Kirsten Morry last compared Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel to Disney villains.
Out of all the national flags that could be described as “two coloured stripes surrounding a white section with a plant in the middle,” Canada’s is my favourite (although Lebanon’s is lovely too). Though that sounds like a tepid endorsement, I assure you that my patriotism is no less than is appropriately moderate for a Canadian.
The protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s book Cat’s Eye (Ed. – this is the best book) described the Maple Leaf flag as “looking like a trademark for margarine of the cheaper variety, or an owl-kill in snow.” Yes, Margaret Atwood, Companion of the Order of Canada, wrote that the Canadian flag looks like off-brand oleomargarine packaging. Well, margarine does have an important place in Canadian federalism jurisprudence, so I suppose it could be a compliment of sorts? Please read my forthcoming law journal article, “Hidden Margarine Reference References in Canadian Literature.” As to the “owl-kill in snow,” I suppose the bloody corpse of a mouse on a frozen landscape is, well, a striking image! Good for the owl, anyway, and who doesn’t like owls?
Despite Atwood’s assessment, Canada’s flag is usually acknowledged by vexillophiles (lovers of flags and flag design) to be quite beautiful. It’s simple, bold, and its main symbol is meaningful and original. It has, then, all the key elements of vexillographic quality. The reception of the Maple Leaf upon its adoption in 1965 was initially mixed, though; its predecessor the Red Ensign (pictured below) had represented Canadians during wars, so it had a strong emotional resonance for many, particularly veterans.
Our provincial and territorial flags are largely good too. I actually believe that diplomatic relations between Canada and the United States could be improved if Canadians replaced at least some of their boasts to Americans about our (quite imperfect!) health care system with boasts about our flags. The interaction could go something like this:
American: “Nice to meet you. I’m from Wisconsin.”
Canadian: “Oh, wow! I’ve heard it’s great there. Sorry about your flag though—ugh, ‘seal-on-a-bedsheet’ type AND littered with text, which tends to become a pointlessly unreadable blur in the wind. I’ll be up here in Quebec with my elegant fleurdelisé flag, ranked at number three in the North American Vexillological Association survey.”
Canadian: “Yes, unfortunately American flags suffer from ‘monotonous, improvised, poorly thought-out and executed designs,’ as American vexillophile Peter Orenski so elegantly put it.”
American: Please leave my house
It isn’t just Americans to whom Canadians can feel vexillographically superior (although, let’s be honest, that’s enough to warm any true Canadian’s heart). Apparently, says Orenski, “Australians are fascinated by Canada’s vigorous decision to move away from the Union Jack and to create a national flag of unique beauty and character; and Europeans respect Canadian attachment to the traditional rules of English and French heraldry – simplicity, symbolism, color, distinctness – which, when judiciously applied to flags, produce banners of breathtaking impact.”
There are certainly some repeated themes and symbols—of the thirteen provincial and territorial flags,
- 6 include the shield of the relevant coat of arms,
- 6 feature plants,
- 4 simply are the shield of the coat of arms expanded into the form of a banner,
- 4 include lions,
- 3 include Union Flags (more familiarly known as the Union Jack)
- 3 include wavy lines representing water,
- 2 feature quasi-maps of the province they represent,
- 2 include wolves.
Answers for which go in each category are at the end! But first, read on for the history of and commentary on the flags in some of those categories
When I spoke to some fellow members of the vexillopolis, the community of flag enthusiasts, about the flags of Canada, Noah McCormack said, “Imagine if the Maple Leaf had been rejected and you still had the Red Ensign.” My instant reaction was, naturally, a sense that chaos would reign; wrong-headed tourists would think Ontario’s and Manitoba’s flags represented the whole country.
But upon further research, my response proved ahistorical: Manitoba’s and Ontario’s provincial flags look so much like the Red Ensign (and hence almost exactly like one another) at least partly out of spite and nostalgia. Manitoba had represented itself with the Union Flag for many years, and its provincial government at the time of Canada’s Great Flag Debate was opposed to the adoption of the Maple Leaf. Seeking to support the main opposing contender, the Red Ensign, it ordered that all schools immediately switch to that flag. However, this backfired, as “the move was quickly denounced as not only petty but expensive.” Once the Maple Leaf was officially adopted, though, Manitoba decided to establish an official provincial flag, and purposefully hearkened back to the defeated candidate in its design choice. Ontario’s provincial flag choice was similarly motivated and timed. The Maple Leaf was initially unpopular with the supporters of the government of the day, which then sought to please those voters by choosing a provincial flag like the national flag of bygone days. Both Ontario and Manitoba’s governments maintained that they supported the new national flag, but legislative action speaks louder than words. All the same, their flags are quite pretty, and as Simon Pope put it, “I have enough of a shameless Anglophile streak to like them.”
