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


The Nation
Chap VIII:


The medium is the message.1
Marshall McLuhan (1959)


Undoubtedly the most widely known remark to have come out of Canada, Marshal McLuhan's aphorism lends insight into the use of flags to mark important occasions. The motif upon the flag is often secondary to the fact that it is a flag which is chosen to proclaim the event.

Flags of occasion flare into brilliance for a day, week, or year, and then pass into obscurity, often without leaving so much as a footnote in the annals of the land. As there is almost no written record of their use, the flags that do survive become, once again, a message that hints at the values, concerns and festivities of the past. Clearly, part of that message is that Canadians have long used special flags to proclaim their support for important ideas or occasions.

A few of the flags or banners that were associated with upheavals or rebellions have made it into history books. In Lower Canada, the unrest of the 1830s produced the green, white and red drapeau des Patriotes and the drapeau de Saint-Eustache;2 in Upper Canada it produced the Bidwell banner3 and the Navy Island flag of William Lyon Mackenzie. In response to the rebellion of 1837-38, Lord Durham's Report made the then radical recommendation of rule by responsible government. This, in turn, spawned the Durham flag, raised as an expression of support by the reform-minded Canadians of the newly formed Durham clubs.4 As with the earlier rebellions, those in the Northwest in 1869-70 and 1885 each produced a flurry of flags.5

By way of contrast, the flags that fell into obscurity were those that showed patriotic celebration of, or support for, the established order. Extending over eighty years, the flags of one large group celebrated the coronations, anniversaries, and visits of the sovereigns of Canada. There is a further miscellany of flags that marks the occurrence of other events of national concern ranging from the victories of the South African war in 1901 to the Toronto Economic Summit of 1988. Finally, there is large group which was flown to show financial support for the national effort in each world war. Far from being a thing of the past, the use of flags of occasion appears to be on the increase.

To modern minds, the most obvious way to make a flag of occasion is to centre a logotype or badge, which normally will have been produced for a different medium, upon a white or coloured field. Now and then, this approach even produces an aesthetically pleasing flag. Fortunately, this is not the universal approach to the design of such flags.

If present-day flag design is often formulaic, so too were the designs of the past; there were, however, a wider selection of formulae to choose from. The badge might be placed in the centre of the Union Flag, in imitation of the flags such as the governor general's, or on the fly of an ensign, in imitation of flags such as the Canadian Red Ensign. When the badge was placed in the centre of a plain or coloured field, it was happily allowed to nearly fill the field.


Royal Occasions

It is not clear when special flags were first used in Canada to mark a royal event. Certainly, flags of occasion were used widely for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. There was much to celebrate: the transformations in Canada during that long and stable reign of sixty years were spectacular. In government, the difference between the family compact days of 1837 and the parliamentary democracy of 1897 was striking; in transportation, the advent of railways provided a cement that bound the young nation.

There were a number of styles of flags used to mark the Jubilee (June 20). Most of them contain a specific reference to the year, but some only show a picture of the Queen. It is possible that the latter may have been used at the Golden Jubilee as well. Indeed, the recycling and repackaging of images was a venerable pastime among manufacturers. Be that as it may, the use of royal flags of occasion, which had started by 1897, has continued to the present.

Subsequent Royal occasions that spawned flags include the Coronations of King Edward VIII (1902), King George V (1911), King George VI (1938), and Queen Elizabeth II (1953). The Silver Jubilees of King George V (1935) and Queen Elizabeth II (1977) were also celebrated with special flags, as was the first visit, in 1939, of a reigning sovereign to Canadian soil.

The fact that flag manufacturers would prepare their products well in advance of the event produced the amusing result that a flag for the Coronation of Edward VIII was marketed just before he abdicated in 1936. This presented no insuperable problem, his picture and the label were changed and a flag for the Coronation of George VI was in hand. The same recycling of images occurred when a version of George VI's coronation flag was transformed into one to welcome the Royal couple in 1939. Indeed, the same flag reappeared with trivial design changes for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Clearly, the manufacturer was on to a good thing.

