If we ignore the possibility of early explorations of Canada by
Leif Eriksson, flying some obscure Viking banner, we can safely assume that
Canada's first real flag was flown by the Genoese explorer, John Cabot, in
1497 and 1498, Since he was financed by a British syndicate, England's
banner (St. George's Cross) flew over the new discovery. But just a few decades later, the Breton, Jacques Cartier, arrived bearing the lily banner (Fleur-de-lis) of France. For centuries thereafter, no one could foretell which flag would be the
On the Plains of Abraham, at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, the
issue was settled--for the moment. And in 1763, the British Royal Union flag was
raised over the "colony." While Canada was just an adjunct of the British
Empire, just an overseas appendage, the British flag seemed appropriate. With the addition of St. Patrick's Cross to the Royal Union flag in 1801, the Union Jack then began to fly over Canada and remained the dominant banner of Canada until 1945.
While the Union Jack maintained its presence throughout Canada, many people began to want some national identity in their Canadian flag. In 1945, the Red Ensign, a flag derived from the British sea flag and one which had been widely used since 1868, was unfurled at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.
As far back as 1925, Prime Minister King appointed
a respectable committee to suggest a new national flag. After some spirited
meetings, the committee was dissolved. But the newspapers began suggesting
designs for the flag. In jest, one paper printed a cartoon of a large Stars
and Stripes with a tiny Union Jack in one corner and a fleur-de-lis in the
other, as "the Canadian Flag of the Future." Finally the Houses of
Parliament, by joint resolution, adopted the new flag of Canada, the Maple Leaf, and most Canadians breathed two sighs - one of pride, the other of relief. It seemed
to meet all the needs of an energetic young nation. It was simple and
immediately recognizable, and it was truly Canadian. After studying
thousands of designs, it was decided to present to the world as Canada's
flag a simple design of red, white and red pales with a red maple leaf
prominent in the center simplicity itself.
Interestingly enough, the Union Jack is still an official flag of Canada per an Act of Parliament of December 18, 1964, to "show allegiance to the crown and as a symbol of Canadian membership in the Commonwealth". It is required to be flown at Canadian federal goverment facilities (if sufficient poles are available) on Victoria Day, the anniversary of the Statute of Westminister, and Commonwealth Day. The national flag (maple leaf) takes precedence in all cases except during a royal visit.
A little known fact when considering Canada's flag history is that Spain claimed the west coast of North America by virtue of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). Spanish explorations and landings occured on the west coast of Canada in 1592 and 1774, however, were not consolidated by any settlement. In 1789, fearful of Russian intentions to move down the coast from Alaska, and concerned by British trading activity that followed Cook's visit in 1778, Spain asserted its sovereignty in the region by establishing a fort at Friendly Cove at the entrance to Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The flag of Spain therefore flew over Canada from 1789 until Spain withdrew from Nootka in 1795.
SOURCES: Oscar Brand and Kevin McNamara.