February 15 is National Flag of Canada Day. Overshadowed by the more widespread celebration of Valentine’s Day, this commemoration often goes unnoticed. It deserves attention, though, since it gives us the opportunity to consider Canadian values and their similarity to those of that other day that celebrates with the colour red.

If you, like me, have never been much into vexillology — the study of flags — you may not be aware of the history of our national flag. Skipping over the many flags of the French Regime and of British North America, to instead focus on post-Canadian Confederation flags, there were still several versions that evolved over time. Their basic pattern was the Canadian Red Ensign. This red flag symbolized Unity in several ways (see illustrations here).

Firstly, the Canadian Red Ensign featured the Union Jack of the United Kingdom in the canton: upper left quarter, next to the flagstaff. The Union Jack represents the union of England (which included Wales at that time), Ireland and Scotland through the superposition of England’s red Cross of St. George on Ireland’s red Cross of St. Patrick, on Scotland’s white Cross of St. Andrew on blue ground. 

Secondly, this Canadian flag included the Canadian Coat of Arms in the bottom right quarter. Our Coat of Arms illustrates the union of the provinces and territories and became more complex as more of them entered Confederation. The overall layout of the flag shows Canada as part of the British Empire. However, change was in the wind.

The search for a new, truly Canadian, flag began in 1925. The hunt was still on in 1946 when more than 2600 submissions were examined by a parliamentary committee. With the approach of the centenary of the Confederation of Canada, pressure increased, debate ensued, and finally a decision was made. At noon, on 15 February 1965 our new Canadian flag was raised on Parliament Hill.

The bold graphic design of our flag demonstrates 1960s geometric motifs of clean-lined modernity but draws on historical symbolism. It is based on our two national colours, which were officially assigned by King George V in 1921, and denote the union of French and English Canada. As early as the 11th century, when red crosses were sewn onto the clothes of men marching off on the First Crusade, red and white have identified these two nations. Surprisingly, over the years, England and France alternated which of the two colours designated which country.

Specific elements of the flag are also rooted in history. The precedents for the red-white-red arrangement of our flag can be found in a Canadian military flag and a war medal ribbon. The central component, the maple leaf, is also well established in our history. First Nations people gathered and used the sap of the tree, long before Europeans invaded their land. By the 1830s, societies in Canada were using the maple leaf as an emblem. Its symbolic function was highlighted in 1867 when Alexander Muir wrote a song to mark Confederation: “The Maple Leaf Forever”. The melody functioned as an unofficial national anthem for years, and the lyrics have been revised several times to incorporate more inclusive ethnic references.

Our maple leaf flag has become ingrained in the Canadian identity. When National Flag of Canada Day was proclaimed in 1996, the Prime Minister stated,

“Although simple in design, Canada’s flag well reflects the common values we hold so dear: freedom, peace, respect, justice and tolerance.”

Unfortunately, the Canadian trait of modesty stifles observance of this day, lest we appear too like our flag-waving neighbours to the south. But, February 15th gives us a chance to celebrate those Canadian values, all based on loving each other — so open your heart and raise your flag!

I close with an excerpt from the lyrics of “The Maple Leaf Forever”, which were proclaimed to all humankind at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics:

O, Maple Leaf around the world,
You speak as you rise high above,
Of courage, peace and quiet strength,
Of the Canada that I love.
Long may it wave, and grace our own,
Blue skies and stormy weather,
Within my heart, above my home,
The Maple Leaf forever!

This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.