What would happen if we let a nation come up with its own graphic identity? Fifty years ago, Canada set out to do just that. The young nation aimed to get rid of its British Union Jack and “rebrand” with a distinctive new flag. In the summer of 1964, with construction of the groundbreaking Montreal Expo underway, a new national symbol was seen as key to the modernization of Canada. The creation of a new flag was meant to be a truly public and participatory process in which citizens were invited to take part in the profound reshaping of their country’s national image.
The design of the new flag was spearheaded by Prime Minister Lester Pearson at a time when many nations were stepping out from Britain’s colonial shadow. The Red Ensign—a flag that was one-fourth Union Jack—had flown in Ottawa for decades as a de facto (but not official) flag.
In the 1950s the need to distinguish the country’s flag from Britain’s was underscored during the Suez Crisis: as Canadian leaders worked to broker a truce, Egypt’s President Nasser asked Canadian soldiers not to serve with UN peacekeepers for fear that the country’s insignia would be mistaken for that of the British belligerents. Pearson, campaigning in 1963, vowed to end the graphic confusion and create a new flag for Canada.
Pearson made good on his election promise and started the process that would come to be known as the “Great Flag Debate,” which pitted his ascendant Liberals against the Tories, who aimed to keep the country’s British heraldry. A special parliamentary flag committee was charged with reviewing flag options, a process they opened up to the public with a call for designs. They reviewed nearly six thousand submissions, from children’s crayon drawings to professional pasteups. The designs included op-art spheres, medieval banners and lots of beloved national symbols: beavers, moose and maple leaves.
As the committee’s work dragged into the fall and tensions mounted—many argued for a “compromise” flag that would combine Anglo Union Jacks with French fleurs-de-lis—Pearson and his close advisors advocated for a unique national symbol and not an amalgam of inherited emblems. They invited politically connected military historian and professional draftsman George Stanley to design a bold flag, which was surreptitiously slipped into the mix. Inspired by contemporary commercial advertising, sports logos (Canadian Olympians had long worn the maple leaf) and the flag of the Royal Military College of Canada (where he taught), Stanley’s red leaf and bars had graphic appeal. Ultimately, the committee discarded the public process and picked this eleventh-hour design. After a good bit of parliamentary zigging and zagging and some graphic tweaks by Jacques Saint-Cyr (a government graphic artist and, incidentally, a Quebec sovereigntist), the flag was adopted in December 1964 and first flown in February 1965.
Canada’s flag has in many ways succeeded in using its geometric strength to unite what was a divided nation. It survived an early test, enduring a wave of Quebecois separatist violence in the mid-’60s, and later, shifting conceptions of First Nations sovereignty. The flag helped to reinforce the image of a new Canada emerging from under a sagging British Empire and propelling itself onto the world stage. Yet the flag’s creation ultimately rejected public process in favor of a design decided upon by elite actors with very little in the way of transparent decision-making. This leads to the question: who actually “participates” in the creation of new national images?
What if a country’s citizens were to choose their own visual symbol? There is some anxiety about the type of flag we might actually get if the public made real aesthetic decisions. Mozambique’s flag, featuring the assault-rifle emblem instituted by the country’s then-ruling Liberation Front (Frelimo), might be offered up as a worst-case scenario of a design swayed by populist sentiment (though not necessarily a participatory citizen process; in fact, in 2005 the country held a public competition to design a new Mozambique flag, with the winning proposal discarded by the Frelimo-dominated parliament.). However, the real enemy seems to be more a matter of bad taste—a Bourdieusian fear that the public can’t appreciate the modern and will inevitably pick vulgar and folksy images over “cutting edge” design.
Perhaps the actual process of nation branding is too complex to be opened up to public discussion. Even determinedly inclusive governments—like Nelson Mandela’s in 1994 South Africa—haven’t had the time or resources for deliberative processes and have, as designer Fred Brownell noted in a BBC interview, been forced to create symbols in “frantic” sprints. In the US, there have been cathartic conversations about the use of the Confederate “Stars and Bars,” but when southern state legislatures began to replace offending flags (sometimes through referenda), many in the design community bemoaned the uninspired new banners that took their places (Mississippi’s alone retains the Dixie elements in its design). While the public dialogue around these graphic symbols was of undoubtable value, participation in the creation of new designs was limited. Ultimately, it was the ability of new flag designs to precipitate conversations about history, race and inclusion that was most meaningful.
Today, governmental and civic players mobilize public design processes and competitions to engage citizens in a wide variety of programs. Does the public feel a closer connection to national institutions if they are involved in shaping elements of their visual identities? Or are there other design processes—like the creation of material, nuanced things such as memorials, museums and even money—that might serve as more important venues for engagement?
The marketing of nations has grown more complicated than ever. Logos and complex graphic standards manuals have taken over where tweedy heraldic experts like George Stanley used to reign; Canada paved the way in 1982 as the first country to adopt its own wordmark. Regions and cities have also entered the branding game in order to compete in a winner-take-all global economy. What we can learn from Canada’s Flag Debate is that when it comes to designing a national symbol, the public need not be involved directly in aesthetic specifics such as the positioning of graphic forms or the selection of colors. The public debate around a new flag can send out the discursive spark that makes us rethink and reimagine what it means to be part of a national community.