This is the chapter on the Royal Union Flag from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.


The Nation
Chap III:

THE ROYAL UNION FLAG informed that the Union Flag is the National Flag of
Canada as of all other parts of His Majesty's dominions,
and may be flown on land by all British subjects...

Lewis Harcourt (1911)
(Secretary of State for the Colonies, London)


The Royal Union Flag (commonly called the Union Jack) has played a profound role in the Canadian psyche. For many people, it has served to symbolize the highly valued Britishness of the nation and its people. At once both beautiful and strange, its compelling beauty emanates from "its striking geometric, almost abstract design;"2 its strangeness emanates from the unexpected fact that it is not what most people believe it to be, the official national flag of Great Britain.

"The United Kingdom [of Great Britain and Northern Ireland] differs from most other countries in that she has no official national flag. The Union Flag is a royal flag used by the sovereign and the services and representatives of the sovereign."3 Not until the early twentieth century did British officials informally indicate that there would be no objection raised to any British subject making use of the Union Flag ashore (but not afloat).4 However, tolerance of the use of a flag is not equivalent to enshrining it as the national flag.

For years, primarily between 1902 and 1945, it was widely believed and asserted that the Union Flag was also the national flag of Canada. But this belief was derived from the flag's presumed status as the national flag of the mother country.5 Between Confederation and 1965, Canadians used either the Union Flag, or one of the various versions of the Canadian Red Ensign as pretenders to the national flag. Indeed, individuals would often assert one to be the national flag, only to have their claims contradicted by the partisans of the other. The mere fact that such altercations could take place at all was evidence, if any were needed, that neither was Canada's official national flag. Canada did not have an official national flag until 1965.6

Yet, the claims made for the Union Flag being Canada's national flag were often so official sounding that they must be dealt with: in part, to examine their validity; in part, to understand the mood of the times. Before exploring the use of this remarkable flag on Canadian soil, the grand old story of the origin of the Union Flag will be retold.


The Story of the Union Flag7

This is a story which, within living memory, was familiar in part to most Canadian school children. It was told with all manner of simple props, sometimes of metal, usually of paper, which graphically assembled and disassembled the components of the Union Flag for easy understanding. From classroom to Wolf Cub pack, children were instructed in the history, construction and proper flying of that beautiful flag which assured them of their status as British subjects and citizens of that great community of British nations.

Typical of these props was a little pamphlet distributed for children by Laura Secord Candy Shops. Fold-out paper crosses illustrated the construction and history of the Union Flag, while accompanying doggerel molded a child's identity with:

I'm proud of Canada!
Is Canada proud of me?
What she wants are citizens
Loyal as can be.
I love my land, and Britain's Flag
That waves from sea to sea.
O, I am proud of Home and Motherland
And I'll make them proud of me.

Understandably, the message in this form is no longer instilled within Canadian classrooms. In the 1980s the message was characterized by that offered by the Canadian Symbols Kit.9 Prepared by the Department of the Secretary of State, this collection of leaves effectively discusses and displays the diversity of our culture and its symbols, while quietly emphasizing the Canadian nature of it all. Yet, true to our history, the Symbols Kit has embedded within it the story, once the only one told, of how a simple auxiliary flag on a ship evolved over three centuries into one which served to represent Britain and its empire.

The present Union Flag not only represents a political union of three kingdoms, that of England, Scotland and (Northern) Ireland, it is itself a union of the three flags which separately serve to represent those kingdoms: the crosses of Saints George, Andrew, and Patrick. Two of these are still commonly flown to represent those kingdoms: thus the flag of Scotland is the St. Andrew's cross, and the flag of England is St. George's cross.

The earliest reference to the use of St. Andrew's cross to represent Scotland dates from the twelfth century, but the reference itself states that it had been in use since the eighth century. Although the cross always had the distinctive saltire shape (the shape of an ¥ ), the colours of a white cross on a blue field only gradually became standard. The earliest reference to the use of St. George's cross to represent England date from the eleventh century, and the present colours, a red cross on a white field, arose shortly thereafter. These crosses were used to identify nationality on both the jackets of soldiers and the flags of ships.10

It has often been suggested by historians, and following them, artists, that John Cabot raised a flag bearing the red cross of Saint George when, on St. John the Baptist Day, 1497, he took possession of the northeast coast of North America in the name of Henry VII of England. However, on voyages of discovery he had been empowered to sail under the banners, flags and ensigns of the king. Indeed, an observer of the day says that when he took possession of the land he "set up the royal banner."11 Quite unlike the cross of St. George, the Royal Standard in 1497 was divided in four with the royal banner of France (three golden fleurs-de-lis on blue) in the first and fourth quarters, and the Royal banner of England (three golden lions on red) in the second and third quarters. These same motives now appear in the arms of Canada.

