Fifty-eight years ago today, the Canadian Red Ensign ceased to be the national flag. Yet in 2022, the Ensign unexpectedly became a subject of public discussion again. Its occasional appearance during protests against public health measures, especially the “Freedom Convoy” occupation of downtown Ottawa in February, led some observers to point out the Ensign’s recent use as an emblem of white nationalists. In June, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network launched Confronting and Preventing Hate in Canadian Schools: A Toolkit, which controversially labeled the Canadian Red Ensign a “Hate-Promoting Symbol” when displayed in certain contexts. One provincial government discouraged use of the toolkit, and a few commentators jumped to the Ensign’s defense, reminding readers that Canadian soldiers fought Nazism and fascism under the Red Ensign during the Second World War.
There are legitimate, or at least innocuous, reasons to fly a Canadian Red Ensign. Given its military history, it is entirely appropriate to display the Ensign on war memorials. Canadian civilians also flew the Red Ensign as their national flag for many years, so it does inspire nostalgia for some.
However, unusual religious beliefs, conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitism and white nationalism have been part of the Ensign’s story since at least the 1950s and 1960s. A small minority of Red Ensign proponents held these views, but that minority did influence mainstream flag discussions. Present-day extremist use of the Ensign has its roots in these fringe contributions to the Great Flag Debate of 1964.
Seven years before that debate, a pamphlet appeared entitled Does Canada Need A New Flag? Its publisher, the British-Israel-World Federation (Canada) Inc. (BIWF), was one of several organizations in Canada advocating what they called “British-Israel Truth,” the belief that the peoples of the British Isles are the literal, genetic descendants of the biblical Lost Tribes of Israel.
The BIWF’s defense of the Red Ensign flowed from its religious and racial vision. Does Canada Need A New Flag? described how the flag represented the British race’s biblical origins. To the British-Israelites, the three crosses that comprise the Union Jack in the Ensign’s upper corner, or “canton”, were not recent national or even Christian emblems, but represented a protective mark, or entwined Hebrew letters tau and aleph, described in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 9:4). “Our Union Jack represents the Union of Jacob – the Union of the Twelve Tribes of Israel,” concluded the pamphlet. The authors distinguished biblical “Israelites” from modern-day Jews, consistent with British-Israelism’s position that white northern Europeans, rather than Jews, were God’s covenant people. In time, as scholars Michael Barkun and Nicholas Goodrick Clarke have demonstrated, this position would give rise to a far more hateful ideology, Christian Identity.
Other racial anxieties also animated the British-Israelites. The BIWF’s magazine, The Prophetic Expositor, characterized the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a communist front group and alleged that the goal of racial integration was “the ultimate destruction of the white race,” foreshadowing “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories popular in extremist circles today.
In the 1960s, a newly formed “Canadian Patriotic Association” (CPA) helped to promote British-Israelite interpretations among Red Ensign supporters. Mainstream patriotic societies collaborated with the association, but it operated out of the BIWF’s downtown Toronto headquarters and distributed BIWF literature, including Does Canada Need A New Flag?  Thousands of Canadians signed the CPA’s petitions, likely unaware of its racial and religious motivations. However, these influences do come through in letters to the Department of the Secretary of State supporting the Ensign’s retention. Many correspondents pointed to the Ensign’s Christian significance, and some even cast it as a divinely ordained emblem of God’s chosen people.
If the Ensign was a sacred symbol of British racial origins, what of those who supported a new flag? The authors of Does Canada Need A New Flag? labeled them “subversive sources” seeking to undermine Anglo-Saxon unity. The Prophetic Expositor’s final commentary on the flag issue contrasted destructive “wreckers” and “carpetbaggers”, motivated by “a self-abasing doctrine of internationalism,” who frustrated the “building” and “civilizing” projects of the “Israel [i.e. British] race.” Letters from Red Ensign partisans to the government typically identified “the French element” and occasionally “communists” among anti-Ensign conspirators. One writer added a favourite anti-Semitic canard to the mix, warning that the removal of Christian symbols from the Canadian flag portended the coming of a “World Government” led by the Rothschilds. This leaflet, distributed anonymously to MPs, cited Canada’s leading anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist of the day, Ronald Gostick.
