Studying the history of flags at Red River Settlement leading up to, during, and after the Resistance, illustrates how visual symbols signalled diversity, adversity, and belonging in the past. A brief visual guideline to historical flags associated with Red River Settlement — as presented in fact (meaning verified by historical sources) and, perhaps, in fiction (meaning some flags were only rumoured to have flown) — follows below.
1534-1763: During the Ancien Régime.
A Flag of Nouvelle France/ New France.
1670: Charles II of England grants the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] Royal Charter.
The British Flag, adopted in 1606 and flown to 1800, symbolizing the union of England and Scotland.
The HBC standard, incorporating the Union Flag.
1779: The North West Company forms in Montreal.
Reconstructions of the historic North West Company [NWC] Flag design.
The NWC will compete – sometimes violently -- with the HBC until 1821, when the two companies merge under the HBC name.
1801: A new British Flag is introduced
The flag symbolizes the union of England and Scotland with Ireland.
The Hudson’s Bay Company standard from 1801 onwards, flown at Company fur trade posts, including Upper Fort Garry, Red River Settlement.
In 1873, while testifying before an inquiry into the Red River Resistance, Alexandre-Antonin Taché, Bishop of St. Boniface, stated:
There was no British flag used in the country [Assiniboia] for some time previous to the movement [of 1869–1870]. When the Hudson’s Bay Company did use a flag, it was not the British flag proper, it was a ‘Union Jack,’ with the letters ‘H.B.C.’
On account of the letters ‘H.B.C.’ on the flag, it was considered the flag of the Company. It used to be the practice to fly this flag on Sundays, but for some months before the troubles this practice had ceased, and a far as I know this flag was not hoisted at all for some months.[iv]
1814: A new flag Appears during an intense period of HBC and NWC conflict
Cuthbert Grant Jr.’s New Nation Flag.
For additional information on the flag, see [v]
1837–1838: flag flown during the Rebellions of Lower and Upper Canada
The Parti Patriote Flag a.k.a. the Papineau Standard.
An early chronicler of Red River History, Alexander Ross, commented that during 1837–1838:
The Papineau rebellion … broke out in Canada ... the echo of which soon reached us, [and] added fresh fuel to the spirit of disaffection [with the governance of the HBC]. The Canadians of Red River sighed for the success of their brethren’s cause. Patriotic songs were chanted on every side in praise of Papineau. In the plains, the half-breeds made a flag, called the Papineau standard, which was waved in triumph for years, and the rebels’ deeds extolled to the skies.[vi]
Ross was referring to the struggle of Louis-Joseph Papineau and the Parti Patriote, to see responsible government instituted in Lower Canada. As historian Allan Greer explains,
In 1837–38 Canada came as close to revolution as ever it would. The parliamentary régime had ceased to function in Lower Canada, as a movement the ‘patriots’, pushing in the direction of democracy and independence, ran into a stone wall of British intransigence.[vii]
Perhaps not coincidentally, Jean-Louis Riel (a.k.a. Louis Riel Sr., the father of President Louis Riel of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia), arrived at Red River from Lower Canada in 1838. It is not known whether he had participated in the rebellion (in which case he might have fled Lower Canada to avoid summary incarceration, execution, or deportation/exile; though he might simply have been returning to a preferred homeland — he having been born a Île-à-la-Crosse).
Undoubtedly, however, Riel Sr. communicated information on the ideals of the political reform movement to people of Red River. He was a leading force (along with James Sinclair), in settler protests during the 1840s against the closed government of the HBC — which provided neither for a representative (meaning elected) legislative assembly, nor for a responsible council (meaning chosen from an elected assembly as opposed to being appointed by the HBC Governor).[viii]
In the autumn of 1869, the members of the Comité National des Métis/ Métis National Committee, who were stationed at a barricade on the Pembina road where it crossed the Rivière Sale/ Stinking River, referred to themselves as the “parti Patriote,” and the “Patriot Army.” Although they were not recorded as carrying a flag,[ix] it seems that while performing their guard duty they passed the time by composing verses sung to “La Marseille.” These were written down and “circulated among the half-breeds of the neighbourhood.” The lyrics were also shown to William McDougall, the rejected Lieutenant Governor appointed by Canada.[x]
1869: After the confederatin in 1867 of the British North American colonies
The Canadian Dominion Flag, showing the crests for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and The Province of Canada (which was comprised of Canada East/Lower Canada/ Quebec and Canada West/ Upper Canada/ Ontario).