However, the flag of St. George was used in other expeditions to Canada. A water colour labeled, "Englishmen in a skirmish with Eskimos," almost certainly depicts Frobisher's expedition to Baffin Island in 1577. Illustrated is a rowboat wearing a flag with the cross of Saint George charged in the centre with the arms of Queen Elizabeth I.12


The First Union Flag

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland became James I of England and brought about the union of the Crowns of the two countries. Three years later, on April 12, 1606, he issued a proclamation which introduced the first of two major versions of the Union Flag. It was composed of the "Red Crosse, commonly called S. Georges Crosse, and the White Crosse commonly called S. Angrewes Crosse, joyned together."13 Although England and Scotland were separate countries and continued to use their own flags, the Union Flag served as an auxiliary flag on the ships of both nations to indicate they owed a common allegiance to one king.

In 1634, the use of the Union Flag by merchantmen was eliminated when King Charles I confined its use to his own ships with: "but that the same Union Flagge bee still reserved as an ornament proper for Our owne Ships and Ships in Our immediate Service and Pay, and none other."14 From that time to the present, public use of this royal flag has been prohibited afloat, it being worn to distinguish the ships of the Royal Navy only.15

About this time, the diminutive, jack, was first applied to a flag, somewhat smaller than an ensign, used to distinguish a ship in some way. One of these, the Union Flag used to distinguish the King's ships, became known as the "King's Jack." 16 Then in 1663, with the restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell, a proclamation of Charles II referred to "His Majesty's Jack, commonly called the Union Jack."17 Thus seems to have begun the name commonly applied to the Union Flag; it is a name ultimately applied to the flag even when it was not actually being used at sea as a jack.18 (However, as is discussed in the Introduction, the formal name, Union Flag, is the one preferred in this book.) Although in early times, jacks were flown from the masthead, they soon were flown from a special jackstaff erected at the bow, where jacks fly to this day.19

There seems to have been a very interesting exception to the restriction that only ships of the Royal Navy could fly the King's Jack: the Hudson's Bay Company flew it. In the Charter of the Hudson's Bay Company granted May 2, 1670, the company was not only given the vast area of Rupert's land for purposes of trade, it also governed the region, and was authorized if

necessary to send either Shippes of War Men or Amunicion unto any theire Plantacions Fortes Factoryes or Places of Trade aforesaid for the security and defence of the same...or otherwise to continue or make peace or Warre....20

In effect, within its own territory, the Hudson's Bay Company could function as the King's navy. Correspondingly, it is not surprising to discover an item in the minutes of the Company for July 21, 1682 entitled "Prince Ruperts Commission to were [wear] the Kings Jack" which instructs the Company ships to fly the

Kings-Jack or Coullers from your Entrance into the streights of Hudson Bay & untill you returne homeward bounde to the same place.21

From ships, the Union Flag was apparently transferred to the Company's forts where it can be seen in early illustrations such as the one by Samuel Hearne showing a view of Prince of Wales' Fort in 1769.22

On April 17, 1707, Queen Anne issued a proclamation which spoke of the use of the Union Flag "at Sea and Land." This first reference to the use of the flag on land is interesting, but unfortunately it is not spelled out. Some have taken this to allow use of the Union Flag by any of Her Majesty's subjects.23 It is unlikely that this was the intent, especially in the light of the fact that at sea it was limited to Her Majesty's navy. Rather, the 1707 proclamation seems to have been directed at allowing the use on land of the Union Flag by the military. Certainly, from this time on, the Union Flag began to appear on forts and in regimental colours. Indeed, over the next century, this two-crossed Union Flag appeared on many fortifications in what is now Canada.


The Second Union Flag

On January 1, 1801, the parliament of Ireland was amalgamated with that of Great Britain and the second version of the Union Flag was proclaimed. To the already joined crosses of Saints George and Andrew was added the cross of St. Patrick: a red saltire (¥ ) upon a white field. The origin of the latter cross as an Irish symbol remains obscure. For about a century now, it has become almost de rigueur to question the paternity of this cross, as writers within and without Ireland have held that the association of this cross with Ireland was something fabricated at the time merely to provide a cross to be added to the Union Flag. However, recent scholarship has revealed that the red saltire on a white field was in use to represent both the country and St. Patrick by the early 1600s.24

Throughout the nineteenth century, the use of the Union Flag seems to have been largely confined to representatives of the Crown. At sea it identified the Royal Navy; on land it identified governors, lieutenant-governors, military forts and camps, and RCMP posts. As the Union Flag was a mark of officialdom, the public largely seems to have avoided it.

Two snapshot views of the use of flags on land by the Canadian public in the nineteenth century can be obtained by examining illustrations by William Bartlett in Canadian Scenery Illustrated, which presents Canada in 1838, and in George Grant's Picturesque Canada, which presents it about 1880. In 1838, no Union Flags are shown, but four Red Ensigns appear (two on forts).25 In 1880, eight illustrations show the Red Ensign in use on land, but only three show the Union Flag, two of which show it on government buildings.26 On each occasion the Red Ensign was the clear favourite.

Articles written in the Canadian Almanac in the 1890s refer to the Canadian Red Ensign as "the flag of our country" and speak of its extensive public and private use, but offer not so much as a mention of any use of the plain Union Flag outside of military circles.27 The major public use of the Union Flag much prior to the twentieth century seems to have been as an additional piece of brightly coloured bunting almost lost among the acres of other flags of all sorts used to decorate dances and carnivals. Examples of this use can be seen in a number of pictures in the Canadian Illustrated News, a magazine published between 1869 and 1885.28 In the nineteenth century, public use of the Red Ensign dominated.


The Apotheosis of the Union Flag

If, before the turn of the twentieth century, public use of the Union Flag was indifferent, that picture was to change abruptly. On March 1, 1900, about two thousand students from McGill University in Montréal promoted the Union Flag as they invaded the buildings of the newspapers, Patrie, La Presse, and Journal. They then demonstrated at the city hall, and finally forced it to fly the Union Flag. From there they went on to the University of Laval where they forced a French Canadian student to raise the Union Flag on the mast. The next evening the unrepentant students intimidated shopkeepers into flying the Union Flag, but this time upon reaching Laval they were pushed back by fire hoses.29 Leave aside this egregious display of intolerance and bellicosity on the part of McGill's students; what had brought about the remarkable transition in the Canadian fortunes of the Union Flag?

While imperialist sentiments had long been strong in Canada, two events at the end of the nineteenth century greatly stimulated their fervour and helped to turn the Union Flag into the imperialist banner.

The first took place in 1897 where, amidst great pomp and circumstance, the British Empire celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Canadians revelled in their nation's participation in the event and welcomed their representative and new Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, back from London with great acclaim. It seems no accident that the first of many Canadian paeans to the Union Flag was published in this same year. With almost religious reverence, Fred Barlow Cumberland said in his book, The Story of the Union Jack:

In this Nation of nations, Canadians join hands with their brothers around the world, and raise aloft the Union Jack in the Imperial flag as the glad ensign of their united allegiance, a union for which Canadians, as much as any, have proved their faith and ever stand in foremost rank ready and willing to defend.30

Cumberland's own growing devotion to imperialism is a microcosm of the shifting view of anglophonic Canadians. In 1891, he had offered his motto as "Dominion before Province--Canada United and First,"31 while, in 1912, he left this motto unrecorded and described himself as "a pronounced Imperialist."32

The second event of importance in the growing fortunes of the Union Flag in Canada was the South African War (1899-1902), and with it Britain's plea for imperial support and solidarity. The Canadian response was divided between the increasing enthusiasm of English Canadians for the imperial cause, and the abhorrence of French Canadians for the imperial aggression against the Afrikaners.33 There is nothing like a war to polarize both opinions and the use of symbols. The Montréal riots of 1900 represented a childish attempt to force French Canadians to swallow the imperialist view by forcing them to fly its only recently canonized symbol, the Union Flag. But if that particular event was a sad one, the tenor of the times was clear, the balance was shifting from a feeling of national identity, symbolized by the Canadian Red Ensign, to one of imperial identity, symbolized by the Union Flag.

