When the Cochrane Museum reopens next June, visitors will be able to view the meticulously restored and framed 1907 Canadian Red Ensign flag.
While doing so, they will be witnessing a piece of Canadian history that speaks volumes to the determination of our forefathers to have our own flag, even when it was considered illegal.
“The history of the Canadian Red Ensign is in danger of being lost,” believes Mike Taylor, who led the committee completing the work. “In their lifetime, many Canadians have only ever known our current flag, and it’s a revelation for them to see an original early Canadian flag.”
On Dec. 17, the Cochrane Historical and Archival Preservation Society (CHAPS) revealed the restored and framed flag to their members and the local media.
Passionately, Taylor told many stories about the significance of the Canadian Red Ensign, while saluting those who made the local restoration project possible.
The flag was donated to CHAPS by David and Jane Raymont in 2017. David Raymont, of the York Pioneer and Historical Society, has a historical family connection to Alberta and donated the flag in memory of local rancher Arthur Scott Lewis, who died in the First World War.
Realizing the significance of the acquisition, the flag was restored, preserved and given a place of pride in the museum. Thanks to a $4,000 grant from the Bow Rivers Edge Campground, a joint venture of the Lions and Rotary clubs of Cochrane, CHAPS was able to have the flag cleaned and repaired by textile conservator Gail Niinimaa, then stitched on to a 1 ½ inch acid-free, moisture-free backing. The best available museum grade glass was used to protect it from ultra-violet light, then placed in a suitably historic looking frame by Scott Winter, of Winter Photographics.
Taylor continues to marvel over the restoration that has occurred.
“It was ripped in several places and it’s very frail,” says Taylor. “It had been folded up and put in a drawer so it had creases in it,” says Taylor. “You can’t see the work she’s gone to but she has stitched this with almost invisible stitches all the way around.”
Raymont suggested to CHAPS officials when making the donation that it may even have been used as a tablecloth at one time because when unfolded trappings of icing sugar were discovered.
There have been many versions of the Red Ensign that pre-date the 1907 flag donated to the Cochrane Museum, but the flag donated to CHAPS is likely more significant to Cochrane and to Alberta. It was the first to include the Alberta shield created two years after Alberta became a province. The flag included all nine provincial seals at the time (Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949) on the right and the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner.
Taylor believes this particular version is rare, pointing in particular to the maple leaf and beaver garland around the provincial shields.
“I have done a lot of research and I’ve talked to a lot of people and I have only seen one other flag in existence that has this garland and the beaver and I’ve only seen a photograph of it. I don’t even know where the real one is, it could be a photograph of this flag. We know this is unique and rare.”
A symbol of self-determination
The self-determination of the young Dominion of Canada is well illustrated by an insistence to fly a flag of our own. Taylor, with a grin, suggests Canada was being rebellious.
“Even though it wasn’t an official flag, the government of the time--late 19th Century, early 20th Century--didn’t want to fly the Union Jack. So illegally, they flew this flag.”
Prior to this, "percept and example” were the reasons Prime Minister John A Macdonald consistently made use of the Red Ensign just a few years after confederation. In fact, Canada did not have its own official flag until the great flag debate ended on February 15, 1965, when Canada, under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, adopted the Red Maple Leaf flag that flies to this day.
The Red Ensign did cause a stir in Britain during the Boer War when a London newspaper reported Canada wasn’t flying the correct flag on Parliament Hill
“That created a bit of a ruckus so they got the word back from London that they can’t fly that flag, it’s not approved. So they brought it down and put up the Union Jack and ever since then until the next flag they had to fly the Union Jack.”
The Red Ensign came to feature the then new Canada Coats of Arms that was designed in 1922 and approved for use in 1924. Flashing forward a couple of decades, in 1945 an order in council signed by the Governor-General approved its use on buildings occupied by the Canadian government both in our country and abroad.
Certainly, the Union Jack was commonly flown but the Red Ensign was popular.
“It was kind of a symbol of “This is our flag. Our flag isn’t the Union Jack.”
A Red Ensign was famously carried by a Canadian soldier when storming Vimy Ridge, Taylor explains.
“One regimental Sgt. major took the same flag as this, not necessarily this one, folded it up and put in his backpack when he went up Vimy Ridge. He carried it, even though it was illegal to do this because in the First War World they were fighting under the British government so they had to fly the Union Jack.”