Today is Canada’s “National Flag Day” and an extra special one as the ubiquitous Maple Leaf turns 50. A look at the sometimes raucous history of Canada’s national identity, as well as the Canadian wordmark, the first of its kind.

So You Think You Know LogosThe day after Valentine’s Day is officially known as National Flag of Canada Day. A rather wordy title to be sure, but it commemorates the first day the Maple Leaf was unveiled to the public as being the official flag of the country. This year’s NFCD is an extra-special one, as it was 50 years ago today that (then) Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson raised the flag on Parliament Hill for the first time. At the risk of sounding like a history teacher, let’s do a quick cut-and-paste from Wikipedia to get us started: “The National Flag of Canada, also known as the Maple Leaf and l’Unifolié (French for “the one-leafed”), is a flag consisting of a red field with a white square at its center, in the middle of which is featured a stylized, 11-pointed, red maple leaf. Adopted in 1965 [February 15th to be exact, hence this post] to replace the Union Flag, it is the first ever specified by statute law for use as the country’s national flag. The Canadian Red Ensign had been unofficially used since the 1890s and was approved by a 1945 Order in Council for use “wherever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag.”

The flag’s British heritage.

The Royal Union Flag they’re talking about is, of course, a Union Jack – the national flag of the United Kingdom.
the union flagThis is the Canadian Red Ensign Wiki referred to. It includes the Royal Union Flag in the upper left corner:
the canadian red ensign
The Canadian Red Ensign is still in use in some places, most notably flying at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial of the 1917 WWI Battle of Vimy Ridge in France. The maple leaf has been used as a symbol in Canada since the 18th century and was used long before the flag came along to identify Canadians abroad. It was used, for instance, as the symbol of Canada’s first Olympic team, way back in 1904. The colors red and white have been Canada’s official colors since 1921, when they became official in the proclamation of the Royal Arms of Canada in 1921 by King George V. It kinda makes sense that the flag turned out the way it did. Strange thing is, it almost didn’t..

The history of the Maple Leaf flag.

After World War II there was increasing desire for Canada to develop its own flag. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson went as far to promise one when he was elected in 1963 and his suggestion, dubbed Pearson’s Pennant, featured three maple leaves with blue bars as an early shout-out to Quebec.
pearsons pennant canadian flag suggestionOpposition leader John Diefenbaker was aghast at the idea of changing the Red Ensign at all, pointing out it was representative of the sacrifices Canadian military had made during the two World Wars. The disagreement led to intense bickering between the liberals and conservatives, sometimes close to drunken brawls and as one member described it, an awful lot of “cussing” at one another. With an agreement not coming any time soon, an all party Parliamentary committee was set-up, and in an early example of “crowdsourcing” I suppose, the government was flooded with suggestions for the new flag. Like most cases of “user generated content” (think running a design contest nowadays) the suggestions ranged from zany to ludicrous. There was even a design that featured the faces of UK pop sensation The Beatles in each quadrant (the Fab Four had just announced their first Canadian tour dates.)
fab four canadian flagThere was this red, white and blue starry design, obviously influenced by our neighbors to the south:
canadian stars stripes knock offThere’s more, but The National Post has an awesome feature of the more, ahm, memorable artwork here. When it came down to it, there were only three serious contenders:
three canadian flag choices1) The original Pearson’s Pennant design, 2) A last-minute entry from George Stanley, a Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College of Canada and 3) A suggestion by Diefenbaker that assembled Stanley’s idea with the Red Ensign and some Quebec Fleur de lis thrown in for good measure. Stanley’s maple passed through committee unanimously (though there are recent claims that vote was rigged,) put to a Parliament vote were it was accepted by 163 yays to 78 dissenters. Queen Elizabeth II – who still had a lot of clout with Canadian things – gave the new flag her blessing on January 28, 1965 and the new design was unfurled two weeks later, on February 15. Exactly fifty years ago today.

The Maple Leaf is warmly received.

Vexillologists (those who study the science of flags) often cite Canada’s flag as one of the best flags in the World due to its simple shapes and limited color palette. The flag will remain that way too. The idea of having symbols for the various provinces and territories was nixed early on, as nobody wanted to create a new design every time a new province was formed or (as is always the chance with Quebec) one left. They looked at the U.S. Stars and Stripes for that example – the USA flag has been revised 27 times, the most recent in 1960. Once the flag was officially adopted, the feds went about making the stylized icon universal. Here, for example, is how the Royal Canadian Airforce logo (called a roundel) evolved after the 1965 icon was announced.
rcaf logo roundel

The Canada Wordmark.

The “Canada” wordmark is one of the most widely recognized symbols of Canada, perhaps second only to the flag. Originally designed for the Canadian Government Travel Bureau in 1965 to promote travel to Canada, the design was adopted as the global identifier of the Government of Canada in 1980; the centerpiece of the Federal Identity Program (FIP,) established to create a common look for the Feds. Utilizing tactics previously reserved for business, this is one of the first applications of identity branding by any government. It was designed by Jim Donohoue (often spelled incorrectly as “Donahue” in design anthologies) when he worked at McLaren Advertising in Toronto. Apparently Jim was paid the grand sum of $2.00 for the “unconditional” release of the rights.
canada wordmark large
The typography is a modified version of the old ATF Baskerville:
canada wordmark
canadian wordmark uses a modified ATF baskervilleIt looks distinguished on the side of trucks:
canada wordmark truckAnd on the Canadian built ‘Space Arm” on the NASA Space Shuttle:
Canada wordmark on the space shuttle space armThe wordmark was actually in the news recently, when it was discovered that photos used by the Canadian government in tourism brochures had been faked, the logo Photoshopped (badly) onto blank space arms in official NASA photographs.

Oh, Canada.

Canada’s branding guidelines and official color.

Like any corporate identity “brand system” Canada’s has an official guideline for use. It’s actually quite exhaustive. For what it’s worth Canada also has an official ‘red.’ It’s known as FIP Red (most printers in Canada are aware of it) and these Pantone, CMYK and RGB mixes will do it:
canada FIP red color breakPantone Red 032:
CMYK (C=0 M=100 Y=100 K=0)
RGB (R=235 G=45 B=55.)

There’s even a special 3M Vinyl color. It’s known simply as “Tomato Red.”