This is the Preface from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



Spanking on a stiff breeze,
like a sail before the wind,
it is a thing of aesthetic beauty.
E.C. Russell (1980),
Canadian military historian


The National Flag of Canada is celebrated in this book. In its short, one-generation history, the Maple Leaf Flag has attained an acceptance which has made it an integral, and almost invisible, part of the Canadian landscape. It has become so comfortable a part of Canadian existence that it is unremarkable, rather like lumber in Kamloops, sunshine in Estevan, or fish in Twillingate, only the absence of which gives angst.

It even comes as a surprise to many that the Maple Leaf Flag has not been the National Flag of Canada from the beginning: artists include it anachronistically in supposedly historical representations and it is worn by an otherwise historically correct museum ship from earlier times.2 Although such examples may cause snickers among historians, they speak worlds about the speed at which the National Flag has become ensnared within the Canadian psyche. Indeed, trouble is bound to ensue when the scholar has his way, as he did in 1986 when a new $5 bill illustrated a Canadian Red Ensign flying on the pre-1916 Parliament Buildings. One M.P. uncritically complained to the House that a "concerned citizen" was bothered because the representation "was not the Canadian flag as we know it."3 Apparently, neither the parliamentarian nor the citizen had been scathed by his exposure to Canada's history, but each did show an admirable acceptance of his country's dominant symbol.

Although very common, acceptance of the National Flag is not yet universal. A trip along country roads will still occasionally reveal someone flying the Canadian Red Ensign, the flag which was the dominant distinguishably Canadian symbol to be hoisted during the nation's first century. It seems that the people who honour the Ensign in this way were adults by the time the new National Flag was adopted in 1965.

A nostalgia for the symbols of one's childhood certainly played a role in the inception of the present book. The author, himself an adult in 1965, has delighted in preserving all manner of historic ensigns. However, this nurturing of historic flags does not constitute a rejection of the present one, but rather an appreciation of the extent to which the evolution of Canadian flags holds up a mirror to the evolution of our national identity.

In the early years after Confederation, a struggle was waged for an acknowledgement of a distinctive Canadian identity. At that time the attempt was the mere inclusion of a uniquely Canadian symbol upon a British flag. Ultimately, the struggle was to make the flag solely Canadian. With the adoption of the National Flag, on February 15, 1965, an emotional watershed was reached.

Although Parliament also approved the use of the Royal Union Flag (alias Union Jack) as a symbol of Canada's membership in the Commonwealth and of her allegiance to the Crown, its use is honoured mainly in the breach. Like a juggernaut of the emotions, the Maple Leaf Flag has swept aside its antecedents. One need only contrast Vancouver's 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, where 5OOO Union Flags fluttered aloft,4 with Vancouver's EXPO 86, where a single gargantuan Maple Leaf Flag dominated the festivities. A vision of the older world is hard to recapture: the watershed has been passed.

This is not to say that the nation is now confined to a monolithic symbol-far from it. The National Flag, it seems, is the cement that binds a mosaic of images. There is a richer diversity of flags in Canada now than ever before, something that contradicts a great Canadian myth.

One still occasionally hears the once frequent formulaic remark, "Canadians are not a flag-waving people, unlike the...." The flag waving referred to is, of course, a metaphor for fanatical patriotism, something Canadians have, as with many things short of snow, in moderation. However, the distinction between a metaphor and a literal is vague when the object under discussion is itself a symbol. When heard, the aphorism is invariably evoked by comments about the flying of actual flags, and as such, it is true of only about one half of our post-Confederation history. For the first third of a century, an enthusiastic public festooned holidays and patriotic events with flags. A fallow period followed, during which time a gap slowly widened between public sentiment and Canada's ambiguously national and increasingly inappropriate flags.5 Although the flags were in official use, the Canadian public's taste for flying them waned.6 The happy adoption of the National Flag and the widespread reverence it received changed that. Not only was the Maple Leaf Flag proudly displayed everywhere, but a parade of provinces, cities, villages, associations, and businesses, quickly followed suit and enthusiastically hoisted their own identities upon masts. A proliferation of flags now fills most large cities. Canadians have become a flag-flying people once again.

This book presents the flags of Canada from Confederation to the present. Through them we witness our evolving sense of national and community identity, from the early struggles for recognition, to the profound sense of assurance provided by the adoption of the Maple Leaf Flag. The overwhelming success of this flag deserves our celebration.

Alistair B. Fraser,
from along the shore of
Kootenay Lake, B.C.

This is the Preface from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



1. E.C. Russell, Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Armed Forces (Ottawa: Deneau, 1980), p. 161.

2. The anachronistic representation of Canadian flags is not confined to the National Flag. The Great Detective is a CBC TV series set in late Victorian Ontario (c. 1890). Fortunately, the flag worn by a boat in one of the episodes (Death Visit, 1981) is the Canadian Red Ensign. Unfortunately, it is a form of the ensign that did not come into existence until 1922. The anachronistic representation of symbols is not confined to the flags in the series. In another episode (Sins of the Fathers, 1980), an 1891 election meeting is adorned with the Arms of Canada which did not came into existence for another 30 years. If the CBC suffers these peccadilloes, we can understand the problem of the Americans, who, in a movie (The Untouchables, 1987) set in the prohibition years of the 1920s, displayed the post-1965 version of the maple leaf upon crates of alleged Canadian whiskey. See, for example, the illustration accompanying the movie review in Maclean's (June 15, 1987), p. 51. The problem also occurs at the provincial level: the film My American Cousin, set in the Okanagan of 1959, displayed the flag of British Columbia a year before its adoption resulted in such appearances.

3. This brouhaha was widely reported during the summer of 1986. The specific remarks quoted here were taken from Robert Aaron's article, "Sparks fly over flag on new $5 bill," The Toronto Star (September 6, 1986), p. L9.

4. Irene Craig, Flags and Formalities (Toronto: W.J.Gage, 1957), p. 50.

5. By an order-in-council of September 5, 1945, the Canadian Red Ensign was the flag to fly "whenever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag." Yet, in 1958 a poll of 1,110 adult Canadians from across the nation revealed that less than 1% supported the adoption of it as Canada's flag. See, for example, Jack Gale, "What Canadians want in a Flag," The Star Weekly (Toronto: March 21, 1959), pp. 8-14.

6. A manuscript reviewer challenged this by claiming that this assessment should be based upon a reference. Actually, the assessment had been based upon the author's own observations of an era through which he had lived. However, if quoting another author would lend verisimilitude in the eyes of some, one could do no better than to use that consummate observer of the Canadian cultural scene: Arthur Lower. In referring to the early 1950s in his book, Canadians in the making, (Don Mills: Longmans, 1958), p. 439, he says, "We also discover that no flags are flown in this curious country on the day devoted to celebrating its birth because it has no flag to fly, not one that all its people will accept, anyway." Lower had, in turn, referenced the Globe and Mail (so it must be correct, right?).


This is the Preface from the book,
The Flags of Canada
, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.