This is the chapter entitled, Of Crowns, Councils, and Commissions, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.


The Nation
Chap VII:


This ... illustrates our national preoccupation with
peace, order and good government-by which, I must tell you,
we Canadians generally mean "strong government."
Pierre Berton (1982)


After a tour of Canada in the autumn of 1850, the American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, disparaged the extensive government in Canada with: "in Canada you are reminded of the government every day. It parades itself before you. It is not content to be the servant, but will be the master."2 Canadians, however, view the issue differently and see strong government not as a threat, but as the instrument of peace and order.

Certainly the most extensive portion of the Government in Canada is the administrative portion of the executive: the ministries, departments, crown corporations, regulatory commissions, boards, and administrative tribunals. Among them, there appear no small number of flags. In what may have been a futile effort to impose some order within the sampling of flags offered in this chapter, those of government organizations are grouped under the ministry or department through which that organization reports. Thus, the flag of a Port Authority is discussed under the Department of Transport, for the Director General of Harbours and Ports reports to the Parliament through the Minister of Transport.3

Since the late seventeenth century (1694), a clear distinction has been made between the flags used on the King's warships and those used on the non-belligerent ships of his public offices or departments. The distinction has been acknowledged in this book by devoting a separate chapter to the flags of the Department of National Defence. In the present chapter, the flags of the non-belligerent government organizations are presented.


A Little History

When ensigns were discussed, it is told how, since Confederation, governmental ships generally wore the Canadian Blue Ensign and the Canadian Blue Jack for identification. However, apparently some badges used by British governmental departments were used in those early days in Canada also. A solitary crown, used by British Customs and Excise after 1817, appeared on some Canadian flags. Lagging eight years behind other governmental departments in changing the colour of their flags to blue, the Customs continued to place their badge on a red ensign and a red pennant until 1872. One of these retired Customs Red Ensigns seems to have been the source of the Red Ensign bearing a crown that became the flag at the Niagara Custom House from 1871 to 1895.4

Beyond that, little evidence has surfaced of special flags for governmental departments. The earliest special flags seem to have been those those of crown corporations involved in transportation. Canadian National Railways had acquired some marine operations by the 1930s and this called for a house flag. C.N.R. ships flew a pennant with a green maple leaf in the centre of a red cross, bordered in white, on a blue field.5 Trans-Canada Airlines (proto Air Canada) placed its initials, TCA, in white on a red maple leaf in the centre of a blue and white field. The white formed a triangle, base along the hoist, peak in the centre of the fly, which cut through the blue.6


The Department of Transport

As the two early examples illustrate, flags are often adopted by those associated with transportation. Historically, flags most often served as identification for those on the move, whether ships or armies. It is not surprising, therefore, that more flags are found under the aegis of the Department of Transport than any other branch of Government excepting the Department of National Defence. Further, most of the flags arise in the organizations offering services to marine transportation: the Coast Guard, the Harbours Board, and the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority. A smaller number arise among the Crown Corporations providing transportation, but even there, some of the flags are used on ships.

The Canadian Coast Guard was formed as the Marine Branch of the Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1867, so was probably the first to have flown the Canadian Blue Ensign when it was authorized in 1870. The Coast Guard came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transport in 1936 but only officially gained its present name in 1962. With the new name, came a Coast Guard badge, a vertically divided oval with a red maple leaf on a white field to the left, and two golden dolphins, the traditional friends of mariners, facing in opposite directions on a blue field to the right. This was shortly transformed into the Coast Guard Jack, which changed only slightly with the substitution of the modern maple leaf upon the adoption of the National Flag in 1965.

Like the Canadian Forces, the Coast Guard makes use of distinguishing flags for senior personnel. They are all based on the Coast Guard Jack, but while including the blue fly, they omit the golden dolphins. As the person answerable to Parliament for the Coast Guard, the Minister of Transport flies a flag with a crown above the maple leaf. The Deputy Minister's flag omits the crown and so looks just like a Jack without dolphins. Thereafter, decreasing rank is specified by an increasing number of maple leaves or by changing the shape of the flag to a swallowtail pennant.7 The Coast Guard also has a special flag that may be flown by members of the Volunteer Marine Rescue Auxiliary. It is a tricolour pennant with red at the hoist, a red maple leaf on white in the centre, and a golden dolphin on blue at the point.

