The Great Flag Debate

By Nichole Fernández Editor

On a cold and historic day in February 1964 the iconic red and white maple leaf flag was raised for the first time ending what would later be referred to as the “The Great Canadian Flag Debate”. Chances are you have never heard of the great flag debate, even though it was once the subject of a controversial and heated international dispute.  It is also likely that you never gave much thought to the origins of the Canadian flag. But don’t worry you are in good company. For as impassioned and contentious the proposal for a new national Canadian flag was back in the 1960s, today even many Canadians have forgotten both the old flag and the dramatic events surrounding its replacement[1].

What is now one of the world’s most iconic national flags, the beloved Canadian maple leaf, was born of an emotive, bitter national debate. The dispute, which spanned a number of decades, began with in 1963 with a proposal from the liberal minority leader, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.[2] The original Canadian flag was of British legacy: the Red Ensign. The old flag was seen by many to incorrectly associate the entire nation of Canada, and its citizens, with the imperialist British empire. The new flag was intended to create a symbol of Canada which removed past associations and looked towards the future to a new unified Canadian nation.[3] The red color of the new flag was taken from the old imperial flag, the maple leaf was an already cherished symbol of Canada, and its intentional simplicity created an easily adoptable image[4]. Regardless of the fact that almost all those involved in the decision making and design of the new flag were of British Canadian decent, this new flag was intended to represent the diverse nation that is Canada.[5]

Canadian Red Ensign 1957-1965 (above). Canadian Maple Leaf 1965-present (below).

Canadian Red Ensign 1957-1965 (above). Canadian Maple Leaf 1965-present (below).

Often overlooked and rarely given the credit deserved, flags play a large role in the daily imagining of the national community. Flags are part of everyday life and create what has been called banal nationalism.[6] Flags help to construct national belonging by continuously reinforcing the nation and connecting the banal to a larger national community. In general, national flags today function as national symbols which are imbued with meaning. The flag’s meaning comes from what it represents: the nation, or the nation as an ideal type.

On the international stage a flag is essential to every modern nation, creating an image which brings legitimacy to the nation on a global scale. Nationalism itself is ingrained in internationalism, where nations are often only understood as meaningful when in contrast to each other.[7] Flags, being involved in the creation of an overall national image are used in this internationalism of identity.  This process of national image promotion often comes in the form of nation branding[8].

Nation branding is the process of creating a national image to be exported internationally. This image promotion of the country creates a positive global association that is intended to not only to increase foreign investment, international trade, and tourism, but also to capitalise on this association so it reverberates back to the nation, forming a sense of national pride and belonging[9]. Nation branding can be seen as a positive force, promoting what makes a country unique, helping it to stand out internationally. The dramatic rise in nation branding worldwide is a testament not only to its success but also its current necessity.

But nation branding is a tricky subject that, in my opinion, has many drawbacks. While the country is presented as unique it is also simultaneously normalized. Some key aspects of the country are highlighted but, simultaneously, the country is positioned as being standard, safe, and stable: normalizing what makes the country valuable in monetary terms.[10] This homogenization of value makes diversity problematic and creates view of the nation which cannot be maintained. Nation branding is a narrow simplification of what a nation is, privatizing national identity, and turning identity into a commodity.[11] By making identity a commodity you only highlight aspects of the nation which are marketable and controllable. Nations and corporations are not the same and should not be run in the same way. Brands may work for corporations that can control the product image through constant regulation, supervision, and authoritarian control. However, in a democratic system of government creating a consistent and controllable national image should not be a “desirable national goal”.[12]

The debate over the Canadian flag falls into this category. The dispute was typified by a quest to identify one simplified national symbol to be exported as a global representation of the nation. The Canadian maple leaf was intended to create an image of a modern nation no longer tied to Britain but ready to create its own distinct national brand. It was meant to be inclusive of all Canadians and representative of their future. At the flag’s inauguration the Prime Minister stated:

"Under this Flag may our youth find new inspiration for the loyalty to Canada; for patriotism based not on any mean or narrow nationalism, but on the deep and equal pride that all Canadians will feel for every part of this good land. God bless our Flag! And God bless Canada!"[13]

Today Canada is seen as a country which has successfully implemented multicultural policies and is represented by a cultural mosaic that allows and even expects newcomers to celebrate their diversity.[14] However, when talking about the national flag, it has been argued that the new flag has created an international image that does not actually represent national and ethnic minorities.[15] This has lead to separate branding in the province of Quebec. Consistently the Quebec flag is photoshopped over the Canadian maple leaf on photographs used in tourism advertisements and international promotion.[16]

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Canada is not alone in its struggle to settle on a unifying national symbol. Many other countries have struggled over the issues of national flags - Bosnia and Herzegovina’s current flag was chosen and imposed by the UN International High Representative because no agreement within the country could be made[17]. In a similar vain to the Canadian case, New Zealand is scheduled to vote on a new flag in 2016, claiming that the current flag of imperial heritage does not represent the indigenous population and the diversity of the nation.[18] While New Zealand has a very successful international image association driven by their advertising slogan “100% pure”, their flag is inconsistent with the brand they are promoting.[19] Many people also confuse the flag of New Zealand with the Australian flag, so much so that in 1985 when the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke visited Ottawa, the capital of Canada, they accidentally raised the New Zealand flag instead[20]. But just as the Canadian debate, New Zealand’s search for a new flag is not without controversy.

The Great Canadian Flag Debate is evidence of the importance flags continue to have in modern times. But it also demonstrates the difficulty associated with finding an image which reflects and promotes an entire nation. Flags play a large role in our daily lives and they continue to function as promoters of the nation in a growing transnational world. While flags and nation branding lend increasing legitimacy to the nation, the flag teaches the same myth that all nation branding sells, that there is a succinct unchanging identity of the nation that can be easily represented by symbols and images. How easily the Canadian flag became accepted internationally and the haste with which the debate was forgotten is a testament not to the design of the flag, but to how dangerously easy top down national brands are to consume.


[1] Champion, C. P. 2006. “A Very British Coup: Canadianism, Quebec, and Ethnicity in the Flag Debate, 1964-1965.” Journal of Canadian Studies. 40 (3): 68-99

[2] http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP16CH1PA2LE.html

[3] 2006. Feb/Mar. “Feb. 15, 1965: The Canadian flag is raised for the first time”. Beaver. 86 (1).

[4] ibid

[5] Champion, C. P. 2006

[6] Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. London: Sage

[7] ibid

[8] Aronczyk, Melissa. 2013. Branding the Nation: The business of national identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] Jansen, Sue Curry. 2008. “Designer nations: Neo-liberal nation branding – Brand Estonia”. Social Identities. 14(1): 121-142.

[12] Ibid: 122

[13] Quoted in 2006. Feb/Mar. “Feb. 15, 1965: The Canadian flag is raised for the first time”. Beaver. Vol. 86, Issue 1.

[14] Kymlicka, Will, 1998, Finding our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reitz, Jeffery G. and Breton, Raymond, 1994, The Illusion of Difference: Realities of Ethnicity in Canada and the United States, Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute.

[15] Champion, C. P. 2006. “A Very British Coup: Canadianism, Quebec, and Ethnicity in the Flag Debate, 1964-1965.” Journal of Canadian Studies. 40 (3): 68-99

[16] Aronczyk, Melissa. 2013. Branding the Nation: The business of national identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[17] Kolstø, Pa ̊l. 2006. “National symbols as signs of unity and division”. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 29(4): 676-701

[18] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29812549

[19] Bell, Claudia. 2008. “100% PURE New Zealand: Branding for back-packers”. Journal of vacation marketing. 14(4):345.