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Canada - the Red Ensign (flag before 1965)

Last modified: 2000-05-24 by phil nelson
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[Flag of Canada before 1965]

See also:

The Red Ensign

Chronology of the Canadian Blue and Red Ensigns

original by Dean Tiegs - 1997-12-21, some additions inserted at appropriate places.


An admiralty letter to the Colonial Office required colonial warships to 'wear a Union Jack in the usual place, and the White Ensign, with either the Arms of the Colony, or such other distinguishing mark as may be chosen by the Colony, and approved by the Colonial Office and the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty'.
D. Prothero - 1997-12-22


A distinctive Blue Ensign for the province of Canada is authorized by the U.K. secretary of state for the colonies. I have no idea what its badge looked like. Presumably this Blue Ensign was worn by government-owned vessels.


Colonial Office Circular notifying revised Admiralty requirements for flags for colonial warships and for other colonial government vessels and requesting correct drawings of seals or badges to be adopted as distinguishing marks.
D. Prothero - 1997-12-22


Admiralty Circular No. 4,S - any vessel provided and used under section 3 of the Colonial Defence Act 1865 to wear 'the Blue Ensign, with the Seal or Badge of the Colony in the Fly thereof, and a Blue Pendant' - other vessels 'belonging to, or permanently in the service of the Colonies, but not commissioned as Vessels of War...shall wear a similar Blue Ensign, but not the Pendant' - no specific mention of colonial Jacks.
D. Prothero - 1997-12-22


Dominion of Canada formed by confederation of the provinces of Canada (which is divided into Ontario and Quebec on this date), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Presumably the new Dominion adopted the 1865 Blue Ensign of the old province of Canada.


A royal warrant grants arms to the four provinces and creates the Great Seal of Canada, which is the four provincial arms quarterly.
Though the Great Seal looked like a coat of arms, it technically was not.
The Canadian Red Ensign was probably created shortly after this (without formal authority) and flown over Parliament, but I have no date for this.
The Nova Scotia arms did not look like the current ones. They were gold with a wavy blue horizontal bar charged with a silver salmon, with two thistles above and one below. The Quebec arms were not quite the same as what is commonly claimed to be the Quebec arms today (the arms have never officially been changed): the top division was gold with two blue fleurs-de-lis instead of blue with three gold fleurs-de-lis.


The badge on the Blue Ensign is officially changed to the Great Seal.


Transfer of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory (uniting as the North-West Territories) to Canada and the creation of Manitoba from part of Rupert's Land.


The design of Manitoba's seal finalized: similar to the present arms, but without the rock, with a crown on the cross, and with the buffalo portrayed charging. The Manitoba symbol (and those of the later provinces) was never officially added to the Great Seal. However, this made little difference, since the Red Ensign was an unofficial flag anyway. Most flag makers usually added the symbol to the Blue and Red Ensigns. Until 1922, there were many variations in displaying the shield on the flag: sometimes a white disk was behind the shield, sometimes there was wreath of maple leaves or a wreath of roses, thistles, and shamrocks, and sometimes the shield was topped by a beaver or crown.

I was able to buy two old Canadian Red Ensigns from and antique dealer a few weeks back. The second one has five crests under a crown and surrounded by two branches of different plants :

  • top row: Ontario and I think Saskatchewan (green wheat over gold lion on red over three green leaves)
  • bottom row: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and a wild bison for Manitoba I guess.

Don Wheeler - 15 February 1998

The second quarter is probably intended to be Quebec, but it should have two blue fleurs-de-lis, not green wheat sheaves. The flag would date from the early 1870s.
Dean Tiegs - 15 February 1998


Confederation of British Columbia. B.C. initially used an unofficial symbol: the royal crest (a crowned lion standing on a crown) with the motto "splendor sine occasu." Sometimes this was flanked by laurel or laurel and oak, and sometimes the letters B and C were to the left and right.


Confederation of Prince Edward Island. It continued to use the seal design it had used since 1769. Very similar to the present coat of arms, except that the motto "parva sub ingenti" was an integral part of the design and the chief with lion was missing.

The Prince Edward Island badge according to Admiralty and Colonial Office papers, was not approved for use on a flag until 1878. There was a design, with a slightly off-centre crown between the two trees, that made it into print, but probably not into cloth. There was also a suggestion that the garland on the Lt.Govs. version of the flag, should be rose leaves with pink roses, but that was rejected.
D Prothero - 1997-12-31


First request to the British Admiralty for official permission for merchant vessels to wear the Canadian Red Ensign. The request is accepted at first (?) but rejected in 1875.


The British Admiralty approves the Canadian Red Ensign "to be used on board vessels registered in the Dominion." Widespread use of the flag on land continued, even on the Parliament buildings. I suspect there was no design specified for the shield to appear on the flag, but if there was it was probably the 1868 four-province design. Most flag makers continued making the flag with symbols for all the provinces.