All but one of the Royal flags of occasion that we have seen were designed to be either hand-wavers or building decorations. That exception, a flag designed to be hoisted on a pole, was the most recent in the parade, the flag for the Queen's Silver Jubilee.


Patriotic support

There was triumph, triumph, triumph down the scarlet glittering street,
A thousand flags were flaming where the sky and city meet.
Robert W. Service (on the welcome home given to the
troops returning from the South African War)

The place of honour in the centre of the Union Flag was not reserved for Royalty alone. The use of Canadian troops in the South African or Boer War (1899-1902) produced great controversy in Canada. Nevertheless, those at home viewed the Canadian martial success with pride and marked their victories with massive parades and demonstrations.7 Gratitude was expressed to the British commander, Lord Roberts, by placing his picture upon a Union Flag.

Support for each world war also produced flags of occasion. One for the First World War must have been used towards the end of the war, for, in addition to symbols of Canada, France and Britain, it included the American flag. One for the Second World War, which shows King George in the centre of a Union Flag, must have been produced early in the war for most of the military hardware illustrated (the Gloster Gauntlet fighter, the Faircy Seal reconnaissance float plane, and the 105 mm Howitzer) was left over from the First World War and was superseded by 1940. Another, showing the V for victory in Morse code, was probably from about 1941.8

It is questionable whether or not the next flag belongs in the category of flags of occasion, but, as it does not fit easily anywhere else, this is where it goes. In May 1911, London was the host for both the coronation of King George V and an Imperial conference. For one occasion or the other an unofficial Empire flag was produced. Using the white ensign of the navy as a base, it displayed the symbols of Canada (the four-province badge), Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and India. The dating of the flag design is made possible by the fact that South Africa's arms, granted September 17, 1910, were used, but New Zealand is represented by the four stars of their flag, rather than their arms which were only granted in August 1911.

Unfortunately, we do not have an example of the Empire flag to show, but we do illustrate a later version that would more appropriately be called the Commonwealth flag. It is almost identical to the Empire flag except that the four-province badge of Canada has been replaced by the 1921 shield of arms, and a green knoll has been placed below the arms of South Africa. This latter stylistic variation was used first in 1931, the year of the Statute of Westminster. Curiously, the emblems for Australia and New Zealand were not brought up to date. It may be that the Commonwealth flag was introduced for the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935, but it continued to be used in Canada through the Second World War. It was often displayed together with the Union Flag and the ensigns of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Undoubtedly, the best known flag of occasion in Canada is the one for the 1967 Centennial of Confederation. It was seen across the country in a remarkable range of colours. It is still widely recognized now, many years later, although a surprisingly large fraction of the public thinks that it was the flag of EXPO 67.

The flag of the Calgary Olympics of 1988 is included in the chapter on Alberta, but for the same occasion, the Federal Government used two different flags for promotional purposes: one used on governmental buildings which displayed the Celebrate 88 logotype on white between two triangular blue panels; and a special Olympic Flame flag which accompanied the Olympic flame across the country.

Special flags are now making their appearance for nationally sponsored conferences. Illustrated for 1987 are the flags of the Francophone Summit with its sections of multicoloured rings, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting of 1987. This later blue-bordered flag features not only the maple leaf, but the symbol adopted in 1972 to represent the Commonwealth: a stylized globe within a letter C in the form of rays. A conference flag from 1988 is that of the Toronto Economic Summit.


The Service flags

In thousands of homes in all parts of Canada will soon be seen these new service flags,
proclaiming that men from these homes have gone forth to join Canada's army overseas.

Saturday Night, April 20, 1918

Personal sacrifice for the national good demands acknowledgment. So it was that, in 1918, two new flags were introduced as a reward to those who had contributed to the war effort: a Canadian service flag and a Victory Loan honour flag. The first of these was designed to honour the families of servicemen, the second to honour those on the home front who had lent money to help finance the war. Strikingly similar in basic design, each had a white field and a broad red border.