That the shift in sentiment was driven more by an intoxication with the prestige of being members of the great British Empire than by any practical benefits to be derived thereof was soon evident. As English Canadian had responded loyally and enthusiastically to Britain's call for help with the South African war, they regarded as an injustice the British settlement in 1903 of the Alaska Boundary dispute. Lord Averstone, the British member of the arbitration tribunal, reversed what had been his judicial opinion in response to threats from President Roosevelt that "if the verdict did not correspond with his desires, he would draw the boundary according to them anyway." Despite this, the British capitulation amazed even the Americans.34 Not surprisingly, when Averstone subsequently addressed a meeting in Toronto, it was only with some difficulty that he even managed to persuade local officials to allow the Union Flag to be exhibited.35

However, the nature of Canadian identity was often dictated from above,36 as is illustrated by the story of how Sir Joseph Pope, the Canadian Under Secretary of State, effected a change in the dominant symbol Canadians were to hoist for the next forty-three years.

It all started simply enough in the midst of preparations for the new century's first great celebration of British occasion: the elaborate Coronation of Edward VII on August 9, 1902. In the spring of the year, St. Michael's Church, in the English coastal community of Folkestone, purchased a new Royal Standard at a cost of £10 with the expectation that they could fly it, as they had flown others before, from their church tower. Unfortunately for them, the new King issued a general prohibition against using his Royal Standard on any occasion, excepting the Coronation, when he was not personally present. Well, £10 was a lot of money to waste on an unflyable flag, so the Vicar, The Rev. E. Husband, wrote to Buckingham Palace seeking an exception for the church. The King's private secretary, Sir Francis Knollys, turned down the request on June 4, 1902 with, "I am afraid that the Royal Standard, which is the King's personal flag, can only be hoisted at the Coronation. If permission were given in one case it would be impossible to refuse it in any others." Yet, he offered the option: "you can always fly the Union Jack."37

This permission to use the Union Flag must have been considered somewhat unexpected at the time, for shortly thereafter it became the centrepiece of an editorial in The Times, of London, which addressed a running controversy in the British press of the day: Just what is the national flag?38 Some authorities had been insisting that it was the Red Ensign and nothing else. Yet the letter from the King's private secretary seemed to suggest that the Union Flag was the proper flag to fly, and, noted The Times: his opinion "we may be sure was not lightly given." The editorial acknowledged that Sir Knollys' opinion might be merely an obiter dictum (an incidental remark providing no legal basis for decision), and, further, that "it does not much matter, on shore, whether" the Union Flag or the Red Ensign is flown as the national flag. However, in balance, the newspaper felt that the Union Flag was the better choice.

The Times had presented a reasonably balanced discussion of the issues while pointing out that "there is, indeed, no common agreement as to what the national flag is." Nowhere in the editorial is Canada, or any of the other dominions or colonies mentioned. If you cannot satisfactorily settle an issue at home, why speculate needlessly about the matter abroad.

One often encounters situations where a leader's opinion, even if offered with qualifications, is transformed into an absolute in the mind of a overly reverent, but less critical, disciple. This seems to have happened in the mind of Sir Joseph Pope, the man in Ottawa responsible for ceremonial. As an ardent imperialist, Pope apparently had no difficulty making the following two mental leaps: If The Times speculated that the Union Flag was the national flag of Britain, it must be so; if it were the national flag of Britain, it must also be the national flag of Canada. So, citing the editorial as proof of his position, Pope wrote the Deputy Minister of Public Works to tell him that the Union Flag, and not the Canadian Red Ensign, was the proper flag to fly over the Parliament of Canada. It was the job of the Ministry of Public Works to buy new flags for the Victoria Tower (the pre-1916 version of the Peace Tower) when they wore out after about three months' use. The Deputy Minister did not argue the point, but merely bought the Union Flag.39 It is a measure of the era that an editorial in a British newspaper, which did not even mention Canada, could thus change the flag over the Canadian parliament, and through it, many flags across the country.

Although a strong emotional attachment to the British Empire held sway, Pope's action was not lauded by all. The exchange of symbols over Parliament occasioned an exchange of words within Parliament. The story cannot be told better than was done by George F.G. Stanley:

On March 17, 1904, Henri Bourassa, member of parliament for Labelle, asked the Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, why "the Canadian flag which used to be put up on the tower of the parliament building has been replaced by a Union Jack." The Prime Minister had not, apparently, noticed the change. He merely replied, "I am sorry to say that I cannot satisfy today the rather fastidious curiosity of my honourable friend." But if Laurier could not answer Bourassa's question, his Minister of Public Works, the Hon. James Sutherland, could and did:

...the flag hitherto flown on the parliament building has been what is known as the Canadian Merchant Marine flag. It is not the national flag in any other sense. The national flag, as we understand it for this purpose, is the Union Jack. Many complaints have reached the department on previous occasions that the flag floating over the parliament buildings was not the authorized flag for that purpose, and when we were buying a new flag, the one which was bought, in accordance with the custom of Canada, and of all portions of the empire throughout the world, was the one authorized for the purpose.

