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Red and Blue Ensigns, Canada

Last modified: 2003-08-16 by phil nelson
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Red and Blue Ensigns

Are there actual records of badges of the Canadian Provinces being used on the Blue Ensign? If there are, what is the earliest date?

I think that this is not specifically covered in Dean's 'Chronology of the Canadian Blue and Red Ensigns', but is more or less assumed to have occurred.

I ask, because on what appears to be a proof sheet of about 1880, for an Admiralty Flag Book that was not published, the following note is next to the illustration of the Canadian shield.

"This badge with the crown is used by the Governor-General, and without the crown, in the fly of all vessels belonging to the Dominion of Canada irrespective of the particular Province to which they belong."
David Prothero - 16 April 1998

FTTAAATW by Whitney Smith shows the following ensigns for the provinces of Canada :

Chris Pinette - 30 June 1998

A couple of observations.

The illustration at the bottom of pages 186/7 in FTTAAATW is full of errors.

It's half of a supplement that was published in a children's magazine and reading the caption at the left of page 186 I feel that Witney Smith used it as an illustration of the fact that, "The compiler of the flag chart at the turn of the century thus felt no hesitancy in devoting half the space for his 'flags of the world' to the red and blue colonial ensigns of Britain's overseas territories." I don't think that he ever intended it to be taken as an accurate representation of any particular flag.

A Blue Ensign defaced with the badge a Canadian Province. Has anyone ever seen such a flag, or a photograph of such a flag, or even a description of an actual Canadian Province Blue Ensign?

I would be very interested if anyone could write that they had.
David Prothero - 2 July 1998

Like you, I have never yet seen photographic or other convincing evidence that there were provincial ensigns (other than pre-Confederation Newfoundland). Of course, absence of evidence doesn't prove anything, and I haven't done a thorough, systematic search.

Some of my reading shows that if provincial ensigns were used, they were not widely known in the Second World War era. In the minutes of the joint committee appointed to design a national flag (1945-6), one of the witnesses stated that it was a common belief in Canada that only Nova Scotia had a provincial flag. (I take this to mean that Nova Scotia began using the current banner of arms when the ancient arms were rediscovered around 1930.) The witness stated that this belief was technically incorrect, and that all the provinces were legally entitled to use banners of their arms as provincial flags--they just chose not to do so. A few members of the committee asked questions in response to this, but none of them--who were from across the country, and who were presumably appointed to the committee because of their interest in things like flags--asked a question like "What about the New Brunswick blue ensign? Isn't that the provincial flag?" So this seems to indicate that provincial ensigns were little known in the decades preceding 1945.

However, I still have an open mind on this issue--I'm not convinced eitherway.
Dean Tiegs - 2 July 1998

There is a "book" being developed on the Internet at which discusses Canadian flags. The author is Alistair B. Fraser. At present, only the text exists. The only blue ensign he discusses is the Newfoundland one but no description. He notes, as did Mr. Tiegs, the fact that there was not a movement to develop flags until this century within Canada.

For New Brunswick, he notes the coat of arms on the Canadian Blue Ensign as early as 1870.

Additional note, in his discussion of British Columbia, Mr. Fraser notes that the Canadian colonies were granted the right to place their badges on a blue ensign in 1865 and that a Vancouver Island resident did so but there is no evidence that this was widely accepted.

From his work in progress, it appears that Canadian Provincial flags were relatively rare until this century.
Phil Nelson - 3 July 1998

Chronology of the Canadian Red Ensign

Here's a chronology of the Canadian Red Ensign. Additions and corrections are welcome.

01 July 1867 Dominion of Canada formed by confederation of the province of Canada (which becomes Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.

26 May 1868 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 silver (or gold?) with a wavy blue horizontal bar charged with a silver salmon, with two thistles above and one below.

15 July 1870 Creation of Manitoba from part of the North-West Territories.

02 August 1870 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) were 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 Red Ensign. Until 1921, 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.

20 July 1871 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.

01 July 1873 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.

1874 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.

02 February 1892 British Admiralty approves the flag "to be used on board vessels registered in the Dominion." I suspect there was no design specified for the shield to appear on the flag. Widespread use of the flag on land continued, even on the Parliament buildings.