To modern eyes it would appear that red and white had been chosen as these were the national colours of Canada. However, at that time, Canada did not have national colours; the grant of arms that established them was still three years off. The colours appear to have been in imitation of those on comparable American flags, whose flags in turn seem to have been inspired by Japanese usage. Although some of the links in the story are tenuous the events seem to be as follows.

In Japan, families with servicemen fighting for the Emperor, were given the exclusive and great honour of flying his Imperial Standard at their private homes. When the United States finally entered the First World War on April 6, 1917, an American serviceman, Captain J.G. McIlroy of Cleveland, Ohio decided to devise a flag that could confer a similar honour upon families of American servicemen. His design had a white field, a broad red border, and as many vertical blue stripes as a family had representatives in the services. Not only did his plan call for the flying of this flag on homes, but for the issuance of replicas as pins for use by the parents and children of servicemen.9

Actually, Captain McIlroy's serendipitous idea seems to have been shared by another Captain from Cleveland. Robert Queisser's design was identical except that the stripes were replaced by the much more appealing stars. Captain Queisser caught the brass ring when he not only had the design patented, but persuaded the city council of East Cleveland to present such a flag to the family of every soldier and sailor entering the service.10 What the link was between these Cleveland captains is unclear, but what happened to their idea is clear: it took off. Not only homes displayed the flags, but businesses across the United States displayed large ones filled with stars, one for each employee who had joined the services. The paint works of the Sherwin-Williams Company in Cleveland flew three large service flags so as to separately honour its American, Canadian, and British employees who had enlisted. Flown was a Canadian Red Ensign around which was a broad white border strewn with 92 stars indicating the number of Canadian employees who were "battling the Kaiser's hordes."11

Not willing to pass up on a great idea, Canadians quickly adopted the idea of a service flag, but replaced the star with a blue maple leaf. Soon scores of thousands of Canadians displayed the flag, a red leaf replacing the blue if the serviceman had laid down his life for his country.12 Large flags bearing many leaves were used at businesses, churches, schools and lodges.13 The orientation of the maple leaf was changed depending upon whether the flag or pin was meant to be displayed horizontally or vertically. We have no knowledge of the service flag having been used during the Second World War.

If Captain McIlroy's idea for the use of vertical blue bars for the service flag was eclipsed by Captain Queisser's idea of using stars, it was not lost. The Americans used McIlroy's flag as an Honor Emblem for the Liberty Loans. The number of the bars now represented the number of the loan.


Victory Loan Flags

The man, be he rich or poor, is little to be envied, who at this supreme moment
fails to bring forward his savings for the security of his country.

Slogan on the application form for a bond,
Canada's 1917 Victory Loan campaign.

Patriotic slogans elicit patriotic responses; why not use flags to the same end. The second red and white flag introduced in 1918 honoured the towns whose citizens had made significant contributions to the Victory Loan campaign.

Canada had had four Victory Loan campaigns by the time it adopted the idea to reward communities and corporations with a flag. A pastiche of the American Liberty Loan Honor Flags, the first Canadian Victory Loan Honour flag used five diagonal blue lines at the hoist to indicate that it was for the fifth campaign.14 The fly bore the nine-province badge.

The first of these flags was raised on Parliament Hill on October 31, 1918, by Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden. It had, however, been donated by the governor general, who was exercising, perhaps for the first time on a large scale, the royal prerogative of being the font of honours.15 As the Ottawa Evening Journal put it:

The object [of the ceremony] was to give official recognition to the honour flag and the honour system of emblems which His Excellency the Governor General has consented to present each municipality.16

For a city or district to receive the flag, its citizens had to have purchased a specified value in victory bonds. For every 25 percent they exceeded the quota, they received a representation of the Royal Crown to be sewn onto the flag. Individual contributors received representations of the flag on a pin to wear, and on a card to display in a window.

