The Canadian Red Ensign
From Confederation on, whenever Canadians sought to distinguish themselves from Britons, they flew a British red ensign with the Canadian shield in the fly (the right-hand half). Red ensigns bearing a shield quartered with the arms of the original four provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario) appeared as early as 1868. As more provinces joined Canada, their emblems were added to the shield. As of 1905, when Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces, the shield could bear
as many as nine provincial badges.
"Could" is the operative word here. There were no rules about the design of the shield or when and where the local flag could be flown and the four-province version was still in wide use into the early 1920s. Apparently, the 4-province ensign flew
on Parliament Hill from 1868 until 1904, when it was summarily replaced with the Union Jack in a bout of post-Boer-War Imperial patriotism. But not until 1892, did the Canadian ensign get a second sign of official approval in the form of a British Admiralty warrant permitting its use on Canadian merchant ships.
Canada’s de facto flag
During the 20th century, the Canadian ensign slowly but surely edged toward official status. Whenever a Canadian flag was needed, it did the job—whether on a World War I recruiting poster or draped over the statue called Canada Mourning at the dramatic unveiling of the Vimy Memorial in 1936. And while the Union Jack remained Canada’s national flag in peace and war, Canadian soldiers are known to have quietly carried their home-grown ensign into battle as early as the Battle of Vimy Ridge. With the 1945 order-in-council that declared the Canadian ensign could be flown from “Federal government buildings within and without Canada,” Canada’s de facto flag appeared to be only steps away from official status.
Instead, the foreign ensign lost out to the native maple leaf. When it was officially lowered on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965, and then the new Maple Leaf was raised for the first time, most people figured the Canadian Red Ensign was gone for good. But in 2008, the federal government decided to fly the ensign at Canada’s World War I memorial at Vimy Ridge because it was the only truly Canadian flag when the war was fought. As a result, the old flag has gained an official status it never earned in the many years it served as Canada’s de facto national flag. (For more on this story, go to Flag News