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.

Images of Ontario now on Flickr

Ontario is the most populous and second largest province of Canada. It is bordered by Manitoba to the west and Quebec to the east. The landscape is extremely varied, with three distinct regions defining the province: the Hudson’s Bay Lowlands, the Canadian Shield, and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Lowlands. Ontario was populated by First Peoples approximately 10,000 years ago and today’s indigenous communities, such as the Algonquin, Huron and Iroquois, can trace their origins to that time. European explorers arrived in the 17th century and initially conducted basic trade and exploration. After the American Revolution the population increased as an influx of British Loyalists moved northwards. After the War of 1812 another wave of immigration came from Europe.

Black and white photograph of nine women wearing dresses, coats and hats standing in front of a residential building.

Group of African-Canadian women in front of the YWCA boarding house at 698 Ontario Street, Toronto, Ontario (MIKAN 3191591)

Upper Canada was established in 1791 and included what is now known as southern Ontario. In 1837, the Upper Canada Rebellion took place against the British government-appointed administrators and in favour of responsible government. The rebellion was quickly put down, but in 1841 the new Province of Canada was formed. The colony formerly known as Upper Canada became Canada West, while the colony formerly known as Lower Canada became Canada East. In 1848, Canada West was awarded self-government. This power-shift was influenced largely by the continuing population growth of the province, mainly of English-speaking settlers. By the 1850s, Canada West was enjoying considerable economic strength due to the continued influx of immigrants who moved, along with many locally born citizens, to urban centres where industrial jobs were available. During the 1860s, Canada West participated in a series of conferences, along with Canada East, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, to work out the terms of confederation. This led to the establishment of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.

Did you know?

  • Ontario has over 200 reported ethnic languages, and 26% of the population identifies as a visible minority.
  • In 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the permanent location of the nation’s capital.
  • Oliver Mowat, Premier of Ontario from 1872 to 1896, fought for provincial rights and greatly decentralized the power of the federal government over provincial affairs.

Visit the Flickr album now!

The 200th Birthday of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, a Prominent Father of Confederation

Today marks the 200th birthday of one of Canada’s most important historical figures, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, a leading Father of Confederation. Cartier was born on September 6, 1814 in Sainte-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Lower Canada. He studied law and started practising in 1835; however, politics soon became his passion. His entrance into the world of politics was anything but uneventful, as he played a role in the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837 and fought in the Battle of Saint-Denis. Cartier subsequently spent a year in exile in Vermont but pled for leniency and returned to Montreal in 1839.

The Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Baronet

The Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Baronet (MIKAN 3476630)

In 1848 Cartier was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and shortly after was appointed to Cabinet. From 1857 to 1862 he served as co-premier of the Province of Canada with Sir John A. Macdonald following his coalition with the Upper Canadian Conservatives. It was in this period that Macdonald and Cartier started working together and began to garner support for Confederation in an attempt to put an end to political instability.

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier (MIKAN 3213760)

Cartier played a pivotal role in gaining French-Canadian support for Confederation. He argued that francophone interests would be best preserved in a federation of provinces. When Confederation finally came about on July 1, 1867, John A. Macdonald became the first Prime Minister and Cartier the first Minister of Militia and Defence.

Shown among their peers are the Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, the Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Lieutenant-Colonel John G. Irvine

Shown among their peers are the Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, the Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Lieutenant-Colonel John G. Irvine (MIKAN 3192010)

Cartier passed away on May 20, 1873. His death deeply affected his close friend, John A. Macdonald, who proposed that a statue be erected in Cartier’s honour. It was sculpted by Louis-Philippe Hébert and unveiled in 1885. This was the first statue to be placed on Parliament Hill and it can still be seen today. Cartier left his mark on generations of Canadians. The centenary of his birthday in 1914 was marked by large celebrations and another monument was erected, this time in Montreal. Cartier’s Montreal home was designated a National Historic Site.

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier (MIKAN 2837680)

While the majority of Cartier’s papers were destroyed, Library and Archives Canada does have several important records, including a family photo album, postcards, and some correspondence that took place during his period as Minister of Militia and Defence. We also have several letters written by Cartier to Macdonald, found in the Sir John A. Macdonald collection (archived).

To find out more about George-Étienne Cartier and his role in Confederation:

Release of a new version of the Federal Census of 1871 (Ontario Index) database

Library and Archives Canada is pleased to announce the release of a new version of the Federal Census of 1871 (Ontario Index) database. Originally created in 1986 by the Ontario Genealogical Society, this database contains references to heads of households, people with a different surname living in the household and people who had died during the previous twelve months.

This new version includes revised district and sub-district information.