Michael Large's paper “A Flag For Canada” examines the development of some of Canada's most recognizable federal images in the 1960s and the inspiration for the adoption of such designs. Beginning with the design competition to replace the Red Ensign and the adoption of the new flag in 1965, Large discusses how the decision to replace the flag, as well as the choice of the final design, were made in reaction to the cultural and political circumstances of the early to mid 1960s. With increasing calls from Quebec nationalists for more of a voice in not just the affairs of Quebec, but also of Ottawa, as well as a recognition of the growing number of Canadians who were not of French or English descent, the Pearson government wanted to replace the main symbol of the country with something which was not so obviously British in origin and which could be embraced by all Canadians. As Large explains, the implementation of the flag design was only the most noticeable, and likely the most enduring, part of a systematic use of new, often modernist, symbols to represent the Canadian nation. Indeed “more change of a symbolic nature occurred in a few years [in the 1960s and 1970s] then in the whole of Canadian history.” (page 40) The flag represented one step in a review and refashioning of the country’s entire communications structure so as to allow the government to meet the demands of the era.
In addition to the period being one of tensions between French and English Canada, the 1960s and early 1970s was also a period of growing recognition of Canada’s other ethnic groups, a time of social and cultural revolution and experimentation, as well as a period, especially for the baby boom generation, of a rejection of traditional views and ideals. These were also the young new consumers who recognized the importance of individual style which could set themselves, and the products they consumed, apart. In addition, it was also a period when there existed widespread optimism about the economy and the promised innovations of technology. Thus, it is not surprising that many Canadians were receptive to proposed modern changes to the ways in which their country and their government were represented to Canadians and to the world.
That the flag and many of the other government designs of the 1960s were modernist in style is not accidental since, as Large notes, “[t]he start of the [1960s] marked the high tide of the international style, the postwar vision of modernism that believed in rational design solutions and the perfection of form and systems.” (page 41) The international style, which was becoming highly influential in the corporate world, would also come to greatly affect Canadian government iconographic design with the immigration to Canada of European modernist designers Rolf Harder and Ernst Roch, as well as some Canadians who had worked in the field abroad, such as Paul Arthur, who had worked at Graphis magazine in Switzerland. Arthur became the managing editor of the Canadian journal Canadian Art and was responsible for new modernist signage employed at Canada’s federally run airports, as well as for the graphics used for Expo 67. Furthermore, graphics had been central to ideas and movements in Canadian visual culture earlier in the century, beginning with the Group of Seven, who had been originally trained as advertising artists. The country also had several design firms which already had experience creating new, modern corporate designs for some of Canada’s largest companies. Designers such as those at Toronto’s Stewart and Morrison or Allan Fleming, who had designed the new logo for Canadian National Railways, had shown that they could create recognizable, influential, and memorable logos and signage systems.
Recognizing the popularity, attractiveness, and the alleged psychological power of the modernist a design philosophy, the federal government wanted to capitalize on the implied rationalism and order of modernism by incorporating it into federal iconography. Such implied characteristics or rationalism, order, and efficiency appealed to many Canadians who were concerned or confused about what Canada was and whether their government understood them, their interests, and what they wanted their country to be. The imagery chosen by the federal government thus not only imposed ideas of the nation and the government, but it also gave the impression to the Canadian public that the federal government was reacting to the participatory, popular culture of the era.
In the case of the flag, the process of its design and selection reflected both the modernist principles of rationality and precision, as well as the 1960s public demand for input and participation in how its government was run. The participatory aspect was seen in the fact that the flag design was chosen from a public design competition, about which there was much public debate. Rational principles were reflected in the systemized and centralized nature of selection and process and then the meticulous and systematic deployment of chosen symbol throughout the government, resulting in a complete and controlled revision of the country’s identity.
The official competition was preceded by a competition run by the magazines Canadian Art and Perspectives/Weekend Magazine in 1963. The call for a new flag, which had been made numerous times by others since the Second World War, generated 789 entries, many of which were submitted by some of Canada’s most prominent graphic designers, with the majority of such entries being modernist in style. These submissions included submissions by Allan Fleming, Ernst Roch, Rolf Harder, and the typographic designer Carl Dair. The entries were judged by Dr Geoffrey C. Andrew, executive director, Canadian Universities Foundation, Ottawa; Ted Bethune, creative director, Cockfield, Brown Ltd, Vancouver; and Guy Viau, critic and vice-president of the Arts Council of Quebec, Montreal. The finalists were reproduced in the September/October edition of Canadian Art in an article titled "In Search of Meaningful Canadian Symbols." In the text of the article, the judges explained that they had looked for designs which reflected the changing nature of a modern, evolving, bilingual Canada of many cultures and French and English origins.
