The heraldic description of the national flag of Canada is as follows: “gules on a Canadian pale argent a maple leaf of the first.” In more common language this translates into: “a red flag of the proportions two by length and one by width, containing in its centre a white square the width of the flag bearing a single red maple leaf.” So reads the formal flag proclamation of February 15, 1965, which resides in the permanent collection of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.
However, what is popularly known as the maple leaf flag, or simply the Maple Leaf, was the result of an intense, behind-the-scenes design process. When the basic design was chosen by the Flag Committee appointed by the House of Commons, the exact shape of the maple leaf and the precise colour of red were yet to be settled on. The final result was superb. How we got there is a fascinating sidelight on Canadian flag history.
Designing the Maple Leaf
A quick look at Alan Beddoe’s draft design for the Flag Committee reveals a quite different leaf from the one we know.
The most obvious difference is the number of points. Beddoe’s maple leaf has thirteen the official version has eleven. (In nature the leaf has twenty-six points.) The more you look, the more differences you’ll find. Many of them are subtle, but together add up to design magic: a highly simplified, stylized sugar maple leaf that somehow manages to look almost alive. It’s quite an achievement.
Jacques St-Cyr, the man who came up with the eleven-point version, worked for the federal Department of Expositions, which was then gearing up for the 1967 Centennial of Confederation, including the world’s fair known as Expo 67. The chief design challenge for St-Cyr was to make the maple leaf “readable” from a distance and thus instantly recognizable. First he tried variants on the thirteen-point version, but none of them worked. The leaf was just too busy at the bottom. So he removed two of the lower points, reshaped the resulting leaf and, voila!, the version that we see every time we see a maple leaf flag. Or is it?
This is the only known prototype flag made using St-Cyr’s original version of the eleven-point leaf. It was silk-screened by hand at the offices of the Department of Expositions. Examine it carefully and you’ll note one crucial difference from the final design: the base of the stem is cut at an angle. For the final version the base was squared so that the design on both sides would match exactly, preventing what’s known as show-through.
What Colour is Flag of Canada red?
Getting exactly the right red proved trickier than you might think—most red inks will gradually turn orange as they weather. It took several months of testing by the National Research Council to perfect a long-lasting flag red. For the precise specifications, visit http://www.pch.gc.ca/pgm/ceem-cced/symbl/df11-eng.cfm
Was all the design effort worth it? No question. Canada’s maple leaf flag is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s great flags.
CREDITS & ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The text for this website is based on the book A Flag for Canada
by Rick Archbold. For information on other aspects of the Canadian flag story visit www.flagforcanada.ca
Allan Beddoe’s painting of the single-leaf flag that the Parliamentary Flag Committee chose in October 1964. Library and Archives Canada C-149464.
The silk-screened prototype of Jacques St-Cyr’s 11-point design. Courtesy of Queen’s University Archives, John Matheson fonds, locator BT.