Forgotten Flags

By Forrest Pass

In 2015, Canadians observed the 50th anniversary of the National Flag of Canada with its iconic red maple leaf. Library and Archives Canada’s collection features materials related to the tumultuous debate that led to the flag’s adoption in 1965. However, our collection also sheds light on the earlier adoption of some lesser-known Canadian flags, also featuring maple leaves. If these flags proposed in 1870 were still in use, we would be marking their 150th anniversary this year.

Paintings of six early flag designs survive in the records of the Privy Council, attached to an 1870 Order-in-Council. Five of these, based on the Union Jack, served as personal flags for the Governor General and the lieutenant governors of the four original provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The sixth, a British Blue Ensign with a Canadian shield, identified federal government ships such as fisheries vessels.

A painting of a blue flag with a Union Jack design in the upper-left-hand corner and a crest in the bottom-right-hand corner. There is handwriting to the right and at the bottom of the flag.

Proposed Blue Ensign, 1870 (e011309109)

The Governor General’s flag features a wreath of maple leaves This was the first use of the maple leaf on an official Canadian flag. Within the wreath is a shield bearing the coats of arms of the first four provinces. This was Canada’s first national coat of arms, designed by the heralds of the College of Arms in London and proclaimed by Queen Victoria in 1868.

A painting of a flag consisting of a Union Jack design with a crest surrounded by a wreath of maple leaves in the middle. There is handwriting to the right and underneath the flag.

Proposed flag for the Governor General, 1870 (e011309110)

The provincial lieutenant governors’ flags feature the newly designed arms of their respective provinces, each within a wreath of maple leaves. The designs for the Ontario and New Brunswick shields survive unchanged to this day, but time itself has altered the Ontario painting slightly. The anonymous artist may have coloured the top portion, or “chief,” of the Ontario shield with real silver paint. This has tarnished over the years, giving it a dark grey hue. Today, most heraldic artists use white paint to represent the heraldic metal “argent” to avoid this change.

A painting of a flag consisting of a Union Jack design with a crest surrounded by a wreath of maple leaves in the middle. There is handwriting to the right and underneath the flag.

Proposed flag for the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, 1870 (e011309113)

A painting of a flag consisting of a Union Jack design with a crest surrounded by a wreath of maple leaves in the middle. There is handwriting to the right and underneath the flag.

Proposed flag for the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, 1870 (e011309111)

The fleurs-de-lis, lion and maple leaves of the Quebec arms represent three periods in the province’s history: the French regime, British colonial rule and the Confederation era. The provincial government still uses these arms today, but it added one more fleur-de-lis and altered the colours slightly in 1939. These changes make a stronger visual allusion to the former royal arms of France.

A painting of a flag consisting of a Union Jack design with a crest surrounded by a wreath of maple leaves in the middle. There is handwriting to the right and underneath the flag.

Proposed flag for the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, 1870 (e011309114)

The arms on the 1870 flag for the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia are different from the provincial coat of arms today and recall a misunderstanding. Today’s Nova Scotia coat of arms dates from Sir William Alexander’s failed attempt to found a Scottish colony in North America in the 1620s. In 1868, the English heralds may not have known about the earlier Scottish design, and they designed an entirely new emblem for the province. The Lieutenant Governor’s flag displayed this new coat of arms, featuring three Scottish thistles and a salmon to honour the province’s fisheries. At the request of the provincial and federal governments, the College of Arms reinstated the original Nova Scotia arms in 1929.

A painting of a flag consisting of a Union Jack design with a crest surrounded by a wreath of maple leaves in the middle. There is handwriting to the right and underneath the flag.

Proposed flag for the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, 1870 (e011309112)

As the choice of emblems suggests, the impetus for these flags came not from within Canada but from Great Britain. In 1869, Queen Victoria authorized the governor of each British colony to use a Union Jack bearing his colony’s emblem as a distinctive personal flag. In Canada, an unknown artist at the Department of Marine and Fisheries painted these illustrations at the request of the federal Cabinet.

Canadians would not have seen these flags very often; initially, they flew on ships at sea only. As late as 1911, the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan decided that he did not need an official flag because his province was landlocked. Over the years, the federal and provincial governments have adopted new, less “colonial” flags for the Governor General and the lieutenant governors. These fly daily on official residences and on other buildings when the Governor General or a lieutenant governor is present. Preserved in the archives, these paintings recall the British origins of some of our national and provincial emblems.


Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

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