This is the chapter entitled, The Yukon and the Northwest Territories, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.


Chap XX:



When the North West Territories (as they were then styled) were transferred to Canada from Great Britain and the Hudson's Bay Company on July 15, 1870, they comprised a vast land extending from 49th parallel to the Arctic Ocean. Since that time, there have been additions: the arctic archipelago from Britain on September 1, 1880; and losses: provinces formed and expanded. Further, an important division occurred, when, on July 13, 1898, the Yukon Territory was calved off.

The flags of the Hudson's Bay Company, particularly its red ensign, continued to be seen in both territories up until comparatively modern times,1 but it was a long time before any indigenous flags came to be used. When they did arise, each territorial flag incorporated the territorial arms, so it is with their arms that the story of the flags begins.

Granted only in 1956, territorial arms are comparatively modern, but their roots go back to the beginning of the twentieth century when Edward M. Chadwick produced designs for both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. His reason for preparing them seems to have been prompted as much by the niceties of heraldic symmetries as it was by any particular desire to equip the territories. At the time there were seven provinces, and, for Chadwick, the joining of seven shields did not provide the same comely composition as did the joining of nine; by inventing the extra shields for the two territories his concerns were assuaged.2

Despite this unpropitious motivation, Chadwick designed effective arms. The Yukon was represented by three snow-covered, and gold-bearing mountains; the Northwest Territories, by a polar bear and four sheaves of wheat. To modern eyes, everything makes good sense, except for the wheat. However, it must be recalled that in 1903, when Chadwick produced his designs, neither Alberta nor Saskatchewan had been created yet; the Northwest Territories still included much of the wheat-producing prairies.

Although Chadwick's informal designs were used by manufacturers of everything from flags to heraldic bric-a-brac, the administrators of the territories, themselves, did not use them, and, as these fanciful arms were unregistered, authorities were not even aware of how they had come about.3 Nevertheless, Chadwick's arms, by been widely seen, attained a certain cachet, and, in the case of the Yukon, strongly influenced the design finally adopted. After several earlier abortive attempts, both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories were granted arms on February 24, 1956.

The Yukon arms, designed by Alan Beddoe, feature the same stylized snow-covered, gold-bearing mountains, but now reduced to two in number. Between the mountains runs the Yukon River. In the place of the Chadwick's lion in the chief, Beddoe made reference to the fur trade by placing the symbol for vair in the centre of St. George's cross. The crest is a malamute dog on a mound of snow.

Also designed by Beddoe, the arms of the Northwest Territories bear the same rich geographic references. Across the top, the pack ice is cut by the Northwest passage in the form of a wavy blue line. Below, the diagonal tree line bounds the tundra, in red, while the wealth of minerals and fur are represented by golden billets and the mask of a white fox.


The Territorial Flags

When the arms were granted, the great decade of the flags had yet to visit the nation. The adoption of territorial flags awaited the same surge of interest that swept the rest of the country in the 1960s. Each territory chose its flag through a contest. The judges were clearly influenced by the recent adoption of a national flag, for, in each case, the flag chosen placed the territorial arms in the centre of what is, or is not far different from, a Canadian pale.

It is interesting to compare responses to the two contests. Held first was the one for the Yukon which, in the centennial year of 1967, offered a $100 prize and received about 100 entries. A year later, the Northwest Territories offered a $1000 first prize, a $300 second price, and a $200 third prize. This brought on a flood of over 3000 entries.

The Yukon contest was won by Lynn Lambert, a student at Haines Junction. His design, a vertical tricolour of green, white, and blue, placed the placed the shield and crest of the arms in the central panel over a garland of fireweed.4 The territorial council had no difficulty in quickly picking Lambert's design. However, reluctant to be precipitous, and apparently sensitive to the Canadian way of choosing a flag, the council proceeded to hold a debate. At the end of the debate, with everyone still in agreement, there was nothing to do but to adopt the flag.

Now came the mistake. The prototype of the flag was sent off to Ottawa to receive the proper heraldic description. However, the expert there felt he could design an even better Yukon flag and so he sent his amended version back Whitehorse-while using the council's flag as packing material. Unamused, the council stuck with its original design.5 However, the damage was done, and, to this day, two versions of the Yukon flag can be found; the correct one adopted by the council, and the wrong one, presumably as offered by the expert.

The difference lies in the relative proportions of the three panels. Narrower than the Canadian pale, with its ratio of panel widths of 1 to 2 to 1, the Yukon pale has a ratio of 1 to 1.5 to 1.6 Yet, many supposedly authoritative publications subject the Yukon pale to an ungainly compression by either describing or illustrating the flag with ratio of 1 to 1 to 1.7 When you see a (supposedly) Yukon flag disporting equal panels, you know that the legacy of the heraldic expert is still overriding the clear choice of the Yukon Territorial Council.

