“On this day in 1964, after a bitter dispute that divided the legislature, Canada’s House of Commons approved a design for a new national flag, unifying the country for the first time behind a wholly Canadian flag.
Canada’s first flag was the St. George’s Cross, which Italian explorer John Cabot planted when he reached Newfoundland in 1497. As the French laid claim to parts of Canada, Canadian land bore the French national flag and other French-inspired designs, like the fleur-de-lis and French military flags. From the 1621 British settlement of Nova Scotia until the adoption of the Maple Leaf in 1965, Canada officially used the Royal Union Flag, or Union Jack, the red-white-and-blue crossed flag of the United Kingdom.
However, although it officially used the Union Jack, over the centuries Canadians tried to customise their flag to include Canadian identity, alternately adding a shield, maple leaf, and red ensign. By the 1960s, the demand for an official Canadian flag intensified, culminating in the Great Flag Debate of 1964. On one side was Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who wanted a distinctive and unmistakably Canadian flag free of any foreign symbols, like the Union Jack. Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was passionate about the flag issue, and he led an opposition party that wanted to keep the Canadian Red Ensign, Union Jack, and all. The battle became personal with each side jockeying for political influence over the issue and consuming weeks of time in Parliament with acrimonious debate. Eventually, through a 15-member multi-party parliamentary committee, a new design was unanimously approved. Historian, soldier, and public servant Colonel George Stanley, inspired by the flag of the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, created the new design. On 15 December 1964, the House of Commons passed the design by a majority vote.
The Maple Leaf or L’Unifolie, bears a large, 11-pointed red maple leaf atop a white square bordered by two thick stripes of red. The maple leaf is a symbol celebrating Canada’s abundant forests depicted in red, which in 1921 King George V proclaimed the official color of Canada (along with white), from St. George’s Cross and the French royal emblem. The actual leaf was designed by Jacques Saint-Cyr, and chosen after wind tunnel tests suggested it was the least blurry under high wind conditions.
The Maple Leaf, Canada’s first distinctly Canadian flag, was inaugurated on 15 February 1965, at an official ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Canadians today mark 15 February as National Flag Day of Canada.”
Credit: © Michael Burshtyn / Alamy
Caption: The Maple Leaf, or L’Unifolie, was the first Canadian flag without any foreign design influences.