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The Canadian Red Ensign was the flag of Canada until 1965, when it was replaced by the current Maple Leaf flag. It is a British red ensign, featuring the UK's flag in the canton, adorned with the shield of the coat of arms of Canada.

Dominion of Canada
The Canadian Red Ensign that was in use from 1957 until 1965
Names"Canadian Red Ensign", "Red Ensign"
UseNational flag
Adopted1957 (earlier versions from 1868 and 1921)
DesignA red field, featuring the British flag in the canton, defaced with the shield portion of the coat of arms of Canada.



The ensign is the Red Ensign of the United Kingdom, embellished with the Arms of Canada as a shield in the bottom right quarter. The shield is divided into four quarters, consisting of the coats of arms of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Kingdom of France, the four founding nations of Canada. The first three quarters are the same as the Arms of the United Kingdom. At the base is a sprig of three maple leaves representing Canada. The leaves are described as proper, that is, the correct colour; it uses red and gold, the colour of the leaves in autumn, whereas earlier versions used green.[1]


Canadian Red Ensign (1921–1957)
First version of the Canadian Red Ensign in use from 1868–1921. The emblem in the field varied greatly through the time period, depending on provincial membership in the Confederation and the whims of flag manufacturers

The Red Ensign bearing some sort of a Canadian emblem was used by Canadians both on land and at sea beginning as early as 1868 (soon after Confederation) on an informal or extra-legal basis. As Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald "constantly made use of it", promoting it "by precept and example."[2] throughout Canada. An 1891 memo from the Governor General, Lord Stanley, stated: "the Dominion Government has encouraged by precept and example the use on all public buildings throughout the provinces of the Red Ensign with the Canadian badge on the 'Fly.'"[3] In 1892, it was authorized by Admiralty Warrant for use on ships registered in Canada and this was enshrined in the Canada Shipping Act of 1934, yet the flag had no legal status on land (Canada's "official" flag was the Royal Union Flag until 1946). Despite its lack of any official status on land, the Red Ensign with Canadian arms was widely used on land, and flew over the Parliament Buildings until 1904 when it was replaced by the Union Flag. Various versions of the Red Ensign continued to be flown on land and the flag featured prominently in patriotic displays and recruiting efforts during the First World War. It can be seen in numerous photographs of Canadian troops, on the prime minister's car, and in victory parades.

Memorial Stained Glass window, Class of 1934, Royal Military College of Canada showing Canadian Red Ensign

The original Canadian Red Ensign had the arms of the four founding provinces on its shield. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, flag manufacturers would often supplement this design with wreaths of laurel and oak leaves and crowns. The design was frequently placed on a white background square, circle or roughly following the outline of the arms in the flag's fly (right hand side assuming the flagpole to be on the left). There was no standard design for the Red Ensign until the early 1920s. In 1921, the Government of Canada asked King George V to order a new coat of arms for Canada. The College of Arms thus designed a suitable coat of arms of Canada. The new shield was displayed on the Red Ensign, thus producing a new version of the Canadian Red Ensign in 1922. In 1924, the Red Ensign was approved for use on Canadian government buildings outside Canada. The Canadian Red Ensign, through history, tradition and custom was finally formalized on 5 September 1945, when the Governor General of Canada signed an Order-in-Council (P.C. 5888) which stated that "The Red Ensign with the Shield of the Coat of arms in the fly (to be referred to as "The Canadian Red Ensign") may be flown from buildings owned or occupied by the Canadian federal Government within or without Canada shall be appropriate to fly as a distinctive Canadian flag." The flag was thus approved for use by government buildings inside Canada as well, and once again flew over Parliament.

The Red Ensign served until 1965 when it was replaced by today's Maple Leaf flag. The flag bore various forms of the shield from the Canadian coat of arms in its fly during the period of its use. From 1921 until 1957, the Canadian Red Ensign was virtually the same, except that the leaves in the coat of arms were green, and there was a slight alteration to the Irish harp (the earlier version having a woman's bust as part of the harp). A blue ensign, also bearing the shield of the Canadian coat of arms, was the jack flown by the Royal Canadian Navy and the ensign of other ships owned by the Canadian government until 1965. From 1865 until Canadian Confederation in 1867, the United Province of Canada could also have used a blue ensign, but there is little evidence such a flag was ever used. In Otto Reinhold Jacobi's painting of the new Parliament Buildings in 1866, a Red Ensign flies from the tower of the East Block.

