Maple leaf forever? The divisive legacy of Canadian flags

In July, a group of Quebec youth banded together to create a flag for the province’s Anglophone community.

According to their website, Youth for Youth Quebec (Y2Y) wanted to create a symbol to unite the province’s English-speaking residents, inspired by the flags of French-speaking communities in Canada’s other provinces. They received submissions from English speaking artists in province, and are putting the matter to a public vote.

In doing so, they continue a well-worn Canadian tradition—constantly designing new flags.

Canadians have been fighting over flags officially since 1925. In the early decades of the 1900s, Canada emerged from under Britain’s shadow and gained independence. Creating an official national flag separate from the British Union Jack was a resounding discussion topic.

Today, Canada’s national flag, with its two red ‘seas’ and bright maple leaf, is recognizable across the globe. For Canadians living in the 1960s—when the flag was officially adopted—it was the uncertain emblem of a fractured new country.

When tensions between French, English, and Indigenous nations have run high in hallmark events like the Quebec sovereignty referendums and the 1990 Oka Crisis, we can see that the Canadian flag doesn’t mean the same thing to every resident.

To this day, it’s law in Quebec to ensure the provincial flag, known as the fleurdelisé, holds pride of place over all other flags anywhere it is displayed.

Flags try to tell the story of what it means to be part of a nation. Over the years, they have remained a crucial marker of identity, uniting and dividing.

With the worldwide rise in hyper-nationalist right wing movements—including the now-infamous Proud Boys, founded by Canadian Gavin McInnes—national flags have taken on a renewed significance.

The flying of the Confederate flag, which represented Southern slave-owning states in America’s Civil War, fractures opinion. Many Southerners see it as a symbol of heritage, while others view it as emblematic of American racism and white supremacy.

Closer to home, the Union Jack and England’s St. George’s Cross, which features on 6 of the 13 provincial and territorial flags, has stirred its own controversy, as a symbol of colonialism in Canada.

In 2017, an Indigenous Canada day protest in Halifax, N.S., was disrupted by members of the Proud Boys. They were carrying the Red Ensign, a British flag that served as Canada’s informal national flag until 1965, emblazoned with the Union Jack. Variants of the Red Ensign still serve as the provincial flags of Ontario and Manitoba.

To some, the Red Ensign may represent Canadian nostalgia or Commonwealth pride. Today, the Proud Boys have given it a newer, darker meaning.

Is the same thing happening to our current emblems?

As Canada changes from a fiercely British colony to one defined by multiculturalism, and tries to face its troubling colonial past, many wonder if Canada’s flags still symbolize the people they were meant to represent.  


How we got here

Between the 1920s and 1960s the Canadian government received over 5000 potential national flag designs, submitted by Canadians from across the country.

The “flag problem” reigned for almost 40 years.

For over two hundred years, as a colony, Canadians had flown a scattered mix of other countries’ flags—most notably the Red Ensign and the French national flag. As British subjects, Canadians were officially represented by the Union Jack.

As a distinct Canadian identity grew after World War One, the federal government twice tried to introduce the idea of a national flag. Both incidents spurred huge Anglophone backlash against the ousting of the Union Jack.

Meanwhile, in 1948, Québec adopted the fleurdelisé as its official provincial flag. The bright blue rectangle, white cross, and four white fleurs-de-lis is notable for its lack of British symbols.

Canada wouldn’t adopt its own national flag until Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, famous for winning the Nobel Peace prize in 1957, took office. ‘The Great Flag Debate’ is remembered as “most acrimonious debate of his half-decade in office” and one of “the ugliest [debates] in the House of Commons history.”

The introduction of the new flag splintered English Canada. Many insisted on including a Union Jack, including former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who wanted the flag to honour the country’s “founding races.”

Pearson wanted a flag without colonial symbols and was disparaged for pandering to Quebec. Said province was in the midst of what would become 10 years of terror attacks by the Quebec separatist group, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a group infamous for bombings, kidnappings, and the murder of Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte.

Eventually, the final flag design, created by historian George Stanley, was passed by political fluke.

When voting on the final flag design, Conservative MPs, assuming Liberal caucus members would support Pearson’s personal choice for national flag, known derisively as the “Pearson pennant,” tried to block the motion by voting for Stanley’s flag—only to find the Liberals had chosen it as well.

In October 1964, the flag as we know it was unanimously chosen.

Photo courtesy of: Guelph Public Library Archives

While they’re rarely well-known, Canada isn’t exactly short on flags. Each province and territory has its own flag alongside the national flag—as do each province’s Lieutenant Governor and each territory’s Commissioner. Most cities also boast flags, from Victoria, B.C. to St. John’s, N.L.

The majority of provincial flags designs were finalized in the 1960s, followed later on by Newfoundland and Labrador and Nunavut—the final two entries into Confederation.

Most flags follow common themes. The natural environment, and historic industries like farming and fishing dominate. While the government took pains to remove symbols of colonial loyalty from the national flag, across provinces, the British and English flags feature heavily, as do symbols like the British lion.  

Each flag is deeply coded in symbolism. Shades of green, gold, blue, and white represent everything from the sea, land, and snow in provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon, to human effort and confidence in Newfoundland and Labrador.

New Brunswick’s flag stars a Scottish ship known as a lymphad. The Northwest Territories’ features a compass, fox head, blocks of gold, and the Northwest Passage, representing the province’s history of exploration, fur trade, and gold mining. The sun stretching across the flag of British Columbia is a symbol of the West.

Nunavut, the country’s newest territory and only recognized Indigenous territory, has the only flag designed by an Indigenous artist. In the middle of the flag stands an inuksuk, a stone monument meant to guide travelers and mark sacred places, and the Niqirtsuituq, the North Star, sits on the right.

Since their creation, these flags have taken on uneven significance across the country.

In provinces with strong national identities, like Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec, the flags are a common sight, displayed in the streets, hanging in front of houses, and shining on license plates.

Meanwhile, in Manitoba and Ontario, where the Red Ensign stubbornly clings on, the flags are decried for being out of step and no longer representative of Canada, which has long been independent from Britain.

In a scathing letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press this January, Manitoban high school student Connor Macfarlane called the province’s Red Ensign “stuck in the past” and pointed out it was so similar to Ontario’s flag that “most people can’t tell them apart.”

He also noted that the flag was passed in protest of the Canadian flag replacing the Red Ensign in the 1960s, which the province felt represented Canadian heritage—albeit one that is distinctly British.

“Manitoba’s take on the Red Ensign […] ignores the important roles that the French, Métis, and Indigenous people play in the province,” wrote Macfarlane.

“It’s time that our flag reflects all Manitobans.”

Beyond—and within—borders

David Roger-Gagnon, a vexillologist—flag scholar—with the North American Vexillological Association helped Y2K research Quebec’s English-speaking community’s flag.

Linguistic flags are extremely common across Canada; francophones in every province have their own community flags, while anglophones, historically dominant across Canada, have traditionally been represented by the conventional provincial flags.

In Quebec, they slip into minority status, and the task of representing the English-speaking population is rarely considered and increasingly complicated.

Because Quebec has maintained a strong sense of francophone national identity within its provincial borders, its anglophone residents are often seen as representative of the broader English-speaking population outside of the province—‘them’ rather than ‘us.’

Questions of what symbols represent the anglophone population’s provincial identity is unclear.

“Some of [the anglophones] have long standing roots here, so some would say that the Scottish flag would represent their ancestors, and therefore that’s part of their identity,” Roger-Gagnon said in an interview with The Pigeon.

“But there’s nothing that really represents the collective of the diverse elements of English-speaking communities in Quebec.”

Anglophone residents in the province come from a wide variety of backgrounds, many of them immigrants from countries around the world, with fewer coming from the United Kingdom—dropping from 51 per cent to 22 per cent in recent years. This sets them apart from the Quebecois group, which, historically, has held as much of an ethnic identity as a linguistic one.

Thinking of the current provincial flags, Roger-Gagnon acknowledged that some could use updating.

“I think we’re all aware that there’s a plurality and diversity in Ontario, there’s a strong presence of a Francophone community there, and there are very strong presences of Indigenous communities,” he said.

“The current flag, it doesn’t really evoke any of that, and it’s very, very much a product of its time.”

Indigenous representation

Across the country, many Indigenous communities have their own flags—but as Canadians become more aware of the need to represent Indigenous peoples in Canada, opinions are divided on how to best celebrate Indigenous communities through symbols like flags. 

The Canadian flag, which claims to represent the “Canadian nation,” doesn’t acknowledge that the country exists on stolen land.

Ideas about how to incorporate the identities of Indigenous nations into the national flag varies across groups.

Recently, activists began calling for the Canadian government to replace its flag with a design by the late Indigenous artist Mulidzas-Curtis Wilson.

However, Roger Gagnon noted that using Indigenous flags on Indigenous territory across Canada would be more effective and meaningful than adapting colonial flags to include Indigenous communities

“[An] important step would [be to raise] Indigenous flags that correspond to the communities, for whom that territory is their traditional homelands,” he said. “And, I think that may actually be a better approach than trying to stick a feather on a provincial flag and say that we’ve been inclusive.”

He also pointed out that some communities don’t want their flag hoisted by settlers at all.

“It may be a sign of acquiescing to colonial powers,” Roger-Gagnon explained. “[Others are] proud to [raise the flag], because they feel like their terrestrial rights are being honoured and recognized.”

One important piece of Indigenous flag history is the Warrior Flag. It became nationally recognized in the Oka Crisis, which occurred 30 years ago this summer.

The Oka Crisis, also known as the Kanehsatà:ke Resistance, was a protest over land belonging to the Kanien’kehà:ka (Mohawk) community of Kanehsatà:ke. It involved a 78 day struggle against the Quebec provincial police, and later, the Canadian military.

4,000 soldiers were deployed to Kanehsatà:ke, almost 100 people were injured—most of them civilians—and one police officer was killed over the course of the standoff.

The warrior flag, created in 1974, was also dubbed the “unity flag.” It was intended to be a symbol for all Indigenous people to stand behind. It was redesigned for the Rotisken’rakéhte, or Mohawk Warrior Society.

This summer, the CBC published a longform article about the warrior flag to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the crisis, recounting it’s history and exploring it’s legacy.

In 2017, to better reflect the history of the land, the city of Montreal updated their flag to include a pine tree in the centre, representing local Indigenous communities—and they did so with extensive consultation.

The previous flag represented the four countries that colonized the land—a Fleur-de-lis for France, a thistle for the Scottish, a red rose for the English, and a shamrock for the Irish—atop England’s St. George’s Cross.

Now, the flag boasts a white pine tree in the centre to symbolize peace, harmony, and the Indigenous peoples of the city.

“I think we have to be very, very careful not to just slap a feather on a flag and say, ‘okay, now, we put the Indigenous thing!’ That’s not going to work,” said Roger-Gagnon.

 “But I think as we evolve as a society, I think—I hope—we’re coming to see the richness of diversity.”

With files from Pamoda Wijekoon.

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