The Northwest Territories avoided this problem by wisely choosing a design which was easily described by the heraldic authorities. The NWT contest was won by Robert Bessant, a teenager from Margaret, Manitoba. His design placed the shield (without crest) on a Canadian pale between two blue panels.8 The flag was adopted by an ordinance of the Territorial Council on January 1, 1969.

Ironically, as good as this flag is, it is not the flag that comes to mind for many people south of the sixtieth parallel. For sheer effectiveness in communicating the idea, Northwest Territories, few things could be better than the territorial government's TravelArctic flag with its three-legged polar bear. It is flown widely within the NWT and is often the favoured flag to accompany delegations to the south. Even though the polar bear from Chadwick's 1903 arms of the Northwest Territories was not preserved on the official arms adopted in 1956, the prescience of his choice is clear in the light of the popular TravelArctic flag.


Special flags

In 1970, the Northwest Territories celebrated its centennial. The logotype of the event, three Inuk dancers, was placed on a flag within a white roundel. As with the centennial flag of the country a few years earlier, a wide variety of background colours were used.

A flag often seen in the territories, but not representative of them alone, is the Arctic Winter Games. Showing three white loops on a blue field, the flag represents the three regions, Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Alaska, which participated in the games when it started in 1970. Since that time, northern Alberta has joined in, but the flag remains unchanged.


Municipal flags

In the Yukon, both the former capital of Dawson, and the present capital of Whitehorse have municipal flags. Each flag shows the influence of the Americans who flooded into the territory in the early years, for, like many State flags, a circular seal is placed in the centre of a coloured field: blue for Whitehorse, yellow for Dawson.

Prior to 1986, four communities in the Northwest Territories had municipal flags: Yellowknife, Pine Point, Fort Smith and Inuvik which is rather remarkable as the territorial population barely exceeds fifty thousand. Even more remarkable is the fact that after 1986 the number of municipal flags jumped to 42.

In anticipation of the forthcoming territorial pavilion at EXPO 86, Michael Moor, Deputy Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs, suggested a display of municipal flags, one advantage of which would be that the newly created flags would outlast the exhibition. It was decided that all the flags would be based on that of the territorial flag (which is in turn based on the national flag). What was need was the motif for the centre of the Canadian pale. These were chosen by the communities and originated from many sources such as civic seals, letter heads, competitions and suggestions. Inkit Graphic Arts of Yellowknife chose the colour of the side panels to harmonize with the symbols.9

In this process, two of the original municipal flags, those of Fort Smith and Inuvik, where adapted to the new pattern. The flag of Yellowknife already had a Canadian pale, while the flag of Pine Point, an incipient ghost town, remained unchanged. Yellowknife places its arms in the middle of the Canadian pale; Pine Point, now gone, featured one of the most popular symbols of the territories, the midnight sun.


This is the chapter entitled, The Yukon and the Northwest Territories, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



1. The use of the Hudson's Bay Red Ensign was discontinued in 1970, except at historic sites. The H.B. Governor's flag replaced it as the company flag, and while it still marks operations in southern Canada, the Bay's northern stores were sold in 1987.

2. Maier, C.R., "The Yukon Coat of Arms" Heraldry in Canada, XVI: 3 (1982), p. 9-13.

3. In the 1950s, the British flag authority blamed the Americans for the unauthorized Yukon arms (see Carr, 1953, p. 53). Similarly, the Canadian heraldic authority, Comdr. Alan Beddoe, speculated that the American armorist, Howard M. Chapin, was the perpetrator of the fanciful NWT arms (see Swan, 1977, p. 224).

4. On the Yukon flag, the green represents the taiga forests, the white, the winter snows, and the blue, the northern waters. The fireweed was adopted as the floral emblem of the Yukon on November 16, 1957.

5. "The Yukon's little great flag debate," Maclean's Reports (September, 1967).

6. The Yukon Flag Ordinance (December 1, 1967) states, "The flag consists of three vertical panels, the centre panel being one and one-half times the width of each of the other two panels."

7. Unbothered by the inconsistencies, the Yukon flag is presented correctly, but described incorrectly in The Arms, Flags and Emblems of Canada, (Deneau and the Secretary of State, 1978, 1981); and is described correctly but illustrated incorrectly in the Canadian Symbols Kit, (Secretary of State, 1987). The Canadian Encyclopedia, gets it wrong in both editions (Hurtig, 1985, 1988).

8. On the flag of the Northwest Territories, the blue panels represent the lakes and waters, and the white, the ice and snow.

9. Croft, James, "Civic Flags of the Northwest Territories," Paper presented at the North American Vexillological Society (NAVA) Congress XXI, in San Francisco, California, (August 1987.)


This is the chapter entitled, The Yukon and the Northwest Territories, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.