As the use of the Victory Loan Honour flag in 1918 had been a great success, the Canada Victory Loan Committee decided to design another flag for the 1919 campaign. Although the war was now over, it still had to be paid for. This time the badge was the arms of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII.17 Rather than add another diagonal line to the hoist to indicate the sixth campaign, a Union Flag was used instead. This pattern was maintained throughout the Second World War.

Although, the campaign did not start until October 27, 1919, advantage was taken of the Prince's visit in September by having him raise the flag at Parliament on the Labour Day weekend. Every benefit was squeezed from the event as promotional use was made of his remarks that "I hope every City and District will win my flag."

For a corporation or organization with more than 50 employees to receive a smaller version of the flag, 75 percent of the subscribers had to invest 10 percent of the annual payroll. A hanging banner was also used as a reward to commercial and industrial establishments, as were the pins and cards for individuals.

Success breeds excess. During the Second World War, the nine Victory Loan campaigns used pledge flags, honour pennants, victory flags, investor pins, honour certificates, slogans, and considerable hoopla, all to great effect. The major change was the transformation of the honour flags of the First World War, awarded only upon attainment of the financial goal, into the pledge flags of the Second World War, awarded at the beginning of each campaign as a token of the community's commitment to fulfill its pledge. Of the same design as the 1919 honour flag, the pledge flags had a white field, a broad red border, the Union Flag in the canton, and a badge, which changed with each campaign, on the fly.

The badge was also placed upon the honour pennants. These were awarded when the community or canvassing unit reached its quota. An additional honour pennant was given each time the quota was over subscribed by 25 percent. The first pennant showed the badge on a plain blue field; thereafter, the badge appeared on a white field with a red border.

The choice of the first badge was easy; it was a torch, which recalled the lines from John McCrae's well known the First World War poem, "In Flanders Fields:"18

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If you break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, ...

In promotion, a symbolic torch was dedicated at cities across the country from Victoria to Halifax before being taken to London and presented to Prime Minister Churchill on Dominion Day, 1941.19

The second badge was a single maple leaf and the third, a commando dagger. After the first three campaigns, and with the end of the war nowhere in sight, a roman or Arabic numeral became a prominent part of each badge design.

Each campaign lasted for twenty days. The beginning date, badge description, and slogan for each is as follows:

Loan Date Badge Slogan
1 1941 Jun 2 blue torch Help Finish the Job
2 1942 Feb 16 blue maple leaf Nothing Matters
Now but Victory
3 1942 Oct 19 blue dagger on a shield Come on Canada
4 1943 Apr 26 IV above four maple
leaves on a shield
Back the Attack
5 1943 Oct 18 winged V on a shield Speed the Victory
6 1944 Apr 24 winged VI on a shield Put Victory First
7 1944 Oct 23 flaming sword over
a 7 on a shield
Invest in Victory -Buy
One More Than Before
8 1945 Apr 23 laurel around
an 8 on a shield
Invest in the Best
9 1945 Oct 22 9 over a pen
on a shield
Sign Your Name
for Victory

In 1943, for the fifth campaign, a new flag was introduced to be used specifically for commercial companies. Called the V Flag, for Victory Flag, it was awarded to a company when 90 percent or more of the employees invested 12 1/2 percent of their monthly salaries in Victory Bonds or War Savings Certificates. Three stars were added to the flag when 15 percent or more of the monthly salaries were invested.

Broad pennants with thin white borders, all bore a V surrounded by a laurel wreath on yellow. The first V Flag, for the fifth campaign was a vertical bicolour of maroon and dark blue, but it bore no additional badge. For the sixth campaign, the flag was red and blue divided horizontally, and, if the three stars were awarded, they bore the numeral VI. Thereafter, the V Flags were distinguished both by the pattern of their colours and by a badge. The colours for the seventh campaign were again red and blue, but divided vertically and the badge from the pledge flag was used on the fly. The eighth campaign was red over blue with yellow shield bearing a tilted VIII on the fly. The final V Flag, for the ninth campaign had a plain blue field with 9 in yellow on the fly.