Bourassa observed, "I know that the red ensign is the Merchant Marine flag, but I know it has always been used in this country as being the special colonial flag to which we have added the escutcheon of confederation. It has always been used on the building."40

James Sutherland's assertion was, of course, specious: no flag had ever been authorized to fly over parliament or to represent the empire throughout the world. But, as on so many other like occasions, certitude vanquished certainty. Although rear-guard actions in favour of the Canadian Red Ensign continued to be fought by nationalists, such as John S. Ewart41 in Ontario and F.C. Wade in British Columbia,42 the Union Flag soon became omnipresent upon official buildings. In his visit to Canada in June 1907, Prince Fushimi of Japan was said to have been impressed by the fact that he saw the Union Flag from the start of his trip, where it proudly floated from the Citadel in Québec, to the end, were it flew at the dock at Esquimalt, B.C.43

Yet, even staunch advocates of the Union Flag were at a loss to find any legal basis for its use as the national flag of Canada. Writing in 1904, an ardent supporter from Brockville adopted the rather odd position that, as he had not found anything prohibiting this use, it must therefore be appropriate:

in the absence of any other proper legal regulation or authority, the only proper and appropriate national flag to display on land within the territory of the Dominion of Canada upon all public days, civic and unofficial occasions, is the plain Union Jack.44

For many, the uncertain nature of what was the proper flag for Canadians to fly on land was finally put to rest by a statement from the Colonial Office. In 1911, John Stedman, a schoolteacher in Saskatchewan, wrote to the Secretary of State seeking official guidance: What flag should he fly in his school yard as the flag of Canada?45 If Sir Joseph Pope had not recently left the post (to head Laurier's newly formed Department of External Affairs), the answer, the Union Flag, certainly would have been returned promptly. In his absence, the question was passed up the channels until, crossing the Atlantic, it reached L. Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. With a response as predictable as would have been that of Pope, on May 21, 1912, Harcourt sent a dispatch to the governor general requesting him to announce that: informed that the Union Flag is the National Flag of Canada, as of all other parts of His Majesty's dominions and may be flown on land by all British subjects, and that the Red Ensign, with the arms of the Dominion of Canada in the fly, is intended to be used only by Canadian merchant vessels.46

The statement is categorical, and undoubtedly owing to the reverence of the day for British authority, it seems to have gone unchallenged. Today, however, it is interesting to examine the presumption of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who, like Sir Francis Knollys before him, was surely offering but an obiter dictum.

First, the tenor of the missive is informational rather than proclamational. It is as if Harcourt believed he was merely informing the colonials of something that he felt must be buried in a royal proclamation somewhere or other. Yet, no such proclamation was ever made. Second, even if Harcourt had thought of his own remarks as carrying the weight of a proclamation, it is doubtful that he had the authority to make such an assertion about a royal flag (Would he have presumed to give the Royal Standard to the dominions also?).

Lastly, even if he were to have had authority to control usage of a royal flag, this authority would have stopped at the Canadian waterfront. In 1912, Canada was self-governing in all internal affairs; British authority was explicitly confined to external relations.47 Thus, the governor general should have suggested to the colonial secretary that any flag that was for use only on land in Canada hardly lay within his jurisdiction (but then the governor general should not have sent the inquiry to the Colonial Office in the first place). The fact that none of these issues was pointed out at the time is certainly a measure of both the Canadian reverence for, and servile attitude towards, pronouncements British. Indeed, even allowing such questions to intrude upon peoples' thoughts probably would have been considered hopelessly legalistic, if not downright disloyal. Years later, a leading Canadian heraldic authority, Conrad Swan, the then York Herald at the College of Arms, had little difficulty in putting the issue in perspective when he noted that "up to 1965 Canada had no official national flag."48

The Union Flag continued to fly on the parliament buildings and other government buildings as the (unofficial) national flag until it was displaced in 1945 by the Canadian Red Ensign. A number of provinces continued to insist on its use at schools right up until 1965. It had became the reassuring symbol of Canada's bond with everything about Britain that was great; with good reason it was widely flown and honoured.


