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Canadian Red Ensign


The Canadian Red Ensign was the flag of Canada until 1965, when it was replaced by the current Maple Leaf flag. It is a British red ensign, featuring the Union flag in the canton, adorned with the shield of the coat of arms of Canada.

The original Canadian Red Ensign had the arms of the four founding provinces on its shield. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, flag manufacturers would often supplement this design with wreaths of laurel and oak leaves and crowns. The design was frequently placed on a white background square, circle or roughly following the outline of the arms in the flag's fly (right hand side assuming the flagpole to be on the left). There was no standard design for the Red Ensign until the early 1920s. In 1921, the Government of Canada asked King George V to order a new coat of arms for Canada. The College of Arms thus designed a suitable coat of arms of Canada. The new shield was displayed on the Red Ensign, thus producing a new version of the Canadian Red Ensign in 1922. In 1924, the Red Ensign was approved for use on Canadian government buildings outside Canada. The Canadian Red Ensign, through history, tradition and custom was finally formalized on 5 September 1945, when the Governor General of Canada signed an Order-in-Council (P.C. 5888) which stated that "The Red Ensign with the Shield of the Coat of arms in the fly (to be referred to as "The Canadian Red Ensign") may be flown from buildings owned or occupied by the Canadian federal Government within or without Canada shall be appropriate to fly as a distinctive Canadian flag." The flag was thus approved for use by government buildings inside Canada as well, and once again flew over Parliament.

The Red Ensign served until 1965 when it was replaced by today's Maple Leaf flag. The flag bore various forms of the shield from the Canadian coat of arms in its fly during the period of its use. From 1921 until 1957, the Canadian Red Ensign was virtually the same, except that the leaves in the coat of arms were green, and there was a slight alteration to the Irish harp (the earlier version having a woman's bust as part of the harp). A blue ensign, also bearing the shield of the Canadian coat of arms, was the jack flown by the Royal Canadian Navy and the ensign of other ships owned by the Canadian government until 1965. From 1865 until Canadian Confederation in 1867, the United Province of Canada could also have used a blue ensign, but there is little evidence such a flag was ever used. In O.R. Jacobi's painting of the new Parliament Buildings in 1866, a Red Ensign flies from the tower of the East Block.

The Red Ensign carried by the 5th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Western Cavalry) at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 survives to this day, and is possibly the oldest Canadian flag in existence. The battle was the first instance in which all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together as a cohesive formation during the First World War, and as such it is often viewed as a pivotal event in the emergence of Canadian national identity.

The Imperial War Museum refused requests over the years to repatriate the Vimy Ridge Red Ensign to Canada, including a request in 2000 to acquire the flag for the ceremonies surrounding the dedication of Canada's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. David Penn, Keeper of Exhibits and Firearms at the Imperial War Museum, called the flag "our most important First World War Commonwealth artifact".

Eventually, after months of negotiations involving the Royal Canadian Legion, the Imperial War Museum agreed to lend the flag to Canada to commemorate the opening of the new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in 2005. The flag was returned to the United Kingdom in 2008.

There is another Red Ensign in existence that was reportedly carried by Canadian troops at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, currently held by the Penticton Museum and Archives in Penticton, British Columbia. It is a simple red ensign, without a coat of arms.

Missouri Civil War Museum