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Maritime Forces Atlantic (Canada)

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[Canadian Atlantic Maritime Forces] image by Victor Lomantsov
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Description of the flag

Flag of the Maritime Forces Atlantic
First flown in spring 2000.
Source: Flagscan [fsc], No 60, 2000., article by Kevin Harington
Victor Lomantsov, 11 March 2001

I just wanted to know why Canada never adopted different flags for merchant ships, naval ships, air force, army, navy etc... I know there is a military flag, but when and where does it fly?
Ethan Aquilina - 16 April 1998

I don't know the official reason for not having different ensigns for different classes of ships, but I'm not afraid to speculate.

I suppose it was not considered necessary because with modern ships it is a lot easier to tell the difference between a man-of-war and a merchantman by looking at the silhouette than by looking at the ensign. The opposite was true in the days of sail when the United Kingdom and other countries adopted separate war and merchant flags.

Here's the prescribed rules for the Canadian Forces Ensign:

2. The CF Ensign:

  • a. Shall be flown within Canada at base headquarters fitted with a 2nd flagpole;
  • b. May be flown by a unit geographically remote from a base headquarters, if fitted with a 2nd flagpole;
  • c. May be flown outside Canada at Canadian Forces defence establishments, if fitted with a 2nd flagpole, expect that-
    1. the Ensign may not be flown alongside or in the same array as national flags of other countries, and
    2. the Ensign shall not replace the National Flag of Canada or any other national flag already flown.

3. The CF Ensign shall not be flown:

  • a. In HMC ships;
  • b. Expect in a miniature version as the CDS distinguishing flag, on the same flagpole as the National Flag (it may be flown on the same mast if fitted with gaff or yardarm);
  • c. Outdoors at military establishments on Canadian territory jointly occupied by Canadian and foreign forces, or U.S. bases located in Canada under a long-term lease; or
  • d. With a display of provincial flags.

4. The CF Ensign may be displayed in the locations noted for the National Flag in Section 1, paragraph 4.

5. The CF Ensign may be used to cover an altar for divine services, or a closed casket.

6. The CF Ensign may be carried on ceremonial parades.

7. Compliments are not paid to the CF Ensign

The navy and the air force also have their own distinctive flags. The navy's flag is also the Canadian Forces Naval Jack, flown at the bow of Her Majesty's Canadian ships.

Dean Tiegs - 16 April 1998

Negative hypotheses (i.e., "Why DIDN'T person 'X' take course of action 'Y'?"), are almost impossible to "prove" (or disprove). I have read Dean Tiegs' reply to this question, and don't have any problem with anything he said. I would, however, add a few other observations, none of which can be proved, but I think can justly be called "informed speculation", [based upon many years of study of the events surrounding both the adoption of the (current) Canadian flag, (in Feb 1965); the unification of the Canadian Armed Forces, (in Feb 1968); and the overall changes which occurred in Canadian society in the 1960s]. I believe one has to look at all three of these inter-connected factors (at least!) in order to formulate a satisfactory answer to the original question.

Forgive me if I seem to ramble; but I believe a bit of historical background is necessary.

Modern Canada was born as a result of the American Revolution. Although thousands of French-Canadians had resided here since at least the early 17th century, they were primarily concentrated in a small area between Quebec City and Montreal, with an inconsequential smattering of settlements in modern-day New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The American Revolution, however, saw thousands, and then tens of thousands of so-called "Loyalists" migrate north from their erstwhile homes in the 13 American colonies into Canada. These Loyalists were, of course, English-speaking subjects of the Crown, who were residing in the American colonies -- many for generations -- who, for whatever reason, had decided to reject the republican experiment, which the United States represented. They purposely uprooted themselves from everything they held dear specifically because they wanted to remain British subjects. Since the French Canadians, for their own reasons, had largely withdrawn unto themselves, it was these Loyalists -- fiercely loyal to the Crown and Great Britain -- which formed the bedrock of Canadian political culture; and it was from their political views and ideological beliefs that Canadian political culture sprang. In fact, I do not think that it is too much of an oversimplification to suggest that their influence on the collective psyche of Canada lasted for almost the next 200 years. The result was that up until about the 1960s, the majority of Canadians, (about 80% of whom were of British ancestry - correction), defined themselves in juxtaposition to the United States; we might not have known clearly what we were -- a colony or a nation? -- but we sure as hell knew what we weren't: we weren't "anarchical republicans"; we were "ordered", British subjects, domicile in North America; (my parents, born in the 1920s, as second- and third-generation Canadians, thought this way, and were typical of English-speaking Canadian attitudes until the 1960s).