The Union Flag becomes official

A flag that lacks a legal basis is vulnerable to the caprice of fashion: Just as the Union Flag rose with the ascendancy of imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century, it sank with the resurgence of nationalism in mid-century. Its decline, like its earlier rise was to some extent driven by a misunderstanding over the nature of the flag itself. This was never so evident as during the 1964 flag debates when Prime Minister Pearson sought to give this Royal Union Flag the very appropriate official role of symbolizing the allegiance of Canadians to their Queen.

The Prime Minister had been referring to it as a royal flag, and John Diefenbaker, the Leader of the Opposition, objected to a statement with, "all I have to that the statement is as false as the allegations he has made that the Union Jack is the Queen's flag." Pearson set him right by quoting Sir Gerald Wollaston, then Garter King of Arms, at the College of Arms: "The Union Flag is a royal flag is one of the royal badges, and has been since Stuart times...."

Apparently this message was not understood by everyone, for shortly afterwards, another parliamentary member enquired whether the Canadian government had yet sought permission from the U.K. government to use the flag. Pearson responded that "the British Government does not come into this" as the flag "is the Royal Flag" and it was only necessary "to consult the Queen." Although, Pearson was correct on this point, he was not beyond allowing his own casual assumptions to congeal into facts. He seems to have believed that the British Parliament had actually taken some action to establish a national flag; he asserted, "the flag of the United Kingdom is the Royal Flag and they adopted it after consulting with the Queen."49 In fact, as was noted earlier, no such action has ever been taken, and British subjects have no official national flag, but fly the Queen's flag because no objection is raised.

So it was that on December 18, 1964 at the end of the Great Flag Debate, the Union Flag finally gained its first official status for use by the public, not as the national flag of Canada, but as a symbol of Canada's membership in the Commonwealth of nations and of her allegiance to the Crown. Today, the Union flag can be seen flying along with the National Flag at federal buildings, airports and military bases on special occasions, such as the Queen's birthday (in May), the anniversary of the Statute of Westminster (December 11), Commonwealth Day (second Monday in March) and during Royal visits.50


The Merchant Jack

One other related flag deserves to be mentioned here. The Merchant Jack is a derivative of the Union Jack (the Union Flag serving in its role as a jack). But, unlike those other related flags, the Red and Blue Ensigns, the Merchant Jack does not merit a chapter of its own, for it never did play a very large role in Canada, probably because it looked too similar to the Union Jack itself. Yet, the Merchant Jack was used by Canadians both ashore, where it can be seen in old photographs, and at sea by merchantmen, where it seems to have died out around WW II. However, in one form, the flag is with us yet. It has an apparent descendant, the Queen's Harbour Master's flag, which is used to this day at the Canadian Forces harbours at Esquimalt and Halifax. (The QHM flag is discussed in the chapter on the Department of National Defence.)

The Merchant Jack is just a Union Jack with a broad white border around it. Merchantmen had been prohibited from using the Union Jack, itself, ever since it was restricted to the Royal Navy in 1634. Judging by the number of proclamations that were issued on the subject, merchant shipping in the seventeenth century was not very diligent in its observance of the ban. Officially, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century the jack of a English merchantman was St. George's cross, and of a Scottish merchantman was St. Andrew's cross.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, British merchantmen adopted the Merchant Jack. This flag had been introduced in 1823 as a signal for calling a pilot and so often also goes by the name of the Pilot Jack,51 but when it is used in this capacity it is hoisted on the mainmast rather than the jackstaff.52 Although apparently used widely as a jack on merchant vessels, the flag had no legal status in this capacity.53

Like other maritime flags, it came ashore on both coasts where it was used as a generic British flag. It is seen in a mid-nineteenth century picture of a volunteer rifle corps in Victoria,54 and in an early twentieth century picture of an Acadian gathering in Shippagan, New Brunswick.55


This is the chapter on the Royal Union Flag from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



1. Joseph Pope, The Flag of Canada, 2nd ed. (Ottawa: self, 1912), 16 p.

2. Whitney Smith, Flags through the ages and across the world (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975), p. 188.

3. E.M.C. Barraclough, and W.G. Crampton, Flags of the World (London: Frederick Warne, 1978), p. 22. Most authors are not as careful with their language as these are. As a result, the number of authors who categorically name the Union Flag as the national flag of Britain is legion. Such authors seem unprepared to make a distinction between a flag being regarded as, or being used as, a national flag, and a flag actually being the national flag. Yet, for Canada, this distinction is crucial, for in its absence, the order-in-council of September 5, 1945, which only authorized the "flying of the Canadian Red Ensign wherever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag," would have created a national flag. However, in fact, it did not.

