On February 15, 1965, at exactly 12 o’clock noon, a brand new flag was raised for the very first time on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Gone was the old Red Ensign (bearing the Union Jack in the top left corner) and in its place was a striking new red and white maple leaf design—a flag with no colonial overtones but one meant to represent all Canadians.
On February 15, 1996—the year that followed a bitter battle over Québec sovereignty that nearly tore the country in half—the government of Canada officially marked this day as National Flag of Canada Day, paying homage to this unifying symbol of Canadian-ness.
With today being the 56th anniversary of our national flag, it is worth looking back on the fascinating history and etiquette behind the familiar symbol of our country.
You mean it wasn’t always our flag?
If you’re Canadian and under the age of 50, you probably take the maple leaf flag for granted and have trouble imagining standing beneath anything else. It therefore comes as a surprise to many younger Canadians that our familiar maple leaf pennant is not only very young, but was also highly controversial at the time.
Ever since the newly minted government of Canada adopted the first of several Red Ensign designs as national flags, there have been various proposals for a less colonial, more authentically Canadian flag. Some of these failed designs can be seen here on the government of Canada website.
The debate over the Canadian flag reached a fever pitch in 1963-64. In 1963 Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson came to power in Ottawa on an official platform of multiculturalism and rapprochement between French and English Canada, and a new flag was a key element of his political platform.
Pearson’s plan was tabled in the House of Commons in mid-1964 and was debated fiercely for six months, with the opposition Progressive Conservatives led by John Diefenbaker favouring retaining the Red Ensign, citing its importance as a symbol of Canada’s military heritage. So ugly was the political debate over the flag that the Toronto Star called it “the Great Flag Farce”.
The bill eventually passed, however, and the Red Ensign was lowered for the last time on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965. The Red Ensign is, however, still recognized as an official symbol of Canada at war memorials and veterans’ events, while modified designs of it are still official as the flags of Manitoba and Ontario.
Why a maple leaf?
The maple tree—and its distinctive leaf—have long been inextricably associated with northern North America. In precolonial times the sugar maple was important to the Algonquian peoples of eastern Canada, who taught European settlers how to tap the trees for our national pancake topping.
Following Canada’s establishment as an independent country in 1867, the maple leaf quickly emerged as a go-to symbol of Canada in books, coins, banners, sports jerseys, and even songs (most famously “The Maple Leaf Forever” written in 1867). It also gained significance as a military symbol during World War I, with the graves of fallen Canadian troops embossed with a single maple leaf during both world wars.
The maple leaf figured prominently in all the proposed designs for the new flag put forward in the 1960s, with the government’s official flag committee eventually opting for the simple, bold design we now know and love today. Today the flag is known in English as the “Maple Leaf” and in French as l’Unifolié, which literally translates to “the mono-leafed one”—perhaps a nod to the differing design proposals, some of which had multiple maple leaves.
Unlike many countries, Canada has no specific laws regarding the proper use of the national flag. That said, Canadian Heritage does produce a document called Flag Etiquette in Canada that outlines suggested guidelines for how to use our national symbol in public.
For example, the guidelines specify that a Canadian flag should always be raised on its own flagpole (not shared with other flags) and should always take precedent over all other flags, except for the Queen of England’s official Canadian flag or those of the federal Governor General or provincial Lieutenant Governors.
When the national flag is raised or lowered, or carried in a parade or military review, everyone present should face the flag, remain silent, and, if wearing one, remove their hats, while those in military uniform should salute. Unlike in the US, it is not customary to put your hand over your heart when standing for the flag. As in many countries, the flag is flown at half-mast as a sign of mourning.
Unlike in the United States, it is not technically illegal to burn or otherwise deface a Canadian flag, but the official flag protocol strongly discourages it. Interestingly, Flag Etiquette in Canada maintains a list of discouraged misuses of the national flag, which include using it as a tablecloth or seat cover, pinning or sewing anything onto the flag, flying it in a discoloured or tattered condition, or flipping it upside down (except as a sign of danger).
For National Flag of Canada Day, the Canadian government has created a web portal for all things maple leaf-related, featuring separate activity kits for kids aged five to 12 and aged 13 and up as well as a social media toolkit.
Happy National Flag of Canada Day!