Saturday, July 2, 2022

Canada's own symbol of excellence and diversity is now a hate symbol

In reaction to the latest news that the federal government may consider the historic Red Ensign a hate symbol, perhaps it is time to examine the historical context of that flag.

There has been confusion over the years about the status of the Red Ensign and what exactly it meant to Canadians. As a Dominion of the British Empire, Canada's national flag was the Union Flag (more commonly known as the Union Jack).

Even after Canada gained autonomy over its foreign policy with the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the Union Flag continued to be the official state flag. From almost the time of Confederation in 1867, the Red Ensign was also used as an unofficial national flag. It bore the Union Flag in the upper corner, with the shields of the individual provinces in the field, all on a royal scarlet background. The shield changed over time as new provinces joined Confederation. 

In 1921, the shield was changed to the Canadian coat of arms, which represented the nations which had founded Canada - England, Scotland, Ireland, and France, with a sprig of Canadian maple leaves. 

In June 1944, red ensign flags were distributed to military forces in the United Kingdom preparing for the invasion of France. For the first time in history, an entire Canadian Army was to be activated as a field command in a theatre of war. When First Canadian Army headquarters was activated in Normandy shortly after D-Day, the red ensign was flown overhead. 

The ensign was changed to its final form in 1957 by some minor aesthetic changes. The maple leaves became red, an official colour of Canada, and the imagery of a woman with bare breasts depicted on the Irish harp was removed. 

In 1965, Canada adopted the current red and white maple leaf flag as a distinct representation of Canada's sovereignty. 

The Red Ensign comes down for the last time at Fort Henry, West Germany, by Canadian soldiers on 15 February 1965, in favour of the new red and white maple leaf flag.
The Red Ensign comes down for the last time at Fort Henry, West Germany, by Canadian soldiers on 15 February 1965, in favour of the new red and white maple leaf flag.

While the red ensign had not been an official national flag, its use, particularly in military settings, had been emblematic of Canadian patriotism. Just as Canadian soldiers in both world wars had adopted maple-leaf badges and CANADA shoulder titles to display their national pride, the red ensign too had become a symbol of Canadian unity as early as the battle of Vimy Ridge when the flag was proudly displayed after the successful capture of the feature. 

More recently the flag has become a symbol of controversy as ideologues on the far reaches of both the progressive and conservative side of Canada's political spectrum have sought to co-opt the symbol for their own purposes. The flag itself however should best be remembered as a symbol of pride by a nation growing out of its dependence on its mother country. Canadian feats of arms such as Hill 70, Amiens, Ortona and the landings on Juno Beach were propelled by brave soldiers believing that Canadians were a unique people from a special country. Thirsty for their own identity, the red ensign symbolized the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice of men and women from diverse backgrounds that went into making a country. 

 If any criticism can be applied to the Red Ensign, it is that it under-tells the true story of Canadian diversity, overlooking the part that the First Nations and immigrants from China, Europe and around the world played in forging an independent, world-class nation. Today the red and white maple leaf flag symbolizes all of that, and so much more. But it would be wrong to forget what the red ensign meant to those who looked to it as their own powerful symbol of independence and Canadian excellence.

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