Ports in Canada are controlled by different legislation depending largely on the port's clientele. Whereas the national and international ports operate under the Canada Ports Corporation Act, the regional and municipal ports operate under the Harbour Commission's Act.

The degree of autonomy of the national and international ports depends on the size of the port. As the smaller ports are directly administered by the Canada Ports Corporation and so normally do not have their own flags, they fly the Ports Canada flag. These ports are Belledune, Chicoutimi, Churchill, Port Colborne, Prescott, Sept-Îles and Trois-Rivières, and, up until 1987, when it became incorporated, Saint John. The Ports Canada flag places its badge, a foul anchor above three red maple leaves in the centre of a Canadian pale. The maple leaves stand for the three regions of Canada, Atlantic, Central, and Pacific, served by the Ports Canada system. The colour to either side of the Canadian pale is, appropriately, navy blue. Despite its dependant status up until 1987, Saint John, New Brunswick did fly its own flag, although it changed the design upon incorporation.

Seven large international ports are operated as autonomous local port corporations: Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Montréal, Québec, Saint John, Halifax, and St. John's. As these ports are separate corporations, they often have their own flags. Illustrated are the flags of Vancouver, Montréal, and (the new) Saint John.8

The regional and municipal ports operated under the Harbour Commission's Act have a great deal of autonomy and often have their own flag or identification. Illustrated are the flags of the Port of North Fraser (the Fraser River, B.C.), and the Thunder Bay Harbour Commission.

The four Pilotage Authorities in Canada, Atlantic, Great Lakes, Laurentian, and Pacific, are separate Crown Corporations but none has a distinctive flag of its own. However, they do share a flag with many of the other pilots in the world. The pilot's flag, flown both on pilot boats and on ships once a pilot has boarded, is a horizontal bicolour of white over red. It has been in use since early in the twentieth century. Sometimes the international code flag for H, a vertical bicolour of white and red, is used in its place when the pilot is aboard the ship. The pilot's flag should not be confused with the pilot jack or other pilot flags which are used by a ship to request a pilot.

Another major service offered to transportation in Canada is the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Authority places its 1962 logotype in white on a deep blue field.9 The Seaway's main function, the lockage of ships, is represented by a ship in a lock all within a circle representing the Authority itself.

There are a number of flags in use by Crown corporations which provide transportation. Upon losing its noun in 1960, Canadian National Railways promptly adopted a new sinuous logotype.10 Canadian National places the white CN on either a blue or red field for its flag. Via Rail was established in 1978 after serving an apprentice period as a subsidiary of CN. It now operates most intercity passenger railway service in Canada and its flag places the VIA logotype in yellow on a blue field. The Air Canada logotype, adopted in 1965 upon the transmutation of Trans-Canada Airlines, is placed on a red field. In 1985, Air Canada flew a special flag which was sufficiently ingenious that it would be tempting for other Canadians to fly it upon turning fifty. The flag of the Canarctic Shipping Company has been in use since 1985 and depicts the vessel M.V. Arctic set against an iceberg incorporating elements of the maple leaf from the national flag.


The Residua

The Department of Communications is represented by three flags, the most familiar one, indeed bearing one of the most widely recognized symbols in Canada, is that of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.11 Adopted in 1974, the CBC symbol is placed on a blue field. Less familiar, but nevertheless well known, is the combined eye-person of the National Film Board which is flown in white on a green field to form their flag. The three hexagons of the National Arts Centre symbolize both the three theatres of the Centre for Performing Arts and the three performing arts of drama, music, and dance, themselves. The hexagons are combined into one image and are rendered in purple on a white field.

Another three flags, all of which make prominent use of the national maple leaf, serve to represent organizations under the aegis of the Department of Public Works. Since 1982, the Harbourfront Corporation in Toronto has placed the upper portion of the leaf on a white field with the corporate name below. In Vancouver, the Canada Harbour Place Corporation places the left half of the leaf beside a silhouette of the distinctive sailing-ship roof of their building. The building was opened as the Canada Pavilion at EXPO 86, and the flag, designed in 1984, was first used as the flag of the Pavilion.12 The flag of the National Capital Commission, adopted about 1969, places a ring of twelve maple leaves on a golden field. The provinces are represented by ten leaves of silver which form a "C," for Capital, while the territories are represented by two leaves only outlined in silver, but which complete the circle.