June 1869: The Flag of the Canadian Party at Red River Settlement
In June of 1869, the Parliament of Canada ratified terms for the transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-West from the HBC to the British Crown, setting the initial date of transfer to 1 October 1869. It then passed An Act for the Temporary Government of Rupert’s Land, 1869, and arranged to send a Lieutenant Governor from Canada — William McDougall — to Red River to replace the HBC Governor and Council as the official government in charge of the settlement. Canadians at Red River — known locally as the Canadian Party — expressed their jubilance by erecting a flag.
Imagined reconstruction of the Canadian Party Flag.
In a letter written in 1870 — after he had been rejected as a governor, had been prevented from entering the settlement, and had returned to Canada — William McDougall referred to the Canadian Party flag flown at Red River in 1869 only as “the British flag, with the word ‘Canada’ upon it.” Alexander Begg, who lived within the settlement at the time and kept a daily journal in which he recorded his impressions, commented,
Dr. S[c]hultz some time ago about the time when it became known that the mission of Mssrs. McDougall and Cartier in England with regard to the transfer of this country was successful erected a flag staff on which he used to hoist the British flag with the words ‘Canada’ inserted in the middle of it in white letters.
The two mentions suggest the version of the Canadian Party flag, ‘Possibility A,’ illustrated above.[xi]
Imagined reconstruction of the Canadian Party Flag.
Alexander McArthur, a newcomer from Canada who arrived at Red River Settlement at the end of October 1869, witnessed some of the events of the Resistance. In his reminiscences, he included stories of events that took place before his arrival. According to McArthur:
In the beginning of the summer of 1869, when news reached the settlement of the successful negotiations in London, the Canadian party in the little village of Winnipeg (adjoining Fort Garry) looked upon the matter as a great victory, and assuming that nothing further required to be done, considered the country as already under the Canadian Government. Dr. Schultz had a flag-pole erected in front of the Nor’-Wester office and alongside his own store, and hoisted on it a large flag with the word Canada across its whole face.[xii]
Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché of St. Boniface testified in 1874 that “Schultz’s flag was, as I understand, hoisted in opposition to the Hudson’s Bay Company.” John Christian Schultz was considered a leader of the Canadian Party at Red River. His flag was elsewhere described as “an improvised version of the Canadian Ensign,” which would suggest a flag such as that shown above.[xiii]
McArthur had observed that the Canadian Party flag had been “of course, anything but pleasing to Governor McTavish [sic].” Displeasure perhaps stemmed from Schultz’s being poorly regarded by the HBC Governor and Council of Assiniboia. First Schultz had run up bad debts. Then he had flouted the Council’s directive that he settle accounts with his creditors, refusing to pay or to serve out his jail sentence — which he avoided by escaping. The HBC governor, William Mactavish, was perhaps annoyed that Schultz’s flag so closely resembled the Company’s own.
According to one report (of an anonymous American correspondent), Schultz was not prevented from continuing to fly his flag at least into early November 1869, and perhaps longer. After the Comité National des Métis had taken possession of Upper Fort Garry (2 November 1869), according to the correspondent:
Dr. Schultz has been in the habit of hoisting on Sundays and holidays the British flag, with the word Canada written on the red ground [suggesting the flag was ‘Possibility B’ above]. I hear it is the Doctor’s intention to hoist it as usual to-morrow, and there are predictions of evil if this should be the case.[xiv]
The supposition that the flag would elicit anger from the Comité National was apparently unfounded. According to further testimony by Bishop Taché, among the people of Red River, Schultz’s flag “was considered a party flag. Mr. Riel considered that if one man in the country had a right to raise a flag of his own, the same right extended to other men.”[xv]
Imagined reconstruction of the ‘Canadian Party’ Flag.