Vimy Ridge Red EnsignEdit

From left to right: the Flag of France, the Maple Leaf Canadian flag, and the Canadian Red Ensign fly at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France

The Red Ensign carried by the 5th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Western Cavalry) at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 survives to this day, and is possibly the oldest Canadian flag in existence.[4] The battle was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together during the First World War, and is viewed as a pivotal event in the history of Canadian national identity.[5][6]

The Red Ensign flown at Vimy Ridge in 1917 had the arms of Canada's first four provinces. In the Royal Warrant of 1868 assigning arms to the first four provinces of Canada, Queen Victoria authorized them to be quartered for use on the Great Seal of Canada and thus de facto they became the arms for Canada until 1921.[7] After the battle, the flag was donated to the Imperial War Museum in the United Kingdom by Lieutenant Colonel Lorn Paulet Owen Tudor of the 5th Battalion, an Englishman who had emigrated to Canada before the war.[8][4]

The Imperial War Museum refused requests over the years to repatriate the Vimy Ridge Red Ensign to Canada, including a request in 2000 to acquire the flag for the ceremonies surrounding the dedication of Canada's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. David Penn, Keeper of Exhibits and Firearms at the Imperial War Museum, called the flag "our most important First World War Commonwealth artifact".[4][9]

Eventually, after months of negotiations involving the Royal Canadian Legion, the Imperial War Museum agreed to lend the flag to Canada to commemorate the opening of the new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in 2005. The flag was returned to the United Kingdom in 2008.[8][4][9]

There is another Red Ensign in existence that was reportedly carried by Canadian troops at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, currently held by the Penticton Museum and Archives in Penticton, British Columbia. It is a simple red ensign, without a coat of arms.[8][4]


Before the design of the Red Ensign was standardized in 1921, flag makers made the badge larger each time a new province joined Confederation. This led to the creation of several unofficial but widely used flags.

At the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympic Games, a variant of the 1921–1957 red ensign with the arms inside a white disc was carried by Canadian Olympian and flag bearer James Worrall. However the normal version of the red ensign without the disc was hoisted alongside the other national flags that surrounded the perimeter of the stadium.[10]

Some of the variations are shown below.

In artEdit

Otto Reinhold Jacobi included a red ensign flying from the East Block in his 1866 painting of the Parliament Buildings.

Provincial red ensignsEdit

Today, two Canadian provincial flags are Red Ensigns, the flag of Ontario and the flag of Manitoba, both of which were introduced in 1965–66 after the Canadian Red Ensign was replaced by the Maple Leaf flag. The Liberal government of Lester Pearson promised to introduce a new flag to replace the Red Ensign, as a means of promoting national unity and a new Canadian identity, by replacing what was seen as a symbol of the British Empire and colonialism, with one that would be more inclusive of Canadians who are not of British descent, particularly French-Canadians. In 1965, after the Great Flag Debate in Parliament and throughout the country as a whole, the Maple Leaf flag was adopted. Groups such as the Royal Canadian Legion and others who had sympathies with maintaining Canada's links to the UK opposed the new flag as they saw it as a means of loosening that connection. The leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, John Diefenbaker, was especially passionate in his defence of the Red Ensign. In protest of the federal government's decision, Progressive Conservative governments in Ontario and Manitoba adopted red ensigns as their provincial flags in 1965 and 1966 respectively.

Usage todayEdit

The 1921-spec ensign being flown in Northern Ontario

The Canadian Red Ensign continues to be flown both in official and unofficial capacities today; it is part of the official colour party (together with the Maple Leaf) of the Royal Canadian Legion, and is flown alongside the Maple Leaf Flag at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. It is also used at numerous other Canadian war memorials and historical sites which were built during or commemorate a period when the Red Ensign was Canada's flag.

