Ottawa·Hidden Treasures

Forgotten flags a rare peek at what might have been

Deep inside Library and Archives Canada's (LAC) massive preservation facility in Gatineau lie what must be among the country's finest examples of the road not taken. Except these are the flags not flown.

Dozens of designs run up the flagpole in hunt for national emblem, but only 3 remain

This is what the Canadian flag could have looked like


3 years ago
Archivist Michael Dufresne shows off designs that could have been chosen for the Canadian flag. 1:32

This is the final instalment of our series Hidden Treasures, where we delved into the storage rooms of museums across the National Capital Region to find out what weird and wonderful things they have tucked away there. You can see them all by clicking on the links in the story below.

Deep inside Library and Archives Canada's (LAC) massive preservation facility in Gatineau lie what must be among the country's finest examples of the road not taken.

Except these are the flags not flown.

Locked away in one of the 48 vaults housing the documents and artifacts that tell Canada's story are three mock-ups of alternatives to the now-famous red maple leaf.

Our bold national emblem was the work of a House of Commons committee tasked in 1964 with finding Canada a new flag, a promise made by former prime minister Lester Pearson during the previous year's election campaign.  

Dozens of mock-ups hung from the walls and rafters of the committee room where MPs debated the design of Canada's flag in 1964. It's not known why only three flags remain in Library and Archives Canada's collection. (Cliff Buckman/Queen's University Archives)

Archivist Michael Dufresne said LAC knew it had records of the committee's deliberations, but didn't realize it also had mock-ups of some of the unsuccessful designs.  

"We were looking for textual documents ... and we opened up the box and found that there were full-scale mock-ups of some of the contenders for the national flag," Dufresne said. 

Pictures of the committee room from the time show dozens of mock-ups hanging from walls and rafters, but the archives hold just three. Dufresne said he doesn't know why these alone were preserved.

This version of the flag features three maple leaves on a single stem, a symbol from Canada's coat of arms.

The first surviving design is similar to our flag, but has blue bars instead of red. It's similar to Pearson's favourite, dubbed "Pearson's pennant," but his featured three maple leaves at its centre.

The second design shows three maple leaves on a field of blue, while the final mock-up resembles the Union Jack without its diagonal bars, and adds white stars and a green maple leaf.

In addition to the full-scale flags, the archives hold thousands of submissions from ordinary Canadians, mostly on paper.

"I think when [Canadians] see those designs, they wonder what the designers were thinking about when they made those designs, and what kind of nation they were trying to represent," Dufresne said.

This design featured elements of the Union Jack, but added white stars and a green maple leaf. (Ryan Tumilty/CBC)

Many of the documents, photographs and other records from the time are currently on display.

"It's our nation's memory, and without it there is no contemplation about what we are about," Dufresne said.