Alexander Jamieson Russell, an illustrator for The Canadian Illustrated News (published in Montreal), imagined Schultz’s flag as something along the lines of the design shown above: consisting only of “Canada” laid out across a light-hued ground. He included the flag in a depiction of the Town of Winnipeg, shown below.
Town of Winnipeg; December 18, 1869; Alexander Jamieson Russell; Canadian Illustrated News; Library and Archives Canada; C-048586. No restrictions on access.[xvi]
Jamieson depicted the view of the Town of Winnipeg as seen from outside the north gate of Upper Fort Garry. The flag was accurately shown in front of the Nor’-Wester newspaper office beside ‘Fort Schultz,’ a large two storey structure that served as a drugstore, warehouse, and lodging.
1 July 1869: A Widely Rumoured Flag is said to have been introduced
The Fabled and Contentious Fenian Flag
Alexander McArthur included in his reminiscences a story of flag shenanigans reputed to have taken place before his arrival. According to McArthur:
Among other sympathizers with the [HBC] Governor and the company were to be numbered nearly all of the Americans in place, and some of the lower orders of these during the early morning of the 1st of July, hauled the obnoxious flag [flown by John C. Schultz] down, and in its place hoisted the Fenian flag. This was, of course, hauled down as soon as it was observed; but it was a great grievance to the Canadian party that the people guilty of hoisting the Fenian flag, were furnished by the Governor, on the 4th of July, with a cannon for the purpose of firing a salute in honor of Independence day.[xvii]
Apparently Schultz — who was fond of describing as ‘loyal’ all right-minded people (meaning those who agreed with him) — was regarded as having Orange Order [Protestant] sympathies. Having his flag captured and replaced by a ‘Green’ [Catholic] Fenian flag — if such an event ever actually took place (it might not have) — would therefore be quite the jibe.[xviii]
A possible candidate for instigating such a prank would be Hugh Francis ‘Bob’ Olone. He was an American proprietor of the saloon across Main Street from ‘Dr.’ Schultz’s drugstore. Aside from having an Irish heritage, Olone was opposed to the Canadian Party (and before long would be an honourable member of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia). HBC Governor William Mactavish‘s act of rewarding the ‘guilty’ might have had something to do the fact that his wife, Mary Sarah ‘Sally’ McDermot Mactavish (sister of Anne ‘Annie’ McDermot Bannatyne, who whipped Schultz’s soon-to-be brother-in-law, Charles Mair), was Catholic, along with half the people of Red River Settlement. However, given that Schultz’s wife, Agnes Campbell Farquharson Schultz, seemed also to be Catholic, it is possible that lending a cannon for a ‘street party’ celebrating the survival of the United States after its recent civil war was simply a courtesy extended to a good neighbour (Olone had been a captain in the Union Army).
Newspapers in Canada thought reports of flags being flown at Red River worthy of comment and could become incensed at rumours of Fenian involvement (Fenian raids having taken place during negotiations for the initial Canadian confederation[xix]). In a column headed “The Leaders at Red River,” the Toronto Globe, along with much criticism of the Resistance, reported on 14 January 1870:
[A] … letter in L’Evenement of the 10th inst., lets us understand that the unfurling of the flag of which we have heard so much, was not a novelty. That flag has been used from time immemorial and has been unfurled in all the varied enterprises of the French half-breeds for years on years. It seems such flags are quite numerous in that region. The Hudson Bay Company have one. The various religious denominations have also their own flags, and so have different companies of merchants. One flag, however, has never appeared there, and that is the British flag. So that, according to this writer, the raising of the new Government flag could mean no disrespect to the British Ensign, as it has never been unfurled to the breeze in that quarter.[xx]
If the article was referring to a Fenian flag, the assertion that the Métis customarily flew such articles is absurd. If the flag meant was that of New France, the statement has some merit, because “The Royal Arms of France, with its three gold fleurs-de-lis on a blue field, was the royal emblem displayed whenever French explorers claimed new land in North America.” That flag, however, did not date to ‘time immemorial,’ even in France. The final statement in the article is open to challenge, depending on what was meant by “British Ensign” and whether the HBC flag was acknowledged as such.[xxi]
The local Red River newspaper, the New Nation, ran a notice in July of 1870, refuting “slander” that had circulated in Canada and that accused Eleanor Eliza Cripps Kennedy, the Canadian-born wife of Captain William Kennedy, a respected Métis resident of Red River, with having embroidered a Fenian flag that was “hoisted over Fort Garry” during the Resistance.[xxii] The image shown above is purported to show a flag created in 1869 at the settlement, allegedly designed by Louis Riel and used as the flag of both provisional governments (1869–1870 and 1885) in which he participated. There are no sources, however, known to support such claims.[xxiii]
4 July 1869: American Flag flown during celebrations in Town of Winnipeg[xxiv]
Note there were 37 states in the union at the time.
2 November 1869: Possible Comité National des Métis Flag
Imagined reconstruction of Flag allegedly flown at Upper Fort Garry.
The Minneapolis Tribune of 24 November 1869 reported that the “Republic of the Half-breeds” had installed itself in Upper Fort Garry as of 2 November 1869. It was further alleged that as of 6 November, “A new flag has been adopted, which is composed of a white ground, upon which are displayed three crosses — the centre one large and scarlet coloured, the side ones smaller and gold coloured. A golden fringe binds the white ground.”[xxv]
It is worth remarking that Captains of the Red River Buffalo Hunt each had a signal flag that represented their constituency of hunters. It is possible that the first flag raised at Upper Fort Garry by Red River settlers was a signal to the wider community, indicating exactly which traditional hunt brigade or brigades had occupied the premises. The flag might have been the signal flag of either St. Norbert or St. Vital hunters, or, it might have been a new design that signalled the combining of the two groups. William McDougall, the Canadian Lieutenant Governor designate who had not been allowed to enter the Settlement, in fact alluded to the occupiers of Upper Fort Garry as a “faction that rallied the Buffalo-hunters to their standard.”[xxvi]
Imagined reconstruction of a flag said to have flown during the 1885 Resistance, of a design that perhaps had its origins in a Red River or Pembina hunt brigade.
10 December 1869: Provisonal Government Flag
Imagined reconstruction of Henry Woodington’s version of the Provisional Government’s flag.
According to Henry Woodington, who was among the Canadian Volunteer Militia taken prisoner on 7 December 1869 after their surrender at ‘Fort Schultz’ (the drugstore), the Provisional Government flag was “made of white Duffle, 2 x 3 feet in size. There are three fleur de luce [sic] or Flower of France [missing word?] across the surface with a shamrock in the centre of the bottom edge.”[xxvii]
HBC Governor William Mactavish reported that the first Provisional Government flag had been run up the pole at Upper Fort Garry, “with much formality,” as that government was proclaimed on 10 December 1869. He did not describe the flag, which is unfortunate because the descriptions that exist do not agree on details of the design.[xxviii]
Imagined reconstruction based on Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché’s description.
According to Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché (who was not present in the settlement at the time), “The flag used by the Provisional Government was the French flag with the ‘Fleur de lis,’ to which was afterwards added the shamrock.” Taché did not, however, indicate which flag of France this might have been. Although the one displayed at opening of this article would seem a logical choice, there were variations of the flag of France — others of which also featured the fleur de lys.[xxix]
Donald A. Smith, sent to Red River as Commissioner from Canada, reported that while at the settlement he objected to the “Fleur-de-lis and shamrocks” flying at the time of the mass meeting held outdoors 18–19 January 1870.[xxx] Part of his objection was perhaps due to rumours that, in putting up the Provisional Government flag, a British flag had been taken down. According to Taché, however, “there never was any such thing as taking down the British flag at all” — because a proper Union Jack had not been flown at Fort Garry for at least two years previous.
Imagined reconstruction based on Alexander Beggs Description.
According to Alexander Begg (who was in the settlement at the time, and who recorded the putting up and taking down of flags[xxxi]), “the Provisional Government flag” had “the fleur de lys and shamrock on the fly.” He penned a square in his journal in which he promised an illustration of the flag design, but did not in fact supply one.[xxxii] The phrase “on the fly,” used by Begg, refers to the space on a British flag or ensign where a colonial crest is placed — hence the design imagined above.
Incidentally, the crest of the city of Montreal also had (and still has) a shamrock on it.
The four original symbols for the Montreal crest were a beaver, thistle, rose, and shamrock. The crest lost the beaver in 1938, when a fleur de lys was substituted.[xxxiii]
February 1870: the Parish of Kildonan Flag
The parish of Kildonan also displayed a flag during the resistance, described as “a large ensign with the words ‘God Save The Queen’ stitched across it.”
7 April 1870: Flag flown at Upper Fort Garry by the Provisional Government of Assiniboia
Alexander Begg described the flag flown by the Provisional Government of Assiniboia, from 7 April 1870 onwards as England’s flag. He did not mention any crest ‘on the fly,’ which opens the possibility that it was the Union Jack.
On 7 May 1870, Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché wrote to Hon. Joseph Howe, Canadian Secretary of Sate for the Provinces, that six weeks after Taché’s arrival on 9 March in the settlement,
the ‘party flag’ (which was never the Fenian flag) was replaced by the old ‘Union Jack,’ not without some difficulties, but the noble British standard has floated ever since. Peace and confidence are prevailing, and without exception, the whole community is joyfully anticipating the speedy settlement of our past difficulties by our complete and peaceful union with Canada.
Taché was adamant: “the Fenian banner was never hoisted, notwithstanding the assertion of the contrary in newspapers.”[xxxiv]
While testifying in 1874, Taché recalled that when the Red River Expeditionary Force arrived at the lower settlement on 23 August 1870, “the British flag was floating over [Upper] Fort Garry.” He explained that “During the night the rain poured very heavily, and they took down the British flag on that account that morning [27 August]. I had myself seen it flying the previous evening.”[xxxv]
July 1870: Dominion Flag after the Creation of Manitoba
On 23 July 1870, the Red River newspaper, New Nation, ran an article entitled “Dominion Flags,” that indicated the flag flown by the Dominion that had been entered by the new province of Manitoba was: the blue ensign, with the arms of the Dominion on the fly. The arms of each of the four provinces combined in one shield, the shield surrounded with a garland or wreath of Maple leaves surmounted by a crown resting on the wreath. The ensign is pretty, although some people are inclined to think it too foreign looking. The Governor-General’s flag is the Union Jack, with the above arms or badge of the Dominion emblazoned on a shield in the centre. The flag for the Lieutenant Governors of the Provinces is the Union Jack, with the arms of the respective Provinces on a shield in the centre, surrounded by a wreath of Maple leaves.
July 1870: Flags of British North American Colonies, not yet confederated Flag.
Colony of Newfoundland Flag
Colony of British Columbia Flag
As of 1870, the Colony of Prince Edward Island [P.E.I.] did not have a flag. After it confederated with Canada in 1873, P.E.I. did eventually have a badge (in 1878). The badge design was based on the Public Seal of St. John’s Island — the name of the island when it became a colony separate from Nova Scotia in 1769 (the name Prince Edward Island was adopted in 1799).
