5 Fascinating Facts About the History of the Canadian Flag, From the Crusades to the Nation’s Capital
The Canadian flag, seen here set against the Rocky Mountains of Banff National Park, may seem like a simple design. But the enduring symbol of Canada owes its origins in part to centuries-old Crusades, a Canadian military college and years of fierce national debate. Photo: GettyImages / oversnap
Call the Canadian flag the Maple Leaf, l’Unifolié or simply Big Red (okay, no one calls it that), but every Feb. 15 since 1965 Canadians from coast to coast to coast have commemorated the inauguration of our current national banner with Flag Day.
“Over the decades, the Maple Leaf has been a symbol in Canadian art, medals, badges, and coats of arms. It has travelled to the highest peaks on Mount Everest, into space with the first Canadian astronaut, and around the world on the arms of Canadian Armed Forces members.,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement on Flag Day 2021, adding that it symbolizes “our rich history and a promise of the bright future we are building together.”
But the story of how Canada’s flag came to be — and some of the more quirky tidbits about it — is a fascinating one. For example, our national colours have their roots in 11th-century Crusades, while the flag itself boasts physical characteristics that set it apart from every other national flag on Earth. So to commemorate Flag Day this year, we’ve rounded up five fascinating things you should know about the Canadian flag.
From the Crusades to Canada?
In 1921, Canada gained its Coat of Arms via proclamation by King George V — grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II — and with it, our national colours: red and white. As the government of Canada notes, the origins of those national colours actually date back to the 11th century and the First Crusade, when Norman crusaders wore red crosses on their clothes. And in later Crusades, France and England traditionally used the colours red and white respectively. It’s ironic, then, that Canada — largely a peacekeeping country — received the colours of its flag based on those used by France and England during crusades.
A Flag Is Born
Before adopting the Canadian flag we know today, Canada’s flew the Red Ensign.
But by the mid-1920s, Canadians began itching for a new flag. Years of debate and design submissions ensued, with the issue moving in and out of the public consciousness until 1963, when Prime Minister Lester Pearson formed a committee to decide on a new flag. What became known as the Great Canadian Flag Debate ensued over the course of the next year, with thousands of possible designs submitted for consideration. They included Pearson’s favourite, a blue and white flag with three red maple leaves dubbed “the Pearson Pennant.”
Ultimately, a simple red and white flag based on that of Canada’s Royal Military College was chosen. It was designed by Dr. George Stanley, a former soldier, historian and professor at the Military College.
Dr. Stanley had previously sent a memorandum to Canadian politician John Matheson — who was a member of the flag committee — stating that “if the flag is to be a unifying symbol,” it should “avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are divisive in nature,” offering examples like the Union Jack and Fleur de Lys, which could upset the population of either English or French Canada. He added that, by contrast, the maple leaf was the “traditional heraldic device or emblem of Canada,” having been used in both world wars and by Canadian Olympic teams. “It appears to have universal acceptance both in and outside Canada as a distinctive Canadian emblem.”
Thus, on Feb. 15, 1965, Canada’s new national flag was raised for the first time. And it’s been flying ever since.
Interestingly, in a 2015 interview, Library and Archives Canada archivist Glenn Wright was asked about some of the rejected Canadian flag designs. He noted, “They range from … maple leaves and beavers all the way to hockey players and all kinds of strange things.”
The Canadian flag has very specific dimensions — it’s exactly twice as long as it is wide. That makes it unique, as no other national flag in the world shares those measurements.
Meanwhile, the largest Canadian flag ever created is believed to be one created to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 and displayed in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. According to Kelowna Now, “The flag measures at 140 by 70 metres, making up a total area of 9,900 square metres, which reflects the total area of Canada at a scale of 1 to 1,000,000.” Its creator, Zhen Zhong Li, told the publication, “This flag reflects Canada’s inclusiveness, diversity and generosity.”
According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Canada also holds the world record for creating the smallest national flag. “Measuring 0.697 square micrometres,” the Guinness website notes, “[it] was achieved by the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Ontario, as measured on 6 September 2016.”
It’s So Pretty
Canadians tend to be a humble folk, but we like to flex every now and then. For example, the government of Canada’s website notes, “Vexillologists [flag experts] often cite the National Flag of Canada as one of the world’s most beautiful based on its compelling design and measured use of colour.”
It also points out that we’re the only country to use a maple leaf on our flag.
Want a Free Flag? Get in Line
Here’s a cool perk of being Canadian that you might not know about — as a citizen, you can request to own one of the Canadian flags that has actually flown on the Peace Tower in Ottawa as well as other buildings on Parliament Hill.
The good news: the flags are completely free!
The bad news: The wait-list, according to the Canadian government, “exceeds 100 years.” But it’ll still make a great gift for whichever one of your descendants gets to claim it! To apply for a Canadian flag, click here.
A version of this story was originally published in Feb. 2021.
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