This is the chapter entitled, British Columbia, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.


Chap X:


(Splendor without diminishment)
Motto of British Columbia


The stories of the flags, arms, and great seals of British Columbia are so intertwined, that they must be told together lest the omission of one leaves the remainder incoherent.

For many former British possessions, the great seal formed the basis for subsequent arms, flag badges, or both. Indeed, the great seal was the inspiration for some of the arms or flags of the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Manitoba. In British Columbia, it did not happen in that way, at least not at first.

The province started as two separate colonies: Vancouver Island, formed in 1849, and British Columbia, formed on the mainland in 1858. A great seal was issued for each, but neither was particularly suitable as an emblem of the colony. The seal of Vancouver Island was a hopelessly cluttered affair which contained not only the royal arms, but also roses, shamrocks, thistles, a trident, a caduceus, a pine cone, and a beaver. That of British Columbia, although simple, was equally unsuitable as it bore the image of Queen Victoria resplendent upon her throne. Upon the unification of the two colonies in 1866, Vancouver Island's seal was returned to London, while British Columbia's continued in use long after Confederation even though it bore the label, "Colony."1

The colony thus lacked a ready symbol when, on August 7, 1869, Queen Victoria instructed governors to fly their colonial badge in the centre of the Union Flag. Anthony Musgrave, the Governor who arrived newly appointed to B.C. only a few weeks before the Queen's proclamation, made no effort to comply with this effort to prevent governors from using a plain Union Flag at sea. Finally in May 1870, under pressure from the Royal Navy at Esquimalt, Governor Musgrave submitted a design for a flag badge after being assured that he could still fly the undefaced Union Flag on land. The design Musgrave submitted was more than a little audacious, and it is surprising that the Admiralty approved it, as it did on July 9, 1870. For the colonial badge of British Columbia, Musgrave chose the crest from the Royal Arms, a crowned lion atop a crown, with the minor addition of the flanking letters, B and C. However, approved it was, and on October 9, 1870, Governor Musgrave inaugurated his flag, the first distinctive and official flag for British Columbia.2

In Canada, the vice-regal flag badges were surrounded by a wreath of maple leaves; in British Columbia, still a colony, the flag badge was surrounded, as was standard British practice, by a wreath of laurel. In later years various mixtures of laurel, oak and maple leaves were to be seen. The wreath was soon treated as if it were actually part of the provincial badge rather than merely an frame around it when displayed on a vice-regal flag.

On July 20, 1871, British Columbia entered Confederation and the Governor's flag became the Lieutenant-Governor's flag. Soon a request arrived from the Secretary of State in Ottawa asking for a design for a coat of arms for the province so that it could be added to the composite badge of the Dominion. B.C. responded that the framing of such a design should be left to the proper heraldic authorities, but they did insist that any design chosen must include the crowned lion of the quondam colony.3 The Dominion government likewise took the road of least resistance by merely using the colonial badge of B.C. complete with wreath, so that is how it appears on the seven-province ensigns.

It is not clear if the colonial badge was ever used by itself to make a B.C. ensign. Indirect evidence suggests that it might have been.4 Then about 1885, in a reversal of the usual route, the flag badge was used as the basis of a new great seal, this time one which acknowledged that B.C. was now a province rather than a colony. Yet this device was not particularly suitable for either a seal or flag badge because it presented no special motif of the province, but was simply an emblem of the sovereign.

In 1895 the Executive Council of B.C. accepted a new design, proposed by Canon Arthur Beanlands of Victoria. Beanlands' design, which took the form of a full achievement of arms, formed the principal element of the new great seal used from 1896 to 1911. The only portion of the design of interest for flags was the shield, and it bore the familiar elements of the present shield, but in a different order. The Union Flag appeared in the base, while, at the top, the sun set over the ocean. It is likely that, but not known if, this shield was used as the flag badge of the lieutenant-governors of B.C. for the decade following 1896. It was not incorporated into the aberrant seven-province Canadian Red Ensigns, then in common use, but it did appear in the version based upon Edward Chadwick's écu complet, but with a face added to the sun.

Homemade arms are not official arms, so, when B.C. set about to have them authorized, the College of Arms insisted on two changes: The order of the elements should be reversed placing the Union Flag in the chief, and it should be differenced with an antique crown. This agreed to, the new shield became the arms of British Columbia on March 31, 1906. The modification was quickly incorporated into the composite shield seen on the nine-province Canadian Red Ensigns, and in 1911 it was incorporated into a new provincial great seal.


