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.

Maritime voices: Alistair MacLeod

By Leah Rae

About 360 kilometres from downtown Halifax, on the west coast of Cape Breton Island, lies the tiny community of Dunvegan. Too small to be a town, Dunvegan is a fork in the road located between Inverness and Margaree Harbour. It was here, in a small, hand-built shed overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (with Prince Edward Island in the distance) that writer Alistair MacLeod spent his summer vacations. It was in this shed that he wrote some of the greatest short stories in the English language and his one and only novel No Great Mischief.

A handwritten first page of The Boat.

Front page of the manuscript for The Boat by Alistair MacLeod. © Estate of Alistair MacLeod (e011213687)

Like many “Capers” before him, MacLeod spent his youth working as a miner and a logger. He used his income to pay for his education, earning both his undergraduate degree and teaching degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. MacLeod spent his career as an English and creative writing professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario. Between the demands of being a full-time professor and a father to six children, he found it challenging to find time for his writing during the school year. However, during his summer vacations, he and his family returned to the family home in Dunvegan (named for Dun Bheagan on the Isle of Skye in Scotland) where he had the opportunity to focus on his writing. MacLeod’s work examines the daily struggles of the people of Cape Breton Island. What gives MacLeod’s writing its power and its majesty is its lyricism: MacLeod often read his work out loud as a way to perfect the cadence of each line. He was a slow and methodical writer, carefully considering every word. Although he produced a very small body of work in his lifetime, the quality of that work is outstanding.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is lucky to be the repository for the Alistair MacLeod fonds. In the early 2000s, LAC acquired about 4.5 metres of material (both textual and graphic) created by MacLeod in Ontario and in Nova Scotia. The material spans his career as both a writer and a teacher. The fonds includes manuscripts, correspondence, essays, thesis notes, clippings, photos of MacLeod and more.

A black-and-white photograph of a man sitting at a rough desk with paper and pen in hand.

Alistair MacLeod working in his writing shed in Dunvegan, Nova Scotia. © Chuck Clark (e011213686)

Looking at MacLeod’s original manuscripts gives us a fascinating glimpse into his process as a writer. He was known in the Canadian literary community as a perfectionist, and you can see this is true in his manuscripts. The first draft of his short story The Boat is handwritten in an examination booklet from Notre Dame University (where MacLeod earned his PhD). If we look at the published version of the first paragraph of that story—perhaps one of the most beautiful paragraphs in English literature—it is nearly identical to the author’s draft version.

MacLeod continued the practice of handwriting his work throughout his career (a practice perhaps perceived by many writers today as very old fashioned!) He also wrote part of his manuscript for his novel No Great Mischief by hand. It is quite a special thing to see a work of this calibre written in long hand rather than as typewritten words on a page that we are so used to seeing nowadays. It gives you a very personal sense of MacLeod working diligently away during his few precious hours of free time, overlooking the beautiful cliffs of Cape Breton and the sea below.


Leah Rae is an archivist based in Halifax in the Regional Services and ATIP Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Images of Nova Scotia now on Flickr

Nova Scotia is one of three Maritime provinces in Canada, with New Brunswick to the northwest and Prince Edward Island to the north across the Northumberland Strait. The Mi’kmaq are the dominant First Nations group in the area, with ancestral roots tracing back 10,000 years.

Interactions between First Nations groups and French settlers early during the fur trade were positive overall, and Nova Scotia in time became part of the area called Acadia. Yet, over the course of the 18th century, Britain gained control of all of France’s possessions in North America and renamed these colonies. After the American Civil War, the migration of Loyalists northward drove up the British colonial population, as settlers with grants claimed the land and pushed the Mi’kmaq to the margins of their territory.

Black and white photo of two women and a man standing on the edge of a dirt road near the coast looking at the ocean

Tourists with Mike Sullivan’s Bus take in the view at Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia (MIKAN 3265746)

Nova Scotia was awarded responsible government in 1848, ahead of the other British colonies, and took part in the road to Confederation. It became one of the first Canadian provinces in 1867 under pro-Confederation leader Charles Tupper. However, many Nova Scotians were largely against it, voting for an anti-Confederation government in the following provincial election.

Did you know?

  • Nova Scotia is Latin for “New Scotland,” named for its first Scottish settlers during the British colonial period.
  • Nova Scotia was home to the largest free Black settlement in North America, inhabited by Black Loyalists who migrated north after the American Revolution.