The official selection of the new flag design was conducted by an all-party committee of the federal parliament, following tempered and passionate debates in the House of Commons over various designs, containing different ethno-cultural, regional, and historic symbols and colours. The designs had been submitted by thousands of armature and professional designers from across the country.
Large claims that the submissions can be divided into three general groups. 1) Traditional: which includes symbols and colours which made reference to Canada’s English and French heritage. These often consisted of designs that included versions of the Union Jack and fleurs-de-lys. 2) Representational: Which consisted of designs that included distinctly Canadian, often natural, images, such as beavers and maple leaves. 3) Abstract: Which included designs consisting of shapes and lines, such as circles, stripes, and stars. The committee, judging the designs, reduced the thousands of submissions down to fifteen finalists, five from each of the categories of three-leaf designs, single-leaf designs, and designs which included references to Britain and France. After another six weeks of debate, the committees chose one finalist from each of the three categories. The first was the heraldic three red maple three leaf from the Canadian shield bordered by two blue stripes (the Prime Minister’s favourite). The second was the single stylized thirteen-point maple leaf bordered by two red stripes, while the last was the same as the second, but it also included a Union Jack. The winning flag, designed by George Stanley, dean of arts at the Royal Military College, was redrawn by the federal designer Jacques Saint-Cyr to have eleven points and was formally approved by the Prime Minister on 9 November 1964. It was then proclaimed by parliament on 28 January 1965 after protracted protest by John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative opposition.
Large claims that the flag represented the core elements of any corporate identity program. Its reference to a traditional, natural Canadian symbol showed continuity with the past. The removal of the Union Jack from the national flag spoke to the country’s distinctiveness. The flag was a highly recognizable symbol, and its dissemination across the country and its reproduction were carefully controlled. The red used for the flag had to be a of a specific shade, the government ensured that its flags were produced on the most advanced and appropriate material, and the Canadian Specifications Board issued detailed guidelines on how the flag, and the highly stylized maple leaf, should be drawn or printed.
The adoption of the new flag, and its protection in law, was followed in the late 1960s by the introduction of other significant federal design changes. These included the adoption of the modernist typeface, Helvetica, as the font to be used for most federal government communications, including written documents and signage. The government also hired the McLaren Advertising agency of Toronto in 1969 to create a new "Canada" wordmark for the Canadian Government Travel Bureau. The wordmark was soon adopted as the official textual representation of the federal government. Furthermore, with the adoption of the Official Languages act in 1969, the government also launched a task force that was charged with examining how information was provided to citizens by the federal government. The result of the task force’s work included the creation of Information Canada in 1970 as the federal body which as responsible for overseeing, and ensuring the quality, control, and standardization of all of the government’s communications with Canadians. As such, Information Canada was also responsible for the implantation and enforcement of a new Federal Identity Program, one of the world’s largest government identity programs which set guidelines and regulated all naming of government entities, the design and use of signage, and the government’s use of specific symbols, including the flag.
As Large explains, Information Canada had been created out of recommendations set out in a report of the federal taskforce of 1969 entitled "To Know and Be Known." The agency and its Identity Program were to have the federal government follow the trend of large businesses and have Ottawa be symbolically visible to Canadians. Large explains that the Federal Identity Program was to, “to promote recognition of, and access to, government services, to project both official languages equally, to improve efficiency and savings in government communications, and to exploit design as a management tool.” (page 49) Design was thus used to portray an image of Ottawa as, and have Canadians believe Ottawa to be, a modern, efficient, powerful, centralized government which treated all of its citizens equally. This use of design has also been consistently employed for over forty years. Although Information Canada was disbanded, control of the Federal Identity Program passed to the Canadian Secretariat and has made use of many of the same designs, only undergoing minor modifications during the 1980s. Large suggests that proof of the effectiveness of the identity program can be seen in the enthusiasm with which Canadians have adopted the 1965 flag, as well as the various provincial government which, having the same goals of recognition and image control, have followed Ottawa’s lead by adopting their own identity programs.