Given such a background it is understandable why throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, almost every Canadian schoolchild was taught that the essence of the basic differences between Canadians and Americans could be found in two contrasting clauses of our respective constitutions: while the American constitutional documents referred to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", as a set of the new republic's watchwords, the corresponding Canadian article stated that the ultimate good provided to Canadians by its government would be "peace, order, and good government". The result was the growth of a Canadian national mythology wherein we portrayed ourselves, and our society, (rightly or wrongly), as being much more orderly, staid, and peaceful, than the rough-and-tumble, ultra-libertarian, dog-eat-dog republican society which existed to our south. Another contrasting set of stereotypes which was often put forward to sum-up this difference was that between the American "wild west", with lone gunmen acting as their own law-enforcers, even with the odd example of vigilante justice; versus the Canadian west, wherein the true-blue, incorruptible, always-upright," Dudley Dooright" Mountie represented "peace order and good government".

Although these, of course, represent caricatures of both nations, their actual veracity was nowhere near as important as the fact that most (if not all) Canadians accepted their basic accuracy, and therefore acted upon these perceptions. As a result, whenever Canadians looked to do something -- whether it be something as prosaic as adopting flag protocol, or as profound as developing a legal system -- they looked instinctively, and, for the most part favourably, to the United Kingdom. At this point many might say, "but of course -- Canada was a British colony!"; but my point is that there was much more to it than simply the legal/constitutional ties between Canada and the UK; the links were much more profound than this. For example, South Africa and the Irish Free State (at least after 1922) where in much the same constitutional situation, and yet the level of "spiritual communion" (for lack of a better phrase) between Canada and Britain, on the one hand, and that between Britain and say, South Africa, on the other, simply could not be compared. Relatively speaking, whereas the Irish (post-1922) and the South Africans had, IN LAW, the same relationship to the UK as did Canada, in PRACTICE the former were always chomping at the bit to minimise the import of this relationship. My point is that, relatively speaking, Canada was not, in general, "chomping at the bit" to minimise its links with the Empire, but, on the contrary, considered these links to be an important DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC of what Canada was. The bottom-line was (is?) the division between (English-speaking) Canada and the United States was (is?) completely artificial: it's pretty difficult (perhaps even more so today than in the past) to justify the border between our two countries based upon language, religion, culture, history, or any of the other commonly recognised bases for separate nationality. Consequently, the major justification for two separate states on the North American continent, versus one super-large one, (or at least the justification which was most often proffered, up until the 1960s, for 2 separate states), was the one implied in the preceding paragraphs: political/philosophical/ideological. To use an anachronistic phrase, Canadians were building a "kinder, gentler society", (at least in our opinion), than what we perceived south of the border; and one of the pillars upon which this alternative to the great republic was to be based, was our identification with British norms and practices versus American ones. Consequently, I do not think that it is unfair to state that Canada and Canadians for the longest time (perhaps even today?) defined ourselves NOT by what we were (are?); but by what we were not: we were NOT Americans.

For a variety of reasons, this all began to change, however, after WWII. For one thing, the age of Empire was clearly passing. A lot of the support which existed in Canada for the imperial links stemmed from our desire to be equated with "the greatest Empire the world had ever seen"; rather than simply being another off-shoot of European civilisation in the Western hemisphere, a la Brazil or Mexico. Secondly, Canada's demographics began to shift. No longer were the majority of immigrants arriving here from Britain. Although it is true that large numbers of east Europeans arrived here throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, such immigration had largely stopped long before WWII; and, moreover, those who arrived, for the most part, were grateful to have been accepted into what they considered (reflecting the majority Canadian view at the time) not so much Canada, but into a piece of the British Empire in North America.

Finally -- and perhaps most significantly -- starting in about 1960, French-Canadians, who up until that point had remained largely aloof from mainstream Canadian politics and business, decided to assert what they saw as their rightful place within Canada. This "re-awakening" of the French-Canadian factor in Canadian society, had a profound effect upon government thinking -- especially once it became linked to the spectre of a Quebec-based independence movement. And, rightly or wrongly, the government identified one of French-Canada's primary "problems" with relating to the Canadian state as their own, was the overt British symbolism which it then exuded.