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Portia White: In honour of the 75th anniversary of her Toronto debut

By Joseph Trivers        

Throughout the 20th century, great operatic singers have populated Canada’s cultural landscape—from Raoul Jobin, Maureen Forrester and Jon Vickers to Gerald Finley and Measha Brueggergosman. Their lives are often as dramatic and inspiring as the roles they play on stage in an opera. The life of Portia White, Nova Scotian contralto, was no exception. Praised for her radiantly beautiful and consistently even tone as well as her regal and dignified stage presence, White was the first African-Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim. November 7, 2016, marks the 75th anniversary of her triumphant national debut in Toronto and gives us a welcome opportunity to reflect on her life, accomplishments and career.

“I really made my debut here [in Toronto] when I sang in November, 1941. It was my fourth professional engagement, but it was my first big city. The next day I received a contract. I always feel it was Toronto which discovered me.” – Portia White

White’s remarks about her debut in Toronto might give the impression that her success came quickly. However, the path to that 1941 concert, and the contract that followed, was marked by years of hard work, some good fortune, and plenty of support from her family and the people and governments of Halifax and Nova Scotia.

Early life and education

It seemed as if Portia was destined for a career in the performing arts and to have a strong and determined character. She was given the name Portia after the heroine of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice by a family friend. In the play, the character Portia achieves her goal of marrying the suitor of her choice through intelligence, grace and quiet determination. Whether or not such a name foreshadowed these same traits in Portia White, her upbringing certainly encouraged them.

Her parents were themselves remarkable people. Her father, the Reverend William A. White, was the son of freed slaves from Virginia, only the second African-Canadian admitted to Acadia University and the first to receive a doctorate in Divinity from Acadia. He also served as the only black chaplain in the British Army in World War I. Portia’s mother, who was descended from Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, gave Portia her first music lessons. The family moved from Truro, Nova Scotia, to Halifax after Portia’s father returned from the First World War and became the pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.

The family’s life was centred around the church, so it is no surprise that much of Portia’s early musical life and education began there. She began singing in the church choir under her mother’s direction. She later took teacher training at Dalhousie and became a teacher in black Nova Scotia communities such as Africville and Lucasville. The work helped to pay for her music lessons. Throughout the 1930s, she took lessons from Bertha Cruikshanks at the Halifax Conservatory of Music. A scholarship enabled White to study with the Italian teacher Ernesto Vinci at the Conservatory in 1939. It was Vinci who began to have her train and sing as a contralto.

Toronto and beyond

Portia White first gained recognition and acclaim in Nova Scotia by performing in local festivals and benefit concerts and by singing on her father’s weekly radio program. She won the Helen Kennedy Silver cup at the Halifax Music Festival in 1935, 1937 and 1938. Further opportunities beckoned when Edith Read, principal at Branksome Hall, a private girls’ school in Toronto, heard her singing. Read was originally from Nova Scotia and was on vacation from Toronto at the time. It was through the support of the Branksome Ladies Club that White came to sing at Eaton Hall in Toronto on November 7, 1941.

The Toronto concert was such a success that White was immediately offered a contract by a branch of Oxford University Press for concerts and a touring career. She resigned from her teaching job to devote more time to her music. In 1942 and 1943 she toured across Canada, which helped boost her Canadian reputation, eventually giving a command performance for the Governor General. White eventually gave her first performance in the United States at New York City’s The Town Hall, in March 1944, to wide acclaim. She moved to New York to be closer to her managers, and was supported financially by the governments of Halifax and Nova Scotia through the Nova Scotia Talent Trust. It marked the first time two different levels of government came together to support an artist’s career. White signed with Columbia Concerts Incorporated and went on to tour Canada, parts of the United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Later career and legacy

Concert life was hectic, and White eventually began to feel she didn’t rest enough between concerts and travelling. She started experiencing difficulties with her voice, and some critics began complaining of flaws in her voice. This, and disagreements with her managers, led White to retire from public performance. She settled in Toronto, where she took further singing lessons at the Royal Conservatory with the soprano Gina Cigna. She also taught singing privately and at Branksome Hall. White did perform again, throughout the 1950s and 60s, but not very often. One such notable concert was for Queen Elizabeth on October 6, 1964, at the Charlottetown Confederation Centre of the Arts in Prince Edward Island. Less than four years later, in February 1968, White passed away in Toronto after a battle with cancer.