The Provincial Flag

British Columbia was now properly equipped with arms and so had an armorial banner. Before 1960, there is no evidence that it was ever used by officials within the province, but it was unquestionably used by the Agent General in London. One of these armorial banners, which has survived, is believed to have been used by the former premier, Sir Richard McBride, during his tenure as Agent General at B.C. House between 1915 and 1917.5 Later, this particular banner was to play a role in the adoption of the provincial flag.

Occasionally, provincial authorities used a B.C. Red Ensign by using the shield and motto as a flag badge. While probably used at various times, such ensigns are known to have been displayed by a provincial trade delegation to San Francisco in the 1920s. These uses of both the provincial armorial banner and the provincial red ensign are in keeping with the peculiar Canadian practice early in the twentieth century of distinguishing themselves abroad with flags which were not used at home.

With the exception of Nova Scotia and Quebec, the widespread attitude was that provincial flags were irrelevant. In 1946, Mr. William MacAdam, B.C.'s long lasting Agent General in London, visited Premier John Hart in Victoria. He brought with him a sketch of the armorial banner and suggested that it would make a good provincial flag. Mr. Hart is reported to have turned it down with the remark, "Where and how would we use it?" The province, he felt was adequately equipped with the Canadian Red Ensign and the Union Flag.6

In the mid 1950s, with the hundredth anniversary approaching of the 1858 creation of the colony of B.C., Premier Bennett sought to discover if the province had ever had a flag. He wished to find something a little more dignified than might be produced (and, indeed was produced) by the local devisers of logotypes. When a search of the archives failed to reveal any special flag used to identify the province, the 1958 centennial committee adopted a pedestrian design which placed a goulash of shields, dates, letters, factories, trees, mountains, and ocean, upon a blue field.

Although the archives had proven barren, subsequent inquiries at B.C. House in London revealed the earlier use of the provincial armorial banner. Responding to the inquiries, William MacAdam returned to Victoria upon his retirement in September 1958, and with him brought both a drawing and an example of the armorial banner used early in the century.7 For the nonce, however, there was no need to act for, by now, the centennial and its unfortunate flag were nearly finished with-or so one might have thought. On February 12, a cabinet minister suggested that the centennial flag, with the motto replacing the dates, be adopted as the provincial flag.8 Although the legislature approved the idea in principle that March,9 another year passed before the requisite legislation was introduced.

Then, amid a shower of puns and derision, the government was charged with committing a flagrant artistic crime, flagrante delicto. Premier Bennett extricated his government by writing off the bill as a private member's motion. The deputy speaker quashed all debate until the second reading, and then eliminated the second reading.10 A good way out of this embarrassing state of affairs would be to remove the element of choice by discovering that the province already had a flag. Having been made aware of the armorial banner by William MacAdam, provincial authorities arranged for the College of Arms to produce an official drawing of it,11 and for a flag itself to be manufactured in England.12

This accomplished, on June 17, 1960 Premier Bennett was able to return from a three-week business trip to London with a flag he had supposedly just discovered at the College of Arms.13 The success of this minor subterfuge was followed swiftly by an order-in-council which, on June 27, 1960, converted the province's armorial banner into its provincial flag.

The resulting flag is very effective when presented in the official 3:5 ratio. Unfortunately, the 1:2 ratio, most often seen outside the province, so greatly elongates the flag that, as one observer put it, the sun begins to look like a banana with rays.


The Lieutenant-Governor's Flag

It has already been discussed how the first Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia inherited a vice-regal flag from his predecessor, the colonial governor. In the centre of a Union Flag, it bore the royal crest flanked by B and C and surrounded by a laurel wreath. Presumably, the Lieutenant-Governor will have only used his flag while a sea during the nineteenth century.

It is not known, but it is likely that in 1895, when the badge devised for the province by Canon Beanlands was adopted, the vice-regal flag badge would have changed. Certainly it changed after arms were granted in 1906 and, with the addition of motto and maple-leaf wreath, the shield of the provincial arms formed the lieutenant-governor's badge on the Union Flag up until 1982.

With one exception, this flag served as the vice-regal flag for three quarters of a century. Sometime, probably in the late 1930s, but certainly by 1946, the field of the lieutenant-governor's car flag was changed from that of the Union Flag to a plain blue. Upon it appeared the shield, but the antique crown was enlarged and displaced so that it surmounted the shield, and the motto was placed upon a large scroll below the shield. This version of the car flag continued in use until changed back to the regular badge upon a Union Flag when General George R. Pearkes assumed office in 1960.14

On February 1, 1982, the Governor General approved the new-pattern flag for the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia.


Two Flags of Historic Interest

Between 1867 and 1871, sentiment in British Columbia was divided over whether the colony should join Canada. Geographically, the dividing line ran down the Strait of Georgia, with those on the mainland largely supporting Confederation, and those on the island largely opposing it.

Beginning in 1868, Josua Spencer Thompson, the editor of the Cariboo Sentinel in the gold-rush town of Barkerville, showing his support for Confederation by flying an ensign bearing a home-painted badge of a beaver surrounded by maple leaves on a white roundel.15 Apparently, on the basis of a questionable report in a neighbouring newspaper, he believed this to be the Dominion flag.16

Then, on June 17, 1871, Dr Israel Wood Powell, a personal friend of John A. Macdonald and a supporter of Confederation, brought a Canadian Blue Ensign to the colony. It was the first flag of the Dominion to reach the coast.17 The following July 1st with Confederation still twenty days off, Dr. Powell presented the new flag to the Victoria Fire Department amid great ceremony.18

Flags of Occasion

Already discussed was the flag used for the B.C. colonial centennial of 1958. The province did not institute a special flag to mark the national centennial of 1967, as did its two neighbours to the east. However, in 1971 a special flag was flown to mark the entry of British Columbia into Confederation. Of vastly superior design to the 1958 flag, it bore the provincial dogwood flower centred on three golden "C"s, for Canada, Confederation, and Centennial, on a blue field.

Although, in 1978, the bicentennial of Captain Cook's visit to the shores of British Columbia was marked with a flag bearing a logotype on a white field, the flag of occasion that will probably be remembered the longest will be that of EXPO 86. Initially, the logotype of the exposition with its cunning amalgamation of the 8 and 6 into a clover leaf, was rendered blue on a white field; later, the more effective, white on blue was seen everywhere. Of all the flags that accompanied the event, the other one of particular interest in B.C. was that of the British Columbia Pavilion. It used the motif of the B.C. Spirit Flag, a government logotype adopted in 1963 which is loosely based upon the provincial flag itself.19

1986 also brought an effective centennial flag for the City of Vancouver and one using the Canadian pale for the 75th anniversary of B.C. Parks.

A major annual event in British Columbia is the Pacific National Exhibition. Since 1972 it has used a red flag bearing a pinwheel and their initials on a white roundel.


Two Governmental Flags

On June 16, 1960, a new provincial crown corporation offered its services to the public. Flying aboard the M.V. Sidney that day was the house flag of the B.C. Ferry Corporation, designed a few months earlier in a Victoria garden. Premier Bennett, who was having supper at the home of his private secretary, Ronald B. Worley, asked him to think of a simple flag for the corporation. After supper, Worley picked a dogwood blossom from a tree in his garden, held it against his wife's green dress, and asked if how this would do as a flag. Bennett said fine, and the design has been used ever since.20

In 1986 the Ministry of Tourism adopted a flag bearing the B.C. Spirit Flag logotype to be flown on the many tourist information booths throughout the province.


University Flags

B.C. has three major universities and a military college. The oldest of these, the University of British Columbia, opened in 1915. Its flag, of unknown vintage, bears the university shield on the fly of a blue and gold field. The arms of U.B.C. are based on the provincial arms with the open book symbol of learning replacing the Union Flag in the chief.

Before becoming an independent institution in 1963, the University of Victoria had had a long association with first, McGill University and then U.B.C. Its flag reflects each of these with its blue and gold colours of U.B.C. and the three red martlets of McGill.

Simon Fraser University uses its armorial banner as its flag. The arms, granted in 1965, place the open book in the chief and the ancient arms of Lord Lovat, Chief of Clan Fraser in the base. The flag was flown on campus first in February 1983.

The flag of Royal Roads in Esquimalt is designed, like that of the Collège militaire royale at St-Jean, Quebec, in imitation of the flag of the Royal Military College in Kingston. The red in the torse and lateral panels of the R.M.C. flag is replaced with blue in the Royal Road's flag so as to reflect its naval origins. The flag is comparatively modern, having only been used since 1986.