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying a complex phenomenon, these three changes in Canadian society, starting almost immediately after WWII and culminating in the early 1960s, had a profound effect on our country, and how we defined ourselves. Although we never really did come up with a suitable answer to the question "what is a Canadian?" or "what does Canada stand for?"; we did come to the realisation that the old answers to these questions no longer held. To recap: the old answer was -- "A Canadian is a British North American, with all that this definition entails". The new answer was -- "We don't really know what a Canadian is; but he's no longer part of the British Empire, if, for no other reason, because this Empire no longer exists; moreover, an increasing segment of Canadian society is, in fact, alienated by this portrayal, so perhaps it's time for change?". (And, for what it's worth, I sense that the Australians are going through a similar sort of soul searching exercise at the moment.)

This change of mindset had a profound effect upon the official symbolism and iconography of the Canadian state. We adopted a flag which no longer had the Union Jack in the canton; we let our commercial ties with the Empire/Commonwealth wane, and replaced them with trade links to the United States; we dropped overtly "British" titles like the Royal Mail (which became simply "Canada Post"); the Crown was replaced with the Maple Leaf on official documents, and seals, (such as in passports, postage stamps, etc).

And, I also put the unification of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, into a single Canadian Armed Forces, as part of this trend, since in one foul swoop, many of the lingering symbols of Anglo-Canadian ties were done away with. The Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force were abolished by Act of Parliament, as were the overtly British-style uniforms worn by all three services, as well as many other military-based symbols of Anglo-Canadian unity.

I could go on with dozens, if not hundreds of more examples, but the point I'm making is simply this: those in power during the 1960s, reflecting what they interpreted as a sea change in Canada's situation, were overtly (even if politely) anti-British; which, in the history of Canada's struggle to define itself, has always implied a certain degree of pro-Americanism.

Consequently, I see the decision of the Canadian authorities in the 1960s (when, as mentioned the foundations of Canada's current set of symbols -- including flags -- were revamped), not to adopt separate ensigns for naval, government-non-naval, and merchant ships, to be part of this greater societal movement to distance itself from British practices. In this regard, I imagine a conversation very similar to the following as having occurred:

SENIOR OFFICIAL: "Right, what are we going to do about flags for different categories of shipping?"
JUNIOR OFFICIAL: "Well, sir, as I see it we have two options:

  • a) we can carry-on with the same sort of practice that had in the past, with 3 separate ensigns for the 3 separate categories of shipping, (ie., naval, government-non-naval, and merchant), suitably "Canadianised" ,(most probably red, white, and blue ensigns with the new maple-leaf-based Canadian flag in the canton); or
  • b) we can adopt the republican practice, (a la France and the USA) of having only one ensign for all ships: the national flag."

SENIOR OFFICIAL: "Right; well... we are building a brave new world here in Canada; we have finally shed the last vestiges and symbols of a colonial status; as a result, there is certainly no need for us to 'ape' British norms in this regard; let's opt for one flag for all three categories. Besides it's much simpler, than having to go through another round of designing new flags, and then having them formally approved. For the time being, at least, let's just stick with the one design for all purposes."

A long-winded explanation, to make a simple point. But I think in order to understand the depth of the changes which occurred in Canada in the 1960s, a fair degree of background was required; and, as I said, I think the decision not to adopt Canadian-based white, blue, and red ensigns, has to be seen in this context.
Glen Robert-Grant Hodgins - 17 April 1998


With regard to Dean's query as to why I described the Loyalists as "so-called", i.e..: "I don't want to get into a political argument, but I'm just curious why you don't think the Loyalists deserved to be called Loyalists."

In my opinion, despite the work of revisionist historians to the contrary, they WERE Loyalists. The posting however was aimed at a audience which I assumed was not familiar with the details of early Canadian history, especially as it related to the American Revolution. Since terms like "patriot" and "loyalist" can easily become confused in such circumstances, it was an attempt to indicate that their loyalty was to the Crown and not the republic.
Glen Robert-Grant Hodgins - 19 April 1998


Both Dean Tiegs and Luc Baronian pointed out the error in my statement: "The result was that up until about the 1960s, the majority of Canadians, (about 80% of whom were of British ancestry), ..."

What I meant to say was that up until about the 1960s, the majority of new Canadians, (i.e., up to 80% of immigrants in any given year), where of British ancestry.

An important difference, which I'm grateful was caught.
Glen Robert-Grant Hodgins - 19 April 1998