Although never formally adopted as the national flag, the Canadian version of the Red Ensign (the “Canadian Red Ensign”) represented Canada as a nation in various manners until 1965, when it was replaced by the maple leafbased national flag. It was, in effect, “the de facto Canadian flag,” and was described by the Governor General, Lord Stanley, in 1891, as “the Flag which has come to be considered as the recognized Flag of the Dominion both afloat and ashore.”

An ensign, a generic term for a flag commonly used to indicate the nationality of a ship, is often “a derivative of a national flag and thus subordinate to it.” In the case of the Canadian Red Ensign, it was a derivative of the Red Ensign flown by the British merchant marine, making it, in the words of one historian, “arguably a derivative of a derivative.”

Initial Adoption and Usage

The Red Ensign proper — a red flag with the Royal Union Flag in the upper left corner next to the flagpole (the canton) — had been flown by British merchant ships since 1707. Within colonial Canada, the ensign was used as a sign of Royal authority and variants were flown from the forts and canoes of the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company (bearing the letters HBC) from 1682, and the North West Company (NWCo) from 1779.

The Canadian Red Ensign was authorized for use by Canadian-registered merchant ships by an Admiralty warrant issued on 2 February 1892 and bore the coat of arms issued in 1868 containing the arms of Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia on the half furthest away from the flagpole (the fly).

By 1892, the Ensign had already been used unofficially for at least two decades to represent Canada at sea and on land. Several designs were unofficially produced before and after 1892, including those bearing the coats of arms of all the provinces in Confederation at that time (and not just the original four provinces) or depicting the arms surrounded by a wreath of maple leaves, or maple and oak leaves, surmounted by a beaver, or topped by a crown with a wreath of roses, thistles and shamrocks.

By the early 20th century, however, the Canadian Red Ensign was lowered from atop the Parliament Buildings and replaced by the Union Jack during a period of imperial ascendancy brought on, in part, by the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign and by the South African War.

Many veterans reportedly saw the Canadian Red Ensign being carried by Canadian soldiers during the First World War, even though, officially, Canada fought under the Union Jack. In one example, Lieutenant-Colonel Lorn Tudor, commanding officer of the 5th Canadian Infantry Battalion, carried an ensign, likely in his pack, during several battles in 1917, including the assault on Vimy Ridge. Donated to the Imperial War Museum, this particular ensign was loaned to the Canadian War Museum from 2005 to 2008, before being returned to London.

Development of the Design and Usage

Following the authorization of a distinctive Canadian coat of arms in 1921, an order-in-council was issued on 26 April 1922 authorizing it to be the device placed on the Canadian Red Ensign — making this the second official design of the flag.

On 26 January 1924, another order-in-council authorized the display of the Canadian Red Ensign from “all buildings owned or occupied by the Canadian Government and situated without Canada.” As a result, the Ensign replaced the Canadian Blue Ensign, which had previously flown over the Canadian High Commission in London.

During the Second World War the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) ordered, on 10 November 1943, that the Canadian Red Ensign “be flown in addition to the RCAF Ensign, at all units of the RCAF serving with forces of other nations.” A few months later, on 22 January 1944, the Canadian Army directed that the Ensign be flown by all Canadian Army units when serving “with forces of other nations.”

On 5 September 1945, an order-in-council extended the authorization to use the Ensign on federal government buildings within Canada and abroad. This included lowering the Union Jack from atop the Peace Tower in Ottawa, which had been flying there for over 40 years, and re-raising the Canadian Red Ensign (albeit the new design bearing the 1921 coat of arms) in its place. The same order dictated it would be appropriate to fly the ensign “wherever place or occasion make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag,” a stipulation that was to remain in effect until Parliament adopted a national flag sometime in the future.

On 8 October 1957, the Canadian government made a change to the Canadian coat of arms, altering the colour of the three maple leaves depicted, from green — as introduced in the 1921 arms — to red, in keeping with the national colours (red and white). The new arms were also depicted on the Ensign — its third, and final, official design.

Controversy and Legacy

During the federal election campaign of 1963, Liberal Party leader Lester B. Pearson promised to introduce a distinctive national flag for Canada. The ensuing process, ultimately leading to the design and adoption of the maple leafbased flag, was contentious. On one hand, defenders of the Canadian Red Ensign and its symbolic ties to Great Britain — including Progressive Conservative leader and former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker — argued for its retention, while, on the other, myriad designs were offered as replacements for the Ensign and adoption as a national banner. The result was the maple leafbased national flag and, on 15 February 1965, the Ensign was officially retired, lowered on Parliament Hill and hundreds of locations elsewhere, and replaced by the new flag.

However, the use of the Red Ensign or the Union Jack did not entirely disappear in Canada; the provincial governments of Manitoba and Ontario introduced Red Ensignbased provincial flags for their provinces a few months after the new Canadian flag was raised. British Columbia had already introduced a variant of the Union Jack in its provincial flag in 1960 and Newfoundland and Labrador — which continued to use the Union Jack for the time being — replaced it with a stylized Union Jack as part of the design in 1980.

See also Emblems of Canada; National Flag of Canada.