Canadian symbols: THE MAPLE LEAF

Canadian symbols: THE MAPLE LEAF © David Watts, April 2003


The red and white Maple Leaf has been Canada’s official flag only thirty-nine years—less than a third of the time since Confederation, less than a tenth of the years since Europeans founded their first permanent settlements here.

Our grandparents and some of our parents remember the Canadian Ensign that flew for almost a hundred years before the flag we have now. It had three maple leaves at the bottom of the shield.

The flag of Ontario, a red ensign with a crest is much like the old Canadian flag, except that its three maple leaves are gold, where the ones on the Canadian ensign were green, and later, red.

Before “O Canada” was translated into English, the first official Canadian song sung by non-francophones was “The Maple Leaf Forever.” It was written by a Toronto high school teacher after a silver maple leaf fell on his coat one evening and wouldn’t brush off.

The maple leaf as a Canadian symbol, then, has been with us for a much longer time than our flag: on early banners, on our shield and coat of arms, and in a song we sang.

The different shapes and colours in which the maple leaf has been drawn, painted and photographed make it a good symbol for the diversity of Canadians.

When our present flag was being debated, some westerners complained the maple was an eastern tree that did not grow in Western Canada, and therefore it did not stand for the whole country.

They were talking about sugar maples, from which maple syrup is extracted. But there are many kinds of maple tree as there are many different kinds of Canadians. There is the Manitoba Maple, that grows in the West, and the Bird’s Eye Maple, used in fine woodwork in Europe for centuries.

There are maples every part of Canada except the high arctic. Not all of them turn the deep shade of crimson or scarlet of the sugar maple in autumn. But all have three part leaves, and many are cultivated for their beautiful foliage.

In fact, maple trees grow not only through Canada but through the Northern Hemisphere in the temperate zone—another reason Canada’s choice of the maple leaf as a symbol is a good one.

In Europe since medieval times people have danced around maple trees in springtime. They called it the May-Pole tree, trimmed off its leaves and attached multi-coloured streamers which they wove in elaborate patterns in the dances.

As Kanata meant a village or meeting place, so the May-Pole was a meeting and celebration spot.

A spring dance, a variety of species, a range of colours, a northern habitat, quality hardwood and a sweet confection—these are all good reasons for sharing the maple leaf as a Canadian symbol.

We don’t sing “The Maple Leaf Forever” anymore. But “The Maple Leaf Together” is a good theme song for Canadians in our fourth century since European settlement and our second century after Confederation.

(background music: Scott Joplin, “Maple Leaf Rag”, ending Muir/Watts “The Maple Leaf Together)