The Maple Leaf: The National Flag of Canada

The Canadian National flag is one of the most recognizable in all of the world, however it has undergone several changes over the course of history. The final complete change went into effect nearly fifty years ago when the Canadian government adopted the red and white maple leaf design of today. Although the design is a relatively simple one, it holds a great deal of meaning for the country. The maple leaf, for example, has been the country's national emblem since 1834 and has appeared on everything from decorations, to the coat of arms, to the country's penny. Just as the maple leaf is the official emblem, red and white have been Canada's official colors since King George V approved them by proclamation of the arms. The history of the Canadian flag, leading up to the controversial and potentially divisive change itself, is a long and interesting journey, particularly for those who have an interest in Canada or flags in general.

The history of the Canadian flag is a long and diverse one. Before settling on the current flag in 1965, the Canadian flag underwent many changes that were influenced by Europe. Originally, in 1497, the St. George Cross was placed on Canadian soil by the explorer John Cabot. In 1534 the French flew the Fleur-de-lis and claimed the land for France. This remained until the 1763 Treaty of Paris when Great Britain was awarded the North American colonies that would become Canada. When this occurred, the area became British North America and the Union Jack became its flag.

The Red Ensign flag was originally created in 1707 and was the flag of the British Merchant Marine. It featured the Union Jack and later incorporated the emblems from the provinces and became increasingly more visible throughout Canada. Eventually the shield containing the emblems was replaced by the Canadian Coat of Arms. Despite this popularity, the Union Jack was still the official flag, even though the Red Ensign was eventually approved to fly on Canadian government buildings and was highly visible. From 1957 until 1965, when the maple leaf flag took its place, the Red Ensign became the Canadian national flag.

The push for a new flag began in 1925, but attempts to make changes following WWI and WWII were unsuccessful mostly due to disagreements. Efforts for change heightened in 1963 with the election of Prime Minister Lester Pearson. This led to what was known as the Great Flag Debate which took place in 1964. This debate was prompted when the Prime Minister made a pitch for a flag designed around the use of the maple leaf as opposed to the Union Jack or a flag that utilized British emblems. The topic became a divisive one as imperialists in Canada preferred to honor Great Britain and continue the use the Red Ensign. Canadians during that time were encouraged to submit ideas that were reviewed by a specially formed committee. Eventually the design of a single red leaf on a white background that was flanked on either side by red was proposed. The actual debate took 37 days, in which lengthy speeches were given prior to a forced vote. The maple leaf flag was voted with a 163 to 78 vote. The maple leaf flag became official in 1965 by proclamation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Use of the maple leaf dates back to 1836 and was a natural choice for the flag. Historically, Canadians wore the maple leaf as a sign of the land of their birth. This continued into WWI, when soldiers wore badges depicting a maple leaf on either the collars of their uniforms or on their caps. The use of the maple leaf and the creation and design of the flag was a collaborative effort that included the Dean of Arts at Kingston's Royal Military College. The Dean of Arts was a man named George Stanley who came up with the actual design of the single maple leaf flag. Other contributors included a man named Jacque St-Cyr who made the maple leaf's final design, George Best who came up with the dimensions of the flag, and John Matheson who combined the components to create the flag.

Today, the Canadian maple leaf flag is a symbol of pride. This is reflected in their flag etiquette in terms of how it is treated, used, displayed, and even disposed of. In addition, it has also become a symbol of their identity as a country. Despite the history of change and controversy, the maple leaf flag successfully reflects the uniqueness of Canada.


For more information on the national flag of Canada, see the following links.