The Petro Canada flag is well known to every motorist in Canada. Adopted about 1976, and it was formed by inverting the colours of a portion of the national flag. Petro Canada reports to Parliament through the Minister of Energy Mines and Resources. The National Research Council, which places its symbol of a globe upon a Canadian pale of light blue, has been flown since October 1986. The NRC seems to be the only group reporting through the Minister of State for Science and Technology that has adopted a flag.

That inestimable institution, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has a guidon which serves as their equivalent of a military colour, and, although they use lance pennons during their musical rides, they do not have a flag per se to represent them. However, another organization which also reports to Parliament through the Solicitor General's Department does. The Correctional Service uses a white ensign with the National Flag in the canton and their badge on the fly.

The last two flags are not really the flags to represent the government organization itself, as much as they are flags to mark a special circumstance. In 1985, Parks Canada held its Centenary and flew a flag of occasion to mark the event. The Parks Canada symbol is placed on a golden trail leading from the past to the future. Parks Canada reports to the Parliament through the Minister of the Environment.

Finally, comes the only flag in this group which was specifically designed to be presented as an award. Since 1983, the Canada Export Award flag has been presented by the Department of External Affairs to many Canadian companies which have successfully exported their products. In the form of a pennant which the company can fly, it bears a composite maple leaf and letter E, for export.13

There are undoubtedly many other flags flown both officially and unofficially by various governmental groups, but which have escaped the attention of the authors. One flag, not illustrated here, but which the reader can see while strolling along Sussex Drive in Ottawa is that of the Royal Canadian Mint.


This is the chapter entitled, Of Crowns, Councils, and Commissions, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



1. Pierre Berton, Why We Act Like Canadians (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982), p. 16.

2. Henry David Thoreau, A Yankee in Canada, with the Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1866). The Canadian essay was based on Thoreau's trip to Montréal and Québec in the autumn of 1850. The quotation comes from the fourth chapter, "The Walls of Quebec," which was not included when the first three chapters were published under the title, "Excursion to Canada," in Puntam's Monthly (January, 1853).

3. The author, who makes no claim to an understanding of the labyrinthine structure of Canadian government, has used, as a guide in these matters, the Canadian Almanac & Directory, 1988 (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1988). This reference has proved to be an indispensable ally during the organization and preparation of the present work.

4. While this flag is certainly one of Custom's Red Ensigns, there has been some speculation about its use at the Niagara Customs House. The flag was owned by Mr. William Kirby who served as the collector of customs at Niagara from 1871 to 1895. The flag is now preserved at the Niagara Historical Museum, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

5. Gilbert Grosvenor and William J. Showalter, "Flags of the World," The National Geographic Magazine (Washington: N.G. Soc., September 1934), p. 390. See also, Merchant Marine House Flags and Stack Insignia (Washington: U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office Publication. No. 100, 1961), p. 3:9. In the National Geographic the leaf is shown as golden, in the Hydrographic Office publication the leaf is green.

6. I.O. Evans, The Observer's Book of Flags (London: Frederick Warne, 1959), p. 198.

7. Mary Breig, "Canadian Coast Guard Crest and Flags," Fleet News, No. 6 (Fleet Systems, 1983), pp. 37-39.

8. The flag of the Port of Montréal was adopted in the Spring of 1981; that of the Port of Saint John was adopted in the 1988.

9. The St. Lawrence Seaway Authority symbol was created by Montréal artist and industrial designer, Gilles Robert. It was registered on June 6, 1962.

10. The CN symbol was designed by Allan Fleming and was unveiled on December 15, 1960.

11. The CBC Symbol was designed by Burton Kramer, and has appeared on CBC-TV since December 10, 1974.

12. The Canada Harbour Place symbol and flag were designed by David Watson of Design Group International, Vancouver.

13. The program is described in a booklet by Philip Rosson, Mary Brooks, Shyam Kamath, and Donald Patton, Excellence in exporting: Advice and comments from Canada Export Award winners (Ottawa, External Affairs, 1885, 1986), 71 pp.


This is the chapter entitled, Of Crowns, Councils, and Commissions, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.