From his base in Flesherton, Ontario, Gostick spent decades battling a supposed “Communist-Zionist-monopolist-finance enemy of Christian civilization,” mainly through his monthly newsletter, The Canadian Intelligence Service. In its pages, Holocaust denial and anti-communist paranoia shared space with fiery defenses of the Red Ensign. In June 1964, Gostick devoted an entire issue of the newsletter to the flag and its significance, drawing heavily on British-Israelite pseudohistory. His fantastical claim, for instance, that the Scottish lion rampant on the arms of Canada had once been the emblem of “Brutus the Trojan, of the Tribe of Judah, who is reported to have founded the City of London about 1100BC,” was lifted almost word-for-word from Does Canada Need a New Flag?
Within the conspiratorial fringe where Gostick operated, the Red Ensign became associated with seemingly unrelated causes. Foreshadowing flag-flaunting anti-vaccination protests in 2022, fringe support for the Red Ensign in the 1960s coincided with opposition to the most controversial public health measure of the day: fluoridation of drinking water to improve dental health.
As historians Catherine Carstairs and Rachel Elder have shown, conspiracy theories animated some Canadian anti-fluoridation partisans. The same spring that Gostick issued his Red Ensign supplement, he published a similar supplement on the fluoride question in which he claimed unscrupulous mining companies and communist subversives were promoting fluoridation for nefarious purposes. He also likened fluoridation to Nazi medical experimentation.
In Ontario, a network of local “Citizens’ Rights Associations” campaigned against both fluoridation and the replacement of the Red Ensign. In Ottawa, Social Credit Party activists Fred and Eileen Richardson headed the Citizens’ Rights Association. Like other conspiratorially minded Ensign partisans, the Richardsons surmised that “kicking the Christian crosses off Canada’s flag seems the main aim,” and insinuated that Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson had dictatorial aspirations; they also shared Gostick’s pro-Ensign newsletter with their political allies. Meanwhile in London, Ontario, the Citizens’ Rights Association distributed the CPA’s Red Ensign leaflets. And in Montreal, an informant of the Anti-Defamation League described a reportedly anti-Semitic organization as “a group concerned with ‘flags and fluoridation’,” demonstrating the association of the two questions in fringe circles.
The connection between the Red Ensign and fluoridation may seem tenuous, but as Dan Panneton has recently observed, belief in one conspiracy theory is often the gateway to others. What’s more, even this peculiar parallel between the flag and fluoride resonated beyond the fringe. In Parliament, three opposition MPs, including John Diefenbaker himself, cited municipal fluoridation referenda as precedents for a plebiscite on the flag question. Fringe and mainstream Ensign advocates came together in proposing this populist solution to the flag debate.
Canadians tend to remember the Great Flag Debate as a conflict between Conservatives and Liberals, nostalgic imperialists and “modern” nationalists. However, the debate animated other interests also, including a network of fringe groups, conspiracy theorists and extremists. Within this small but vocal constituency, the Red Ensign represented not just sentimental Britishness and respect for past military service but also Christian- and white nationalism, anti-communism and anti-globalism, and paranoid suspicion of public health measures.
The meanings of national emblems are varied and constantly evolving. As the national flag before 1965, the Red Ensign once represented a variety of ideas about what it meant to be Canadian. Over the past fifty-eight years, Canadians have transferred most of these meanings and attachments to the maple-leaf flag, so extremist uses and interpretations of the Red Ensign loom larger today than they might have in the early 1960s. These uses today have their roots in fringe ideas about the flag that date from the Great Flag Debate. White supremacist Paul Fromm, for example, has praised his mentor Ronald Gostick for championing the Ensign as a symbol of a pre-multicultural, pre-globalist Canada. Hateful interpretations of the Ensign’s meaning may not have appealed to most of the flag’s supporters, but the existence of these views is not a recent “woke” fantasy.
