The Canadian Naval Ensign

HMCS Halifax flies the Canadian Naval Ensign


HMCS Halifax flies the Canadian Naval Ensign.

A naval ensign is a flag worn by a warship to indicate its nationality. Most Commonwealth nations wear a distinctive naval ensign on their warships that includes elements of their national flag. This is an internationally accepted practice that is also observed by many non-Commonwealth nations throughout the world such as Japan, China, and Russia. However, not all nations have a distinctive naval ensign, and some nations, such as the United States and France, instead choose to wear their national flag as the naval ensign on their warships.

Wearing a distinctive naval ensign that incorporates the National Flag, distinguishes Canadian warships from other Canadian flagged vessels and foreign navies. It also recognizes the special status of Canadian warships under international maritime law, which stipulates that warships on the high seas have complete immunity from the jurisdiction of all states other than their flag state. Because Canadian warships are units of the Canadian Armed Forces, crewed by military personnel who deploy throughout the world in furtherance of Canadian national policy, they are deemed to have special status under international maritime law. Additionally, the Canadian Naval Ensign promotes and strengthens our Canadian naval identity, and underscores the unique roles, responsibilities, liabilities, and powers of the crews who serve in Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) and other naval vessels.

There are now two distinct symbols that signal Canadian nationality onboard Canadian warships and other naval vessels. The first is the Canadian Naval Ensign, which is worn at the masthead while at sea, or at the stern when alongside, moored, or at anchor. The second is the National Flag, also known as the Maple Leaf Flag, which is worn as the Naval Jack at the bow when the ship is alongside, moored, or at anchor. Additionally, while not specifically required by law or maritime custom, Canadian warships have historically displayed a Maple Leaf badge on or near the main ship’s funnel.

Starting in 1870, the Canadian Marine Service used a Blue Ensign to designate the special government status of its vessels. When the Naval Service of Canada was established on May 4, 1910, this practice continued. At the Imperial Conference of 1911, there was a naval agreement whereby Canadian warships would fly the Royal Navy White (naval) Ensign at the stern and the flag of the Dominion (the Canadian Blue Ensign) at the jack-staff located at the bow. Canadian merchant vessels flew the familiar Red Ensign, indicating their non-governmental status. Later that same year, on August 16, King George V authorized that Canadian naval forces be designated as the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). On December 16, 1911, the Canadian Government ordered the following:

All ships and vessels of the Royal Canadian Navy shall fly at the stern the White Ensign as the symbol of the authority of the Crown, and at the Jack Staff the distinctive flag of the Dominion of Canada, such distinctive flag being the Blue Ensign with the arms of the Dominion inset in the fly. The White Pendant will be flown at the Masthead. (Canadian Order-in-Council PC 2843 of December 16, 1911. Published in the Canadian Gazette on December 30, 1911.)

The authorization of the White Ensign and Blue Jack in 1911 included the statement that “The White Pendant will be flown at the Masthead.” The ship's pennant (to use the modern spelling) is the mark of a commissioned ship and also symbolizes the captain’s authority to command the ship. This pennant, also known as the captain’s pennant, the mast-head pennant or the commissioning pennant, is really the distinguishing flag of the captain. If the Sovereign or a more senior officer in the chain of command were aboard, their distinguishing flag would displace the captain’s pennant at the masthead. Together, the Ensign at the stern, the Jack at the bow, and a distinguishing flag at the masthead form a part of the ship's suit of colours.

While the White Ensign remained unchanged until its use was discontinued in 1965, the Blue Jack underwent a series of changes: the four-province badge was used on the fly until 1922; thereafter, the shield of the Canadian arms was used. The maple leaves on that shield changed from green to red shortly after 1957.

The RCN continued using the White Ensign and the Canadian Blue Jack up until the adoption of the Maple Leaf Flag as the new National Flag on February 15, 1965. The Maple Leaf Flag was also adopted as both the Ensign and the Jack, as it is a common Commonwealth practice to wear the National Flag as a jack. As part of post-1965 efforts to develop military ensigns and flags, a distinctive naval jack that incorporated the Maple Leaf Flag was created in 1968 and flown by commissioned warships when alongside or at anchor. Coincidentally, in 1968 the Canadian Armed Forces were re-organized into one service and the RCN ceased to exist as a separate service, with all naval forces being assigned to the Canadian Armed Forces Maritime Command. In 1985, an Order-in-Council authorized the Canadian Armed Forces Naval Jack to be flown ashore as the Maritime Command flag, in addition to flying it onboard commissioned warships. The National Flag remained as the Ensign and was flown by all Canadian naval vessels.

In the early 1990s, the British Royal Navy-style Commissioning Pennant was phased out in favour of a new Canadian-designed Commissioning Pennant, which featured a maple leaf instead of the Cross of St. George. Only commissioned warships fly the Commissioning Pennant.

On August 16, 2011, the historic name of the RCN was restored and Maritime Command became known as the “Royal Canadian Navy.” On May 5, 2013, the Government of Canada restored a standard Commonwealth naval practice by authorizing RCN vessels to fly a distinctive Canadian Naval Ensign and fly the National Flag as the Naval Jack. Essentially, the flag previously known as the Canadian Naval Jack became the Canadian Naval Ensign, whereas the National Flag became the Canadian Naval Jack.