A design with a red maple leaf on a white background in the center with red stripes on each side.  On the top corner of each red stripe, there was the fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack.

Here is an image I created so you can get an idea of the design.


2.  A design that included three red maple leaves with a white background in the center with two blue stripes on either side.

The design looked something like the following image.


3.  A red flag with a single red maple leaf on a white square.


Finally, the choice was between the single leaf design and the flag with the three maple leaves in between a blue border.


Final Design

Alan Beddoe, a retired naval captain and adviser to the Royal Canadian Navy presented the flag with the three joined maple leaves which was also favoured by Colonel Fortescue Duguid, a heraldist and historian.

The Member of Parliament for Ontario, John Matheson, presented the single leaf design which was created by Dr. George Stanley who was Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College in Kingston.

The design is based on a sense of Canadian history.  The combination of red, white, red first appeared in a General Service Medal given by Queen Victoria.

The maple leaf is probably one of the most prominent symbols of Canada. It’s believed that it began to be recognized as a Canadian symbol in the early 1700s.  Long before the arrival of the Europeans, aboriginal peoples had recognized the food properties of maple sap.

In 1918, Major General Sir Eugene Fiset recommended the single red maple leaf as Canada’s emblem and in 1921, King George V proclaimed red and white as Canada’s national colours.

The final design was established by Jacques St-Cyr, the exact dimensions of red and white were suggested by George Bist and the exact shade of red was defined by Dr. Gunter Wyszecki.


Approval and Proclamation

On December 15, 1964, the House of Commons approved the National Flag of Canada which was also approved by the Senate on December 17th.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada proclaimed that the single red leaf design would be the official flag starting on February 15, 1965.

The flag being used up until that date was lowered and the new flag raised at noon followed by the singing the national anthem and the royal anthem.

On the day of the ceremony the Honourable Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate said that the flag is a symbol of the nation’s unity and it represents all the citizens of Canada no matter their language, race or belief.


First Canadian Flags

There were many different flags used by Canadians before the official flag was proclaimed as such. Let’s take a look at them and learn a bit about each.


Fleur-de-lis – 1647

The fleur-de-lis was used as a symbol of French sovereignty in Canada from 1534 when Jacques Cartier landed and claimed it for France until Canada was given to the United Kingdom. This flag was used mostly for military purposes by the French.

Following is an image that resembles what this flag looked like.


Cross of St. George – 1577

The cross of St. George goes back to the middle ages when St. George became the patron saint of England.  The red cross was widely used as an emblem of England during the reign of King Edward I.

The flag was used in Canada around the year 1577.  This is known because there is a watercolour painting by John White which shows English explorers struggling with Inuit during Martin Frobisher’s expedition of 1577.  Also, this flag was carried by John Cabot when he reached the east coast of Canada in 1497.

Following is an image to give you an idea of what the flag looked like.


Royal Union Flag – 1707 – 1801

The Royal Union flag commonly known as the Union Jack became the official British flag in the 1760s and since Canada was under British rule, this flag was used there as well.

Here’s an image. If you look at it closely, you’ll realize that it’s a bit different from the Union Jack which today is the British flag.


Royal Union Flag (1801)

In 1801, following the Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain, the flag became a blending of the diagonal Cross of St. Patrick, England’s Cross of St. George and Scotland’s Cross of St. Andrew which gave it it’s present day look.  This flag was used in all of British North America and in Canada even after Confederation until the creation of Canada’s Maple Leaf Flag.


Red Ensign (1707)

In 1707 the Red Ensign was created as the flag of the British Merchant Navy.

In 1871, a new version of the Red Ensign came into being and started to be used in Canada.  This flag had the revised version of the Royal Union Flag and it also incorporated the quartered arms of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  Starting in approximately 1873 to 1921 every time a province joined Confederation some mark of the province was incorporated into the shield.

By 1921 the flag had the coat of arms of the nine provinces that were then in Confederation and it became the unofficial flag of Canada used on land and sea.


Canadian Red Ensign (1921)

In 1921 this new flag came to be known as the Canadian Red Ensign but the shield was replaced by the shield of the Royal Coast of Arms of Canada.  This version was approved for use on government buildings on foreign soil.

In 1945, its use was authorized on federal building within Canada and continued to be used until 1957.

In 1957, the Canadian Red Ensign went through another change.  The Coat of Arms on the flag changed the maple leaves from green to red.

This version of the Canadian Red Ensign was in use until 1965.


Attribution: The image of the Red Ensign flags is a screenshot taken from the Government of Canada website.


Flag Etiquette

The National Flag and the flags of the provinces and territories are considered symbols of honour and pride and as such they should be treated with respect.

Flags in Canada are displayed following customs and practices that the federal government has been observing for years since there realy is no legislation governing this matter.

The rules applied by the government are only meant to be guidelines for individuals and organizations who want to display flags.


Flag Dignity

The National Flag of Canada should always be displayed in a dignified way and it should be in a superior position when flown with the flags of other nations.

The only flags that take priority over the National Flag are the personal flags of members of the Royal Family and Her Majesty’s eleven representatives in Canada.

The National Flag should always be flown on its own mast and by itself.

There are a few other points to keep in mind.

  • the flag should never be used as a seat, table or box cover or as a barrier on a stage or platform.
  • the flag should not be used to cover a statue, plaque or monument for an unveiling ceremony.
  • nothing should be sewn or pinned to the flag.
  • the flag should never be signed or marked in any way.

The National Flag of Canada is displayed at all federal buildings and airports in Canada.  Also, it is displayed at military bases both within and outside of Canada and it can be flow both by night and day.



So, we have come to the end of this article about the Canadian Flag.  Now you know a bit about how the flag came to be and about previous flags used before its creation as well as some of the flag etiquette.

I really hope you enjoyed the article and the short history lesson.  If you have any comments or questions, leave them in the comment section below.

Visit the site soon for more English language lessons and to learn more about the culture of some English-speaking countries.



  1. Incredible how it never crossed my mind to find out about the meaning behind the red leaf on the Canadian flag. A truly good read.The single leaf looks way better than the three leaves flag and the blue color was also not doing any favors. Maybe it’s because we grew accustomed to the now single leaf main flag.

    • I totally agree with you. I think the single leaf does look a lot better than the three leaves design and red is such a vibrant colour.
      White and red have been Canada’s colours since King George V proclaimed them so in 1921.
      I grew up with the National Flag so maybe I’m biased because I absolutely love the design.
      Thank you for reading the article.

  2. This was super informative! Ya know I’ve been to the other side of the world but haven’t driven the handful of hours it would take to cross into Canada! Still on my list, of course. But at least now I can drop a few “fun facts” about the Canadian flag and sound a wee bit informed!

    • Hey Courtney,
      Yeah, sometimes we focus too much on going to far-off places and forget to check-out our own back yard. I’m sure you will eventually drive up to Canada and see some of the sites.
      I glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you for reading.

  3. What a trek through history this was. Very cool post. I’m biased of course, but the Canadian flag does look good and stand out… right behind the American flag of course lol.

    but hey, what flag beats the Texas flag when it comes to state flags? Am I right? lol

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article Eric. I agree with you the National Flag of Canada does look great and the American flag doesn’t look too bad either. I of course, am biased too. Let’s agree that they are both awesome.
      Yap, the Texas state flag is really nice, my proud Texan friend (lol). Very similar to the Chilean National flag, except that one has the white star on blue background on the top left hand side instead of having the blue vertically down the left side.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *