Laying Up the White Ensign in Canada

by John MacFarlane 2015

Invitation to Ceremony

The formal invitation to attend the ceremony in Halifax to lay up the White Ensign and to introduce the new Canadian Flag. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

After the introduction of the new Canadian flag the Royal Canadian Navy laid up their White Ensigns and adopted the new flag in its place. The navy innovated a ceremony to accomplish this and it was held in the drill shed at HMCS Stadacona. (I do not know if a similar ceremony was held in Esquimalt on the Pacific coast.) My parents received an invitation to attend. My father, at sea at the time, asked me (a high school student), to escort my mother to the ceremony. My memory of it is still strong now – I recall that the overall tone of the audience was muted as the loss of the naval ensign was keenly felt at the time.

Most nations of the world have one or more marine ensigns to identify their vessels when at sea. No such provision was made in Canada for use in either merchant or naval vessels. The Canadian flag has now become widely recognized with usage on ships around the world. Over the years the jack (the flag flown at the bow of a ship) has reflected a variety of naval and government agencies that are uniquely Canadian. As well uniquely Canadian pendants and flags of rank and office have been developed for the navy and vessels of the Coast Guard.

White Ensign Ceremony

White and Blue Ensigns are paraded for the last time at HMCS Stadacona. (Photo from the Crowsnest Magazine collection.)

On the day of the adoption of the new flag the Royal Canadian Navy had a squadron of ships exercising in the Caribbean and a ship–borne version of the ceremony was carried out to coincide with the one back in Halifax. The ships were alongside at the US Naval Base in Puerto Rico. My father, Commander George MacFarlane RCN, was the skipper of HMCS Chaudiere and tasked with carrying out the ceremony in his ship. Images taken give a feel for how it was carried out.

White Ensign Ceremony

White Ensign lowered and Canadian Flag Raised in HMCS Chaudiere. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The ceremony in Puerto Rico was improvised as there was no precedent for such an event. The ship’s company was assembled and the White Ensign lowered as the new Canadian Flag was raised. The crew marched past and saluted individually as a mark of loyalty and respect. United States Navy observers on nearby ships watched with fascination and asked afterwards why it was necessary for Canada to change ensigns – they could not, at the time, appreciate the significance of the appearance of a distinctly Canadian flag on Canadian naval vessels.

White Ensign Ceremony

March Past in Review Order in HMCS Chaudiere. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Traditionalists still note the loss of the White Ensign and point to variations of it adopted by other countries of the Commonwealth. After fifty years I doubt that there is much popular support for a return of the White Ensign. I still have the last White Ensign flown in HMCS Chaudiere (and the commissioning pennant) in my home and view it now with some nostalgia and pride in past traditions.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2015) Laying Up the White Ensign in Canada. 2015.

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