  • The Maple Leaf Flag: Waving The National Symbol - A historical resource for readers looking to study the origins of the Canadian flag. This page explains the many forms that the flag has taken over the centuries.
  • The Great Canadian Flag Debate - A brief article on the CBCRadio program Rewind, regarding the Canadian flag debate, which revolved changing the flag from the Red Ensign to the current Maple Leaf. Includes the audio of the program.
  • First "Canadian flags" - A Canadian Government page that talks about the history of the Canadian national flag. Visitors can also find information about the national motto and the different versions of the flag that existed before.
  • Canadian Flag History - This web page discusses the history of the Canadian flag. Included is an explanation of its roots in European colonialism and its evolution into the modern symbol, the red maple leaf.
  • History of Flags in Canada - A web page devoted to Canadian history. This article talks about France's involvement in the evolution of the Canadian flag.
  • Northern Gateway Public Schools - Flag Etiquette (PDF) - An administrative procedure web page regarding the Canadian flag. This page points out the protocol involved in the handling and care of the Canadian flag.
  • Flag Etiquette (PDF) - A resource presented by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. This document explains how to properly display flags and how to treat them.
  • Canadian Flag Protocol - A web page about Canadian flag protocol for educational institutions. Visitors can find out information regarding how and where the Canadian may be presented.
  • Leading the Way: Flag Etiquette (PDF) - A frequently asked questions (FAQ) page regarding flag etiquette issues. This resource answers common questions about whether the national flag can be flown at night or how it can be flown when not on a flag pole.
  • Ten dos and don'ts for flying a Canadian flag - A web page about flag etiquette. This web page outlines five acceptable practices and five unacceptable ways to handle the Canadian flag.
  • Canadian Flag Etiquette - A set of guidelines for handling the Canadian flag. This article features diagrams and instructions on how to fly the Canadian flag, as well as technical terms and descriptions.
  • Canada’s History in Flags (PDF) - A historical article about the Canadian flag. This brief web page focuses primarily on the flag's evolution.
  • Canadian flag history 101 – A short history lesson about the Canadian flag's evolution since colonial times. This article talks about the British and French involvement in the flag's history and the importance of the maple leaf as a symbol of Canada's independence.
  • The Canadian Flag - Several quick facts about the Canadian flag, such as who designed the maple leaf flag and when the final flag was approved. This page also includes information about the national colors.
  • Flags - A video on the Historica Dominion Institute website. This page includes a write-up about the creation of the new flag.
  • Red Ensign Flag, Canada:- The Imperial War Museum article on the history of the Canadian Red Ensign flag.
  • Canada - The Red Ensign – History of the Red Ensign flag in chronological order. The Red Ensign flag is the Canadian flag before 1965.
  • The Canadian Red Ensign: History of the first Canadian flags. This page also briefly discusses the change to the current maple leaf flag.
  • Canada Adopts Maple Leaf Flag: A general interest article about February 15, 1965, the day that Canada adopted the maple leaf for its flag. Provides a brief history on the flag.
  • The Canadian Flag – History on the maple leaf flag and the significance of the maple leaf.
  • How the Maple Leaf Became a Canadian Symbol – A brief history on the maple leaf and how it became a symbol of Canada and its flag.
  • The Maple Leaf as a Symbol: A web page that lists Canada's symbols, including the maple leaf. Also includes Canada's colors, flag and Coat of Arms.
  • Canadian Symbols – Canadian symbols, such as the maple leaf, are reviewed on Canada's Citizenship and Immigration website. This page also includes the Fluer-de-lys and the Canadian Crown.
  • Maple Leaf: History of the maple leaf on the Canadian Heritage website. This page also includes links to the maple leaf tartan, National colors and origins of the name Canada pages.
  • Address on the Inauguration of the Canadian Flag: The 1965 address that was given st the inauguration of the new Canadian flag. The speech explains the importance and meaning of changing the flag from the Red Ensign to the current red maple leaf.
  • Forty Facts About the Canadian Flag – A website that lists forty facts that are related to the Canadian National flag.
  • Canada History: Canadian Flag – A brief overview of the 1965 changes to the Canadian flag.
  • Canada: Symbols of Canada – A PDF that provides details of common Canadian symbols. These symbols include the Canadian flag, the maple leaf and the maple tree.
  • Historical Flags – A page on the Canadian Cultural Centre website that lists some of the historical flags. Flags that are listed include St. George Cross, Royal Union Jack, Fluer-de-lis, and the Red Ensign.
  • Historical Canadian Flags: A slide-show of Canadian flags on the Virtual Museum website. The flags begin with the Union Jack to the current maple leaf flag and the Alberta flag.

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