16 September 1896 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."

1904 Because of strong patriotism for the Empire during the Boer War, the Union Jack replaces the Canadian Red Ensign on the Parliament buildings.

10 May 1905 A royal warrant grants arms to Manitoba in their present form.

30 May 1905 A royal warrant grants arms to Prince Edward Island in their present form.

01 September 1905 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 Red Ensign.

31 March 1906 A royal warrant grants arms to British Columbia in their present form (avoiding the sun ever setting on the British Empire).

25 August 1906 A royal warrant grants arms to Saskatchewan in their present form.

30 May 1907 A royal warrant grants arms to Alberta in their present form.

21 November 1921 A royal proclamation grants royal arms to Canada in their present form. These arms replace the provincial symbols on the Canadian Red Ensign, and it finally settles into an official design.

1924 A Canadian order in council allows the Canadian Red Ensign to be displayed abroad on Canadian government buildings.

05 September 1945 A Canadian order in council allows the Canadian Red Ensign to be used on federal buildings inside Canada until a national flag for Canada is designed. The Canadian Red Ensign returns to the Parliament buildings.

1957 The approved artistic interpretation of Canada's arms changes the maple leaves on the Canadian Red Ensign from green to red.

15 February 1965 The Maple Leaf is proclaimed. The Canadian Red Ensign goes out of official use.
Dean Tiegs, 09 September 1997

In Canada's Flag - a Search for a Country there is a fascinating quote from Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson's address to Canadian Parliament urging the adoption of a new flag. It (the quote) gives a remarkably clear chronology of the Canadian flag as a national (state) flag. This book answers several of the questions brought up some months ago as to status, dates, and people who ordered changes. The address (quoted below) starts near the bottom of the page at: The meat of the dates begins on the following page at:

Note that this addresses the "state" flag only. Not the Canadian Blue Ensign, or the Canadian Red Ensign as a merchant flag. Also not the recurrent unofficial use of the Red Ensign as a land flag, which are both mentioned elsewhere in the thesis.

It says that "The Red Ensign was first authorized in 1892 for use on Canadian ships by the British admiralty...It was ...used on Government buildings at the beginning of the century, but, because of the lack of formal adoption as a national flag, it was withdrawn by the Minister of Public Works from such use in 1908. In an effort to clear up subsequent uncertainty as to what was the Canadian flag, even for government buildings, the colonial secretary in London stated in 1912 that the Union Jack was the national flag of Canada. And so it remained for many years, all through World War I, when the Union Jack was the flag of the Canadian forces under which Canadians served and under which many Canadians died. The Red Ensign, though many of my correspondents do not seem to appreciate this, was not used during World War I in anyway, shape or form for the Canadian forces. It was not until January 26, 1924, that an Order in Council was passed authorizing the Red Ensign to be flown for limited use over all Government buildings abroad, and that became essential because we were building up a diplomatic service and for obvious reasons we had to have some flag to fly over Canadian Embassies that was not the Union Jack. And so the situation remained until towards the end of World War II when in 1944, by Order in Council, the Red Ensign was authorized to be flown by our forces overseas. Then, on September 5, 1945, was passed that Order in Council to which reference has already been made more than once, decreeing that, until such time as action is taken by Parliment for the formal adoption of a national flag, the Red Ensign may be flown wherever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag.

That is the authority given in 1945, not by Parliament but by Order in Council, by which the Red Ensign has been flying as a Canadian flag."

Therefore, the Red Ensign became official for all purposes on September 5, 1945, by decree - on a temporary basis. The text of this order is also in the document. This was fascinating reading of the political evolution of the Canadian arms and flag, and I want to thank the person (Dean?) who passed it along.
Kevin McNamara - 13 March 1999

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

Canada used both the red and blue ensigns for different purposes. Both were in use untill 1965. Blue was originally for government vessels and later for the Royal Canadian navy jack. The earlier red ensigns were "unofficial" on land - including the ones flown over parliament buildings. For dates, and other information consult what I feel is the definitive work on Canadian flags at This is a book instead of a "normal" web site.
Kevin McNamara - 19 October 1998