British Columbia’s flag is the third which currently includes the Union Flag, and it is also one of the group which is a banner form of its coat of arms. The Union Flag is atop the setting sun, which represents its westernmost location. B.C.’s coat of arms, though, did not always have this layout. The setting sun was found in the upper half of the shield. This had to be revised in 1897 before this provincial symbol could gain official status from the English College of Arms: the sun never sets on the British Empire, but the placement of the flag below the sun indecorously conflicted with that axiom.
Newfoundland’s flag does not contain a Union Flag, but its design is meant to include a loose homage to it. The Union Flag tout court was actually the official flag of Newfoundland and Labrador all the way until 1980. Amusingly, one impetus for adopting a more distinct flag was the unwillingness of other provinces to fly the Union Flag to welcome delegations from Newfoundland. Other provinces apparently found it a confusing and inappropriate representation of the newest province. This extraprovincial embarrassment spurred action: a committee began to study the issue and a public debate was sparked. Wistful doggerel found its way into opinion columns: “The Union Jack, with patriotic touch / Is Britain’s which we cannot claim as such.” Ultimately, the new flag was designed by artist Christopher Pratt. Much more abstract and geometric than other provincial flags, it’s a group of variously coloured triangle outlines on a white background. It met with criticism upon its unveiling; the province’s first premier Joey Smallwood called it “the worst Newfy joke yet.” Personally, I’m rather fond of its stark, geometric design, but Simon was less generous to this emblem of our shared province of origin. “I would rather just have an actual Union Jack on the Newfoundland and Labrador flag than a mangled interpretation of it.” The Newfoundland government describes the central horizontal yellow bar as “a gold arrow pointing towards a bright future.” But as Simon put it, “My late grandmother used to call it ‘the streak of weasel piss.’”
Lions and Maps
Nova Scotia’s lion is red and he is rampant on a gold shield; you may recognize this description as the inversion of Alanna of Tortall’s shield. That crest is placed at the middle of a blue saltire (vexillological language for an X shape) on a white field—that is, the inverse of the Scottish flag.
The lions at the top of New Brunswick’s and Prince Edward Island’s flags are indubitably majestic, but both have clearly gone through the stretching machine used to ‘fix’ Mike Teavee at the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. New Brunswick’s lion pays homage both to its namesake, the Duchy of Brunswick, and England, as the gold lion is on the former’s arms twice and on the latter’s arms three times. The boat is in classical heraldic style and represents the shipping and shipbuilding industries.
The Anglophilia of Prince Edward Island’s flag actually doesn’t end with the English heraldic lion—the largest tree on the island represents England, the three saplings represent the counties of the province, and all four are ‘rising from the same foundation,’ since both jurisdictions are islands. A little laboured as metaphors go, but the flag is very pretty.
(Prince Edward Island)
The flag with the fourth lion is Saskatchewan, this one small, red, and perched atop three sheaves of wheat on the crest in the upper corner nearest the flagpole. These last two lion-having flags are also the ones with quasi-maps of the jurisdictions they represent. Prince Edward Island’s highly stylized island is obvious, but Saskatchewan’s map is more subtle: its flag’s top half is green, representing the northern forests of the province, while the yellow colour of the bottom half represents the wheat fields that dominate the southern part of the province.
Looking at the aesthetics, stated symbolism, and history of flags is fun in itself, and adds a different dimension to one’s response when a flag is flying in the breeze. Applying a jaundiced eye to patriotic symbols is extremely amusing: Josh Parsons’ amazing website grading the flags of the world, and Caity Weaver’s brilliant commentary on the 50 state flags are essential reading. But of course, flags always have a meaning beyond the vexillological: what they’re imbued with by the people they represent. (Which may sometimes include a streak of weasel piss.)
Includes the shield of the relevant coat of arms: ON, MB, SK, AB, NWT, YK
Plants: ON, QC, AB, PEI, SK, YK
Simply is the shield of the coat of arms expanded into the form of a banner: NS, NB, BC, PEI
Lions: NB, PEI, SK, NS
Includes Union Flag: ON, MB, BC
Wavy lines representing water: NB, BC, NWT
Quasi-maps of the province they represent: SK, PEI
Wolves: NWT, YK
Kirsten is a student in Montreal from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.