The inspiration for the V Flags, like that of the service and honour flags before them, had come from the Americans. In late 1942, a year before Canada introduced the V Flag as an award for corporations, the Americans had introduced a flag for the Army-Navy Production Award. Almost identical in design to the later Canadian flags, it was a broad pennant divided vertically into two colours and rimmed with thin white borders. In the centre appeared a letter E (presumably for war Equipment) surrounded by a wreath. It differed from the Canadian flags in that it bore the word ARMY in the upper hoist and NAVY on the lower fly.20

In total, Canada had used 25 different flags and pennants to promote the sale of Victory Bonds during the two wars, all but two of them in the Second World War. They were very successful in accomplishing that goal, but they quickly fell into oblivion. After the wars they had outlived their original purpose and some of those which survived were turned to more prosaic uses. In the 1950s the Prince of Wales flag of 1919 was seen in Toronto being used as a counter cover, and in the town of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, the Second World War pledge flags were tied together and strung across streets to block traffic during road construction. Sic transit gloria Canadæ


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



1. Marshall McLuhan. A remark first made in Vancouver, July 30, 1959.

2. Jacques Archambault, and Eugénie Lévesque, Le Drapeau québécois (Québec: Éditeur officiel du Québec, 1978), p. 16.

3. George W. Spragge, "The Rebel Banner of 1837," Ontario History, Vol. LXXX, No. 1, (March 1988), pp. 1-8.

4. June Callwood, Portrait of Canada (Markham: Paperjacks, 1983), p. 136. Previously published by Doubleday (1981).

5. Calvin Racette, Flags of the Métis (Regina: Gabriel Dumont Institute, 1987), 34 pp.

6. Robert W. Service, "The March of the Dead," Songs of a Sourdough (England: 1907). The quotation was taken from the last verse, but an intermediate line was omitted.

7. Carman Miller, "South African War" The Canadian Encyclopedia, 3 (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1985), p. 1735.

8. David Rogers, "A flag for the Empire," The Flag Bulletin, XVII, 5 (1978), pp. 158-60.

9. Robert Douglas, "For those who give their best," Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, CXXIV, 3221 (May 31, 1917), p. 678.

10. "The Origin, Design and Proper Display of Service Flag; Persons Entitled to Representation and meaning of Stars," The Official Bulletin, [U.S. Committee on Public Information] II, 319 (May 25, 1918), p. 12.

11. "What counts more than service," Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper (circa 1918), p. 328.

12. "General Observations," Undated notes of the 1919 arms committee, quoted by John R. Matheson, Canada's Flag: A search for a country (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980), p. 16.

13. "Canada's New Flag," Saturday Night (April 20, 1918).

14. Even the cards, which were to be place in windows, that were given to Canadian subscribers to the Victory Loan were so similar to the equivalent American ones as to be almost a tracing of them.

15. This, and much of what follows, is based upon three sources: an article by Auguste Vachon, "Les drapeaux oubliés," Heraldry in Canada, XV, 2 (June 1981), pp. 12-23; a pamphlet entitled, "Second Victory Loan, 1942, Honour Program: What it is and How it works;" and a Saskatchewan pamphlet which listed provincial donations for each campaign.

16. Ottawa Evening Journal (October 31, 1919), p. 5.

17. Before the war the Prince's arms bore an inescutcheon of the arms of Saxony. This unfortunate reference was changed early in the war to an inescutcheon of the arms of Wales. Presumably not realizing this, the Canadian Committee used the pre-war version as the badge in 1919.

18. Dr. John McCrae's poem, "In Flanders fields," was first published in Punch in 1915, and then after he died in 1918, it appeared in the collection of his poems: In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, Sir Andrew Macphail, ed., (1919).

19. Dominion Day was the name for Canada Day before October 27, 1982. It marks the anniversary of Canadian Confederation on July 1, 1867, and has also been known as Confederation Day.

20. See, for example, the Westinghouse advertisement in the National Geographic Magazine (November, 1942).


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