British Columbia adopts a new seal: the vertical reversal of the current arms, but without the ancient crown on the Union Jack. One thing the designers didn't realize was that it could be interpreted as "the sun setting on the British Empire."


Because of strong patriotism for the Empire during the Boer War, the Union Jack replaces the Canadian Red Ensign on the Parliament buildings.


A royal warrant grants arms to Manitoba in their present form.


A royal warrant grants arms to Prince Edward Island in their present form.


Creation of Saskatchewan and Alberta from part of the North-West Territories. Though created on the same date, protocol dictated that Saskatchewan symbols occupy a position superior to Alberta's on the Canadian Ensigns. In practice, the official order of precedence was often not followed in its entirety.


A royal warrant grants arms to British Columbia in their present form (avoiding the sun ever setting on the British Empire).


A royal warrant grants arms to Saskatchewan in their present form.


A royal warrant grants arms to Alberta in their present form. I have seen two photographs containing a symbol that, by process of elimination, must have been for Alberta, but completely unlike the Alberta arms. Unfortunately, the photos weren't good enough for me to discern any details. The symbol may have been a preliminary proposal for the Alberta arms that was ultimately rejected.

I was able to buy two old Canadian Red Ensigns from and antique dealer a few weeks back. The first one has the Union Flag in the canton and nine provincial crests under a crown and then surrounded by maple leaves (10 on each side) and a beaver at their junction at the bottom. The nine are:

  • row 1 : Ontario, Quebec, one with a fish and three thistles (Nova Scotia ?)
  • row 2 : New Brunswick, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island
  • row 3 : Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba.

Don Wheeler - 15 February 1998

I would date this between 1907 (when Alberta was granted arms) and 1921 (when the royal arms of the Dominion were proclaimed, replacing the multiprovince shield).
Dean Tiegs - 15 February 1998


Establishment of the Royal Canadian Navy, which used the White Ensign (without any distinctive mark) as ensign and the Canadian Blue Ensign as jack.


Although the RCN was established in 1909, the use of the White Ensign was not authorised until, provisionally, 1911-03-03, and confirmed 1911-12-16. This also confirmed the use of a White Pendant.
D. Prothero - 1997-12-22


A royal proclamation grants royal arms to Canada in their present form. Officially, the shield on the ensigns remained the 1868 shield for a few months, but I suspect flag makers started to make the switch right away.


A Canadian order in council officially replaces 1868 shield on the Blue and Red Ensigns with the 1921 shield.


[Canada - 1924]

A Canadian order in council allows the Canadian Red Ensign to be displayed abroad on Canadian government buildings--the first official use of the Red Ensign on land.


The Royal Canadian Air Force orders that "The Canadian Red Ensign with a shield of the Coat-of-Arms of Canada in the fly is to be flown in addition to the R.C.A.F. Ensign, at all units of the R.C.A.F. serving with forces of other nations."

A query - what was the "RCAF Ensign" you refer to? Was it the same as the British RAF Ensign or was it a local variation? I thought that the RCAF didn't start uisng a modified roundel with a red maple leaf until after the war.

It was similar to the RAF Ensign, but with the Canadian roundel instead of the U.K. one, i.e., a red maple leaf replaced the red dot. I don't know exactly when it was adopted, but it was in use for at least part of the Second World War. I was watching a documentary on TV last night, and there was some footage of an RCAF ace giving a speech. Several RCAF Ensigns could be seen around the auditorium. I think the footage was from 1943.
I'm also not sure when the RCAF Ensign went out of use. Was the present Air Command Flag used by the RCAF between the time the new National Flag was proclaimed (1965) and the time when the RCAF was unified into the Canadian Armed Forces (1968)? The Air Command Flag is like the RCAF Ensign, but with the Maple Leaf flag replacing the Union Jack.
Dean Tiegs - 1997-12-21


The Canadian Army orders that "The Canadian Red Ensign with the Shield of the Coat of Arms of Canada in the fly is to be flown at all units of the Canadian Army serving with forces of other nations."


A Canadian order in council allows the Canadian Red Ensign to be used on federal buildings inside and outside Canada until a national flag for Canada is designed. The Canadian Red Ensign returns to the Parliament buildings.


[Canada - Coat of Arms 1957]
by Timothy Boronczyk - 1998-05-18

The maple leaves at the base of the Canadian royal arms change from green to red. The 1921 proclamation specified that the leaves be "proper," i.e., in their natural colour, but this was ambiguous because maple leaves can be green, yellow, or red. Artists had previously drawn them green, but on this date the secretary of state announced that they should henceforth be red.