As an artist, Portia White was renowned for her versatility and varied repertoire. She was equally at home singing spirituals as she was singing arias from Italian operas, German Lied or French mélodies. No commercial recordings of White were made during her lifetime; however, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) acquired audio recordings, from the White family, of concerts she gave in Moncton, New Brunswick, and New York City. Some commercial recordings were released posthumously, including the album Think on Me from 1968, two songs on the Analekta label’s Great Voices of Canada (Volume 5), and the album First You Dream (1999), all of which are in LAC’s collection. A documentary, Portia White: Think on Me, was directed by Sylvia Hamilton and released in 1999. White’s legacy continues to live on in the trust fund that was created in her name. Each year the Nova Scotia Talent Trust presents the Portia White Scholarship to a young person showing “exceptional potential as a vocalist.” The Government of Canada named Portia White a person of historical significance 1995 and honoured her with a millennial stamp issued in 1999.

A colour stamp featuring, in the foreground, a young woman singing and, in the background, a close-up of the woman’s face with her eyes closed. A musical score with notes and lyrics appears faintly in the bottom half of the stamp.

Portia White: Irrepressible Talent [philatelic record], 46-cent Canadian millennial stamp (MIKAN 2266861)


Joseph Trivers is Music Acquisitions Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

69 Days as Prime Minister: The Legacy of Sir Charles Tupper

By Mariam Lafrenie

“[Tupper’s chief characteristic] was courage; courage which no obstacle could down, […] courage which battered and hammered, perhaps not always judiciously, but always effectively; courage which never admitted defeat and which in the midst of overwhelming disaster ever maintained the proud carriage of unconquerable defiance.” – Sir Wilfrid Laurier, House of Commons Speech (1916)

What is rarely noted about the Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Tupper is his short term in Office. To date, Tupper’s prime ministership is still the shortest in Canadian history, lasting from May 1, 1896 to July 8, 1896. Despite his brief stint as prime minister, Tupper is remembered for his role as a Father of Confederation and for his vast contributions as a statesman, a great orator and a nation builder.

Newspaper clipping showing a sketch of a man.

Daily Province clipping about Sir Charles Tupper (MIKAN 125260)

Sir Charles Tupper entered into the public sphere during the 1855 Cumberland County election, where he defeated the popular candidate, the Hon. Joseph Howe. It was this election which set Tupper’s 40-year political career on course to achieve such feats as Confederation, the signing of the Fisheries Treaty, and many ministerial appointments including, but not limited to, the Minister of Railways and Canals, the Minister of Finance, and the Prime Minister of Canada.

Poster with text outlining Sir Charles Tupper’s election platform for the Cumberland County election in Nova Scotia

Election campaign poster for Sir Charles Tupper’s run in the 1855 Cumberland County election (MIKAN 3822971)

As Premier of Nova Scotia from 1864 to1867, Tupper actively engaged with his province and always kept the needs of Nova Scotians central to his actions and policies. This is true of his resolution of the Nova Scotia School Question, in which he fought to establish a free public school system so as to make education more accessible and consistent across the province.

Image of old document tied with a string on the left side. In the middle of the page there is a typewritten title “A bill, Entitled, An Act for the better encouragement of Education” and the page is covered with handwritten marks.

An act for the better encouragement of Education (MIKAN 3823196)

While acting as Premier of Nova Scotia, Tupper also sought to unify the provinces of British North America. He attended all three of the Confederation Conferences: the first held in Charlottetown (September 1864); the second held in Quebec City (October 1864); and the third held in London, England (December 1866 – March 1867). Without Tupper’s steady leadership and consistent debunking of the Hon. Joseph Howe’s anti-confederation rhetoric, Nova Scotia would not have been one of the four founding provinces of the Dominion of Canada.

Black and white photograph of a middle-aged man wearing a suit and standing next to a table.

Hon. Charles Tupper, M.P. (Cumberland, N.S.), April 1870, Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada (MIKAN 3497149)

To Britons and Canadians alike, Tupper has been remembered as patriotic, loyal and first and lastly, as a Nova Scotian. Beyond his sixty-nine days as prime minister, Tupper’s legacy focuses on his unwavering dedication to a united Canada.

Newspaper clipping showing a sketch of a man.

Veteran statesman who has passed away in 1915 (MIKAN 125260)

Related Resources


Mariam Lafrenie is an undergraduate student summer research fellow from Queen’s University working in the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada

Census of 1861 now available online

Library and Archives Canada is pleased to announce that the Census of 1861 is now available online. Information was collected for people living in Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Canadians can search this new database by nominal information, such as the surname, given name(s) and age of an individual, as well as by geographical information such as district and sub-district names.

Release of a new version of the Census of 1851 database

Library and Archives Canada is pleased to announce the release of a new version of the Census of 1851 database.

The 1851 Census marked the second collection of statistics for the Province of Canada (consisting of Canada West and Canada East). Information was also collected for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

In addition to searching by geographical information such as province, district, and sub-district, users can now also search by nominal information such as name, given name(s) and age of an individual.