Municipalities and Regions

A large number of cities an municipalities in British Columbia have adopted flags, all, apparently, since the adoption of the national flag in 1965. Some of those adopted through 1987 are illustrated here. One of the earliest to be adopted was that of the capital city. In 1966, Victoria placed its arms, granted four years earlier, in the centre of a blue field. Using a white field, this method of design was also adopted by Nelson (1967) and Saanich (1983). Richmond (1979) placed its shield in the centre of a blue bordered, gold field.

The cities of Kelowna and Williams Lake (1987) placed their arms upon a Canadian Pale. Dawson Creek (1969) and Chilliwack (1986) also used a Canadian Pale, but instead of using arms in the centre, there appears a local motif. That of Dawson Creek is a symbol synonymous with the city: the mile zero post of the Alaska Highway.

Vancouver adopted a flag in 1983 incorporating elements of the municipal arms, but encoding the city's peninsular position with a green chevron penetrating wavy bars of blue and white. Nanaimo (not illustrated) flies its armorial banner, while West Vancouver (1987) places its armorial banner in the canton of a blue ensign.

The city of Port Alberni, with an economy based upon lumber exporting, adopted a simple logotype of a compass card of trees. In 1986 it was placed upon a white field to form the municipal flag. Other flags illustrated are Prince Rupert (1972), Trail (1976), and Fort St. John (1986).

An informal flag representing a region is that of Vancouver Island, suggested in 1988 by Victoria resident, Michael Halleran. He noted that in 1865 permission was given for colonies to place their badges upon the fly of a blue ensign. There is no evidence that the colony of Vancouver Island did so at the time, and only a year later, it lost its separate identity upon merger with the colony of British Columbia. However, using elements from the great seal of the colony, Halleran created a Vancouver Island badge and then its flag as he placed the badge on a blue ensign. It is too early to know if the flag gains the acceptance of some of the other regional flags in the country.


This is the chapter entitled, British Columbia, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



1. Conrad Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), pp. 181-82.

2. Michael Halleran, "The Coat of Arms of the Quondam Colony," Manuscript submitted to Heraldry in Canada.

3. "Chief Commissioner of L & W reporting respecting a design for a Coat of Arms for this Province," Department of Lands and Works, Victoria October 23, 1872, No. 162, State Book, p. 122.

4. In 1891, an ensign on a pamphlet cover issued by the publishers of the Daily Colonist bore a rampant lion and a roundel with the letters B.C., "Victoria: The Queen City," (Victoria: Ellis & Co., 1891). In 1903, the B.C. Forestry Service used markers in the form of small red ensigns with the letters B.C. on the fly during their survey of the B.C.-Yukon border. (Personal communications from Michael Halleran.)

5. Personal communication from Ronald B. Worley, former Executive Assistant to Premier W.A.C. Bennett from 1952 to 1959.

6. Harry Young, "B.C.'s New Flag" Colonist, (June 26, 1960), p. 4.

7. For many of the details of the events in the late 1950s, I am indebted to a personal communication from Ronald B. Worley.

8. "B.C.'s Flag Waved," Colonist (February 13, 1959), p. 9.

9. "Legislators Approve B.C. Flag" Vancouver Sun (March 21, 1959), p. 6.

10. "British Columbia: Flagrante Delicto," Time (March 7, 1960).

11. The drawing the armorial banner was made on May 13, 1960 by J.D. Heaton-Armstrong, Clarenceux King of Arms, College of Arms in London.

12. Reporters of the day noted that the flag had been recently manufactured. See, Pete Loudon, "'Bennett' Flag Expected to be Official B.C. Ensign," Vancouver Sun (June 21, 1960), p. 9.

13. "Beaming With Pleasure," Vancouver Sun Final Edition, (June 17, 1906), p. 1.

14. Personal communication from C. Garfield Dixon, formerly of Government House, Victoria.

15. "Dominion Flag", Cariboo Sentinel (July 22, 1871), p. 2.

16. On July 20, 1868, the B.C. Examiner of Yale claimed that the National flag of the Dominion contained a white field with a beaver surrounded by a garland of maple leaves. The inspiration for this strange report has yet to be divined.

17. "Our Flag," Colonist (June 17, 1871).

18. Colonist (July 2, 1871).

19. Smith, Whitney, "Notes: British Columbia" The Flag Bulletin, XXIII, 5/107 (September-October 1984), pp. 183-84.

20. Personal communication from Ronald B. Worley.


This is the chapter entitled, British Columbia, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.