Use by far-right groupsEdit

In recent years, the 1921 Canadian Red Ensign has also been used by some fringe communities, including far right or white supremacist groups, who have co-opted the flag as a symbol to harken back to a predominantly British, a monoculturally Canadian, or an ethnically White Canada. It has been used by the Aryan Guard, and by the founder of the Canadian Nazi Party, in addition to being promoted by white nationalist leader Paul Fromm who has dubbed it "the flag of the true Canada, the European Canada before the treasonous European replacement schemes brought in by the 1965 immigration policies".[12] The five members of the Proud Boys who disrupted an indigenous protest on Canada Day in July 2017 carried the flag with them.[12][13]

The flag's appropriation by white supremacists has produced an outcry from several groups, including the Royal Canadian Legion, the Canadian Centre for the Great War, as well as the editor of the history journal The Dorchester Review, who have expressed the view that "trivializing, or treating as a kind of talisman of defiance, a flag that has a much more venerable and mainstream role" is not right and "flies in the face of what the Red Ensign means".[12]

Canadian Blue EnsignEdit

The Canadian Blue Ensign is similar to the Red Ensign. The flag was used as the jack of the Royal Canadian Navy from its inception until the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag in 1965. The Blue Ensign was approved by the British Admiralty in 1868 for use by ships owned by the Canadian government. Carr's Flags of the World says "The Blue Ensign is charged with the shield in the fly", and that the Blue Ensign "is worn 'as a Jack' for distinguishing purposes when at anchor, or under way and dressed with masthead flags".[14]

In 1937, the Canadian Government established that the Canadian Blue Ensign ("the Blue Ensign of the Dominion of Canada") would be used as a special ensign by the several Canadian yacht clubs which had prior to then used the British Blue Ensign (either plain or defaced) as their special ensign. This usage lasted until the 1965 introduction of the Maple Leaf flag. Today, some Canadian yacht clubs use the Canadian Blue Ensign to commemorate this usage.

See Canadian Naval Ensign

Misidentification on Canadian bank notesEdit

During the early 1990s an urban myth developed claiming that the US flag was printed on the 1986 series of Canadian banknotes. The myth stated that the US flag could be seen flown on the Parliament buildings depicted behind Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier on the $5 banknote, Sir John A. Macdonald on the $10 note and William Lyon Mackenzie King on the $50 note. This flag was in fact the Canadian Red Ensign, which was contemporaneous with the three prime ministers, but in such a small size that it could be confused with the US flag.[15]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Arms & Badges - Royal Arms of Canada, A Brief History". Royal Heraldry Society of Canada. Retrieved 10 August 2019.
  2. ^ George Stanley, The Flags of Canada
  3. ^ Despatch No. 311, 12 December 1891, GG's Office, file 290A, Vol. 1, 1865-1937.
  4. ^ a b c d e Wattie, Chris (2002). "Britain finally yields, will lend Vimy Ensign". National Post.
  5. ^ Inglis, Dave (1995). Vimy Ridge: 1917–1992, A Canadian Myth over Seventy Five Years. Burnaby: Simon Fraser University.
  6. ^ Humphries, Mark Osborne (2007). ""Old Wine in New Bottles": A Comparison of British and Canadian Preparations for the Battle of Arras". In Hayes, Geoffrey; Iarocci, Andrew; Bechthold, Mike (eds.). Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 65–85. ISBN 0-88920-508-6.
  7. ^ Bruce M. Hicks (2010). Use of Non-Traditional Evidence: A case study using heraldry to examine competing theories for Canada's Confederation. British Journal of Canadian Studies 43 (1), pp.87-117. ISSN 0269-9222.
  8. ^ a b c "Flag, Red Ensign, Canadian". Imperial War Museums. Archived from the original on 23 May 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  9. ^ a b "Britain loans Canada Red Ensign carried by Canadians at Vimy Ridge". CBC News. 17 July 2002. Archived from the original on 9 November 2012. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  10. ^ "1936 Berlin Olympics Opening Ceremony". YouTube. International Olympic Committee. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  11. ^ "Dominion Day and the "New" Canadian Flag". Barkerville Historic Town & Park. 1 July 2019. Retrieved 2 August 2019.
  12. ^ a b c Hamilton, Graeme (10 July 2017). "Former Canadian flag, the Red Ensign, gets new, darker life as far-right symbol". National Post. Retrieved 12 July 2017.
  13. ^ Kamel, Zachary; Patriquin, Martin; Picazo, Alheli (8 February 2019). "Maxime Bernier's alt-right problem". The Toronto Star. Retrieved 10 June 2019.
  14. ^ Carr, H. Gresham Flags of the World 1961
  15. ^ Mikkelson, David P. (20 February 2007). "Red Ensign Scare". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 31 August 2007.

External linksEdit