A royal proclamation establishes the National Flag of Canada, the current maple leaf flag. The Canadian Red and Blue Ensigns and RCN use of White Ensign go out of official use.
Dean Tiegs - 1997-12-21

The Blue Ensign

I just got a set of silk cigarette cards and one of them depicted a Blue Canadian Ensign which is the same as the previous Canadian flag except that the field is blue. I know that cigarette card designers are notoriously capricious in their imagination but was there really a Canadian Blue Ensign?
Thomas W Koh - 20 January 1997

I remember looking in an encyclopedia in 1963 (I happen to remember what grade I was in school at the time which is how I can remember the year) that showed both the Canadian Red and Blue Ensigns. Although I have no source to confirm this, I suspect that the Blue Ensign would have been used on certain government operated ships.
R Nathan Bliss - 20 January 1997

H. Gresham Carr's Flags of the World, 1961, says "The Blue Ensign is charged with the shield in the fly." and "however, the aforesaid Blue Ensign is worn 'as a Jack' for distinguishing purposes when at anchor, or under way and dressed with masthead flags.".
Thus, the government ships used the Canadian Blue Ensign has it says, as a jack. Now, that about merchant ships in service of the government? Did they use the red or blue ensign with shield?
Steve Stringfellow - 21 January 1997

In Smith's *Flags Through the Ages and Across the World* he has a turn-of-the-century chart (pp. 186-187) showing the flags and ensigns of British colonies, dominions, etc. That of the Dominion of Canada *is* a Blue Ensign. The chart shows Red Ensigns for Ontario, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island; and Blue Ensigns for Quebec, New Brunswick, British Columbia and Newfoundland. So I guess at some point in Canada's history a Blue Ensign *was* used.
Tom Gregg - 20 January 1997

[All refs Carr, _Flags of the World_ 1961]
In 1866, the British Admiralty issued a Circular requiring all colonial warships commissioned under the terms of the Colonial Defence Act 1865 to wear a Blue Ensign defaced with the "Seal or Badge" of the colony [p.66]. It further required civilian vessels in Colonial government service to likewise wear a defaced Blue Ensign [p.66]. An amendment to the _Queen's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions_ in 1868 required government vessels generally (i.e. within the UK too) to wear a Blue Ensign defaced with the badge of the department [pp.66-7].
However, defaced Red Ensigns for merchant ships had to be authorised by Admiralty Warrant [p.52], a practice regulated by the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 [p.53].
In the case of Canada, we can therefore assume that it would have had some sort of defaced Blue Ensign for government vessels from sometime after its foundation in 1867, but the earliest reference Carr gives to a distinctive badge was the grant of a right to a distinctive Red Ensign by Admiralty Warrant in 1892 - the badge being the original Canadian arms: a quartering of the arms of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec [p.74]. Carr does not give any date for the Canadian Blue Ensign, although he does record one, but I would venture to suggest that one must have been adopted sometime between 1869 (when the arms were granted) and 1892. The arms of Canada were changed to nearly their present pattern in 1921 and the flag badge amended accordingly. In 1924 the Canadian government declared that the Canadian Red Ensign should represent Canada abroad [p.74] - presumably up to that point, strictly speaking the Union Jack should have been used (somehow I doubt it was!). And it was adopted as Canada's National Flag for all purposes in 1945 [p.74].
We see a similar process in Australia, culminating in the Blue Ensign being adopted officially as the National Flag in 1953-4 [p.70]. Now, quite why it was that Asutralia (and New Zealand for that matter) ended up adopting their Blue Ensigns as National Flags, but Canada its Red, I don't know. As a purely personal speculation, maybe the Canadian government prefered to keep the Blue Ensign for purely official use, but the Australian and new Zealand governments weren't so fussy? As an aside, before South Africa adopted the modified "Van Riebeck" flag in 1927, I believe it was the Red Ensign that was usually used in lieu of a national flag, rather then the Blue.
Roy Stilling - 20 January 1997

While looking through a 1950s edition of *Jane's Fighting Ships*, I came across the information that it was the Royal Canadian Navy jack back when H.M. Canadian ships were still flying the White Ensign. *JFS* said that it was also used as the government ensign.
Tom Gregg - 9 February 1997

In "W. J. Gordon, Flags of the World ; Past and Present ; their History and Associations, London, 1924." they described a *Canadian Red ensign* that I had never seen (illustration also). It had a combination of the first arms of the first four provinces : Ontarion, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
This was described as the Canadian Arms... Anybody know something about this?
It was said that Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa's Merchant Vessels were authorized to use such a red ensign with their Arms.
They say that other colonies are only authorized to use plain Blue and Red ensigns, but then the give the above-mentionned list of colonies (Quebec, Bermuda...) that can fly a blue or red ensign with their badges...
Confusing? I know, I read it.
Can someone help me clear this up? Roy Stilling? David Prothero? Queen Elizabeth II? ;-)
Luc-Vartan Baronian - 28 February 1997

This should be the flag described under 1868-05-26 above - ed.

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