The seal “depicted an oak tree and three small saplings with a Latin motto meaning, ‘the small under the protection of the great.’ The oak tree represented Britain, and the saplings, the island’s three counties of King’s, Queen’s and Prince.”[xxxvi]
Circa August 1870: Mystery Flag 1
Allegedly a flag “made by Canadian soldiers and flown over Fort Garry” after the arrival of the Red River Expeditionary Force.
A “Miss Sybil Inkster,” donated this flag to the Manitoba Museum c. 1968. A “newspaper report” indicated Sheriff Colin Inkster “used this flag” at the unveiling of a cairn in 1927. The report also asserted the Canadian soldierly origin. James B. Stanton noted, however, “The flag shown here does not match any of the known descriptions” of those flown during or after the resistance, but that it “very nearly resembles the flag shown in Lord Selkirk’s drawing of Fort Douglas” (shown below).[xxxvii]
Detail of Thomas Douglas, pencil sketch, “Fort Douglas” from Lord Selkirk's colonists; the romantic settlement of the prioneers of Manitoba; 1817; Thomas Douglas (Lord Selkirk); Russell, Lang & Co.; University of Alberta Libraries - Peel Prairie Provinces; Reproduced in George Bryce, Lord Selkirk’s Colonists, p. 112; and Manitoba, p. 160.
The Fort Douglas cairn and plaque were unveiled in 1925 near the northwest corner of Higgins Avenue and
Maple Street — perhaps the ‘newspaper report’ was referring to the 1925 event and printed ‘1927’ in error.
Circa August 1870: Mystery Flag 2
A flag similar in design to that shown here was possibly “brought out with one of the regiments that came here in 1870.”
For a photograph of the actual flag and a discussion of its origins, see James B. Stanton, “The Fenian Raids, 1866 – 1870,” Manitoba Pageant 17, no. 2 (Winter 1972).
The Manitoba Flag
The new Province of Manitoba did not have its own flag immediately after confederating with Canada. The first ‘provincial’ flag flown appears to have instead been the Canadian Red Ensign. The addition of Manitoba as a province (or the addition of provinces that subsequently entered confederation) was not officially incorporated into the ensign’s design. Various flag makers did, however, create crests to place on the fly that indicated provincial additions. The Canadian Red Ensign shown immediately below shows a crest created after Manitoba entered confederation, but before British Columbia or Prince Edward Island had done so.
1871: Canadian Red Ensign
Detail showing crest
Note Manitoba’s indistinct, but buffalo-like creature at the bottom right, under a St. George’s cross [the traditional flag of England] that seems to have an additional badge superimposed on it [most likely the Royal Crown — see the description of the Great Seal of Manitoba in 1870 immediately below).
Manitoba was granted an officially legitimized crest before receiving an officially legitimized flag of its own. The New Nation (20 August 1870), carried an article titled, “The Great Seal of Manitoba,” which indicated that a seal was being made at Ottawa that “contains the Cross of St. George and the Royal Crown, with a buffalo on a green field.”
Although an order in council of August 1870 created the provincial seal, it was not until 1905 that “The coat of arms of Manitoba was established by royal warrant. The green shield bears a bison, a beast that provided food and clothing to indigenous groups and early settlers and gave the latter a strong export product.”[xxxviii]
1907: Canadian Red Ensign
1922: Canadian Red Ensign
15 February 1965: Canadian Flag
The Maple Leaf Flag
12 May 1966: Manitoba flag
The decision to adopt the current Manitoba flag was made after the federal government decided to replace the Canadian Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf flag. After Queen Elizabeth II gave permission for the use of the Union device (the Union Jack) in October 1965, the Manitoba Legislative Assembly passed a bill approving the flag on 11 May 1965. The flag was officially proclaimed on 12 May 1966.
One that got away
A casualty of the "Great Canadian Flag Debate.’
See also “A Selection of Proposed Flags for Canada, 1895–1964,”[xxxix] for historical samples of Canadian flags that were not adopted. (You must push the continue to PDF button)