The history of the Ensign’s adoption by extremists provides a case study in how a national emblem can be co-opted and thus offers useful perspective for moderates across the political spectrum. For those who consider the Red Ensign a meaningful heritage symbol, understanding the process of its appropriation may suggest a path to the flag’s rehabilitation. For those concerned about creeping extremist use of the current national flag, the case of the Red Ensign is a cautionary tale, demonstrating how persistent and pernicious fringe interpretations of a national emblem can become.
Forrest Pass is a historian and vexillologist whose research on the history of flag use in Canada has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Raven: A Journal of Vexillology, and on Active History. He is a curator at Library and Archives Canada and editorial director at the Flag Research Center.
 Does Canada Need A New Flag? (Toronto: British-Israel-World Federation (Canada) Inc., 1957), 17.
 Ibid., 3.
 “Regardless of propaganda to the contrary…,” The Prophetic Expositor, Jan 1965, 28; “Our Negroes,” The Prophetic Expositor, Jun 1965, 2.
 Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Department of the Secretary of State of Canada fonds, RG 6, vol. 489, “Postcards and Letters in Support of Red Ensign,” M. Macpherson Hunter to Secretary, Women’s Institute, East Clifton, QC, Feb 22, 1963.
 LAC, RG 6, vol. 489, “Postcards and Letters in Support of Red Ensign,” Helen Edwards to Secretary of States, May 1964; Anonymous to Secretary of State, Jul 22, 1964; B.E. Brown to Hugh John Flemming, Sept 26, 1964; Anonymous to Hugh John Flemming, Oct 2, 1964; E. Rogers to Robert Coates, n.d., 1964.
 Does Canada Need A New Flag? 1.
 “A Momentous Occasion,” The Prophetic Expositor, Apr 1965, 24.
 LAC, RG 6, vol. 489, “Postcards and Letters in Support of Red Ensign,” G.F. MacNeill to Secretary of State, May 5, 1964; Anonymous to Secretary of State, May 19, 1964; Pat S. Ward to Flag Committee, Aug 31, 1964.
 LAC, Guy Marcoux fonds, MG 32 C-78, vol. 4, Flag file, “Red Ensign, Retention of,” n.d. .
 Ron Csillag, “Ronald Gostick, Far-Right Publisher, 1918-2005,” Globe and Mail, Aug 6, 2005.
 “Flag Issue,” Canadian Intelligence Service, 14, no. 6 (1964), 1; “A New Phase of the World Conspiracy,” Canadian Intelligence Service, 14, no. 6 (1964), 3; “’The Big Lie’ Exposed,” Canadian Intelligence Service, 14, no. 6 (1964), 4.
 “Canada HAS a Distinctive Flag,” Canadian Intelligence Service, 14, no. 5 (1964), 2; Does Canada Need A New Flag? 13.
 “Summary,” Canadian Intelligence Service 14, no 3 (1964), Supplementary Section, 8.
 LAC, Guy Marcoux fonds, MG 32, C 78, vol. 4, file 10, Fred Richardson to Marcoux, Jun 4, 1964; vol. 5, file 1, F.D. Richardsons to Marcoux, Jun 20, 1964.
 LAC, B’nai Brith Canada fonds, MG 28 V 133, vol. 97, “Monitoring of Individuals, 1969-70,” Marvin Needelman to Anne Finger, May 12, 1969.
 Paul Fromm, “Ron Gostick, R.I.P.,” On Target, 41, no. 33 (2005). Online. https://alor.org/Storage/OnTarget/Volume41/Vol41No33.htm.
No mention of how a “defaced Red Ensign” became the official flag of Ontario. Why?