4. H. Gresham Carr, Flags of the World (London: Frederick Warne, 1953), p. 39.

5. Later in this chapter is told the story of how Sir Joseph Pope used an editorial in The Times which had speculated that the Union Flag was probably the national flag of Britain, to elevate the same flag to the status of the presumed national flag of Canada.

6. Conrad Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1977), p. 79.

7. This title is lifted from the first Canadian book to explore the story of the Union Flag both in Britain and in Canada. Written by Barlow Cumberland, The Story of the Union Jack (Toronto: William Briggs, 1897), 231 p., or its later two editions, is still worth reading.

8. The HISTORY of OUR FLAG (Toronto: Laura Secord Candy Shops, n.d.). Although undated, a special edition of this tiny folding tract was issued for the Royal Visit of May 1939, so presumably the regular ones were issued within a decade of this. An earlier example of the same sort of pamphlet, with fold-out flags, history, and patriotic verse is The Union Jack, What it Is and what it Means, with Twelve Lyrics by Frederick James Johnston-Smith, L.L.D., (Toronto: Musson, c. 1911), 38 p. Comparable pamphlets were issued by provincial Ministers of Education, e.g., Our Flag (Regina: Minister of Education for the Province of Saskatchewan, c. 1923), 32 p.

9. Canadian Symbols Kit (Ottawa: Secretary of State Department, 1986), 28 leaves.

10. These issues are discussed in greater detail in many books. See, for example those by: Cumberland, Perrin, Gordon, Carr, Barraclough and Crampton, or Smith.

11. For a discussion see Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty, p. 9.

12. The water colour is held by the British Museum. See, Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty, Plate 1.1.

13. Timothy Wilson, Flags at Sea (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1986), p. 16.

14. Wilson, Flags at Sea, p. 17.

15. Nevertheless, merchantmen would sometimes illegally wear the Union Flag to gain advantages normally only offered to military ships. Early Canadian examples of merchantmen wearing the Union Flag can be seen in J. Russell Harper's book, A People's Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974). Further, one can see present-day Canadian tour boats wearing the Union Flag along the St. Lawrence and on the Great Lakes. One assumes that the Royal Navy is not quietly turning a buck in Canadian waters, but that the usage is just a triumph of both ignorance and profitability over propriety.

16. Barraclough, and Crampton, Flags of the World, p. 17.

17. Cumberland, The Story of the Union Jack, p. 91.

18. This claim, that the use of "jack" in the term "Union Jack" has its origin in the diminutive meaning of jack when applied to a ship's distinguishing flag, has been challenged by other theories. Of these others, the Oxford English Dictionary under+Jack, sb. 3, says: "Other conjectures have been offered, e.g. that the name is the F. Jacques, James, and that the jack was so called from King James I, who introduced the original union flag; or, that the word is prob. identical with Jack, the leathern surcoat having been (it is suggested) sometimes emblazoned with the cross of St. George. But app. neither of these conjectures covers the early use of the word."

19. The jackstaff is named after the jack, and not the other way around.

20. See for example: Peter Newman's Company of Adventurers (Markham: Viking, 1985), p. 329.

21. Minutes of the Hudson's Bay Company 1682-84, Vol. IX (London: The Hudson's Bay record Society, 1946), p. 18. In a footnote on p. 171, Newman, op. cit., seems to confuse this King's Jack with the Hudson's Bay Ensign, a flag for which the earliest evidence is in 1818.

22. Newman, Company of Adventurers, Illustration on p. 140 and caption on p. 398.

23. Cumberland, The Story of the Union Jack, pp. 118-125.

24. A discussion of the controversy and recent evidence is found in G.A. Hayes-McCoy's book, A History of Irish Flags from earliest times (Dublin: Academy Press, 1979), p. 38-9. Most earlier flag books suggest that the association of the cross with the Irish people goes no deeper than its use in the arms of a prominent family, the Fitzgeralds, and that its association with St. Patrick does not predate its use in the badge of the Order of Knighthood of St. Patrick, a group instituted in 1783 less than 20 years before the cross was added to the Union Flag.

25. N.P. Willis and William Henry Bartlett, Canadian Scenery Illustrated (London: James S. Virtue, 1838-43), 2 vols. A facsimile edition was published in 1967 by Peter Martin Associates. In examining the flags in this and the following book, only those which were discernible as either the Union Flag or the Red or Blue Ensign were counted. Flags and pennants on ships and boats were not counted. The pattern whereby the ensigns were the favoured flag for use on land seems to have been established early. Fred Graffen, in his article, "British Flags Presented to the Indians," The Flag Bulletin XXI, 5/96 (1982), pp. 153-64, documents a dozen Red or Blue Ensigns, some before and some after 1801, but he found no Union Flags.

26. George Monro Grant, (editor) Picturesque Canada: the country as it was and is. (Toronto: Belden, 1882), 2 vols.

27. See the two articles by Colin Campbell in the 1894 and 1895 issues of the Canadian Almanac.

28. No systematic study seems to have been made of the relative popularity of the Red Ensign and the Union Flag in Canada in the nineteenth century, but casual evidence strongly favours the dominance of the ensign (despite some modern television reenactments to the contrary). The examples sighted in the text are corroborated by the work of William Notman, Canada's most important late Victorian photographer. In the book, Portrait of a Period: a collection of Notman Photographs, 1856 to 1915 (Montréal: McGill, 1967), five red ensigns appear out-of-doors on land before the turn of the century. The only Union Flag appears indoors at an fancy dress skating carnival for the Queen's son, Prince Arthur, and then it appears with dozens of other diverse flags. Not until after the turn of the century do Union Flags began to appear on the flag poles in Notman's pictures.

29. Rauol Roy, Pour un drapeau indépendantiste (Montréal: Les Éditions du Franc-Canada, 1965), p. 44.

30. Cumberland The Story of the Union Jack, p. 225.

31. William Cochrane, The Canadian Album: Men of Canada; or, Success by Example, etc., Vol. 1 (Brantford: Bradley, Garretson, 1891), p. 158.

32. Henry James Morgan, The Canadian Men and Women of the Time (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912), p. 286.

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

34. Charles C. Tansill, Canadian-American Relations, 1875-1911 (Toronto, 1943), pp. 258, 263.

35. Arthur R.M. Lower, Canadians in the Making (Don Mills: Longmans, 1958), p. 348.

36. Arthur R.M. Lower, Colony to Nation (Toronto: Longmans, Green, 1946), p. 401.

37. The Times (London: June 7, 1902), p. 12.

38. The Times (London: September 18, 1902), p. 7.

39. Blair Fraser, The Search For Identity (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1967), p. 236.

40. George F.G. Stanley, The Story of Canada's Flag (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1965), pp. 28-29.

41. John Skirving Ewart, "The Canadian Flag" The Canadian Magazine, 30,1 (1907), pp. 332-35. Reprinted in The Kingdom of Canada and Other Essays (Toronto: Morang, 1907), pp. 65-71.

42. F.C. Wade, The Canadian Flag and Our Schools (Vancouver: self, 1908), 14 pp. This pamphlet is a reprint of letters published in the News-Advertiser in July and August 1908. Wade was objecting to an edict from the B.C. Minister of Education that the Union Flag replace the Canadian Red Ensign on all schools.

43. Joseph Pope, The Flag of Canada (Ottawa: Pope, 1912), p. 12.

44. W.J. Wright, Our Flag: what it means (Brockville: Recorder Printing, 1904), p. 23.

45. Fraser, The Search for Identity, p.236.

46. Pope, The Flag of Canada, p. 16.

47. Jacques Monet, "Governor General," The Canadian Encyclopedia, Vol. 1 (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1985), p. 757.

48. Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty, p. 79.

49. Quotations in the last two paragraphs taken from Matheson, Canada's Flag: A Search for a Country (Boston G.K. Hall, 1980), pp. 172-3.

50. See, for example, The Arms, Flags and Emblems of Canada (Ottawa: Deneau & Minister of Supply & Services, 1978, 1981), p. 105.

51. Wilson, Flags at Sea, p. 34.

52. I.O. Evans, Flags of the World (London: Grosset & Dunlap, 1970), p. 74.

53. Bruce Nicolls, "Merchant Ship Jacks," Flagmaster (Winter 1988).

54. It is a picture of the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps which was composed of blacks from San Francisco who had sought freedom under the British flag. It was taken shortly after 1866. The picture is found in the Public Archives of British Columbia: PABC 23094.

55. The picture shows not only the Merchant Jack but also the Acadian flag and a religious banner. It was taken about 1907 and is in the Collection of Pères Eudistes, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.


This is the chapter on the Royal Union Flag from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.