The flag of the City of Toronto, designed by Renato De Santis, is an example of a very good civic flag
I was in Orillia last week, mainly to check out the new Simcoe County Lynx bus system. While there, the flag flying from the Opera House (formerly the city hall) caught my attention. Most municipal flags are boring, usually consisting of the town or city’s coat of arms, shield, or logo on a plain background.
But Orillia’s flag is different. It has waving blue and white waves, with two green triangles facing the centre, and a bright yellow sun in the middle. The symbolism wasn’t difficult to figure out: the city’s position on the narrows between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching, with the sun being a nod to Orillia author Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a light, humourous collection of short stories about the denizens of Mariposa, a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Orillia.
Yet Canadian cities that boast populations twenty or thirty times that of Orillia can’t boast having such a fine flag.
For the most part, we don’t think about state, provincial, and municipal flags, and that’s a pity. In the few cities that have an unique and powerful flag, they have become part of that city’s iconography. Unfortunately, though Toronto does have a very good civic flag, we don’t fly it like it should.
According to the North American Vexillological Association, there are five principles for creating a good flag:
- Keep it simple — so simple, it can be drawn by a child from memory
- Use meaningful symbolism
- Use two or three basic colours
- Never use lettering or seals
- Be distinctive or be related
Canada’s flag, adopted in 1965, adheres to these principles perfectly. It uses just two basic colours: red and white. With a large red maple leaf in the middle, it’s easily recognizable around the world. While a child might not get the eleven-point maple leaf exactly right, it’s otherwise easy to draw from memory.
There are, of course, exceptions to these principles.
Maryland’s complicated state flag, based on the coat of arms of colony founder Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, is distinctive and popular, nearly as common as the US flag. California’s state flag is emblazoned with the words “California Republic” but it has significant historical meaning. The flag of South Africa, adopted in 1994, has six colours, but by merging the Pan-African colours of the African National Congress with the red white and blue of Britain and the Netherlands, it represents unity in the post-apartheid era.
Flags of Maryland, California, and South Africa, notable exceptions to the rules
For the most part, famous and great civic flags adhere to these principles. The flags of Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, and Tokyo all stand out. In Chicago and Amsterdam, these flags are proudly flown from private homes and watercraft, found on t-shirts and souvenirs, and well known around the world. The bear from Berlin’s flag is almost as popular as the Ampelmännchen. Though Amsterdam’s flag’s origins go back centuries (the “x”s are actually St. Andrew’s crosses), it looks bad-ass, and on-brand for a city famous for its tolerance.
Great civic flags: Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, Tokyo
Compared to the great examples above, Ontario’s provincial flag is just bad. Compare the provincial red ensign with the flag of Manitoba, and then compare it to the Franco-Ontarien flag.
The Ontario and Manitoba flags, British red ensigns defaced with the provincial shields, were only adopted in 1965 and 1966 as conservative reactions to the new flag of Canada. The two flags are difficult to tell apart from a distance, and they both contain the St. George’s cross (representing England) twice: once in the union flag in the canton, and again in the shield. There’s very little Ontario to be found. (At least the Manitoba flag contains a bison, a recognizable symbol of that province.)
Meanwhile, the Franco-Ontarien flag is immediately recognizable, with the fleur-de-lis and a stylized trillium, the provincial flower, representing the French-Canadian presence in Ontario.
Like Orillia, there are a few other civic flags in Ontario that get it right.
Flags of Thunder Bay, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Toronto
Thunder Bay’s flag depicts a rising sun above Lake Superior and the Sleeping Giant, a prominent natural landmark across the water. The flag of Hamilton includes a yellow cinquefoil, the badge of the Clan of Hamilton, with a steel chain with six large links representing the steel industry and the six municipalities amalgamated into the modern city. The flag of Ottawa contains the civic logo, with the points representing waterways and the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. Finally, the flag of Toronto has an abstract depiction of Toronto’s city hall, with a maple leaf where the council chamber sits. The two towers also make a “T.”
It’s a shame that Toronto doesn’t make more of its simple, yet great flag.
Unfortunately, most flags look like those used by Ontario’s third and fourth largest cities.
Mississauga’s flag violates most of the principles listed above by including the name of the place it represents, with the addition of “incorporated 1974” at the bottom. In the middle is the civic shield, with the typical trappings: a cog representing industry, a lighthouse representing a port (Port Credit), a waterwheel, a stalk of wheat, and wings, possibly representing Pearson Airport. Though Mississauga is a proud city with its own identity, this flag doesn’t appear except in front of civic buildings.
Brampton’s flag is just the civic shield on a white background, again with similar trappings: a bushel of wheat, a plow, a steam locomotive, and a beaver. According to the city’s website, the gold colour and castle top signify the city’s relation with the small Cumbrian town of Brampton, England. The shield dates from the small rural town before post-war growth, with only a pine tree in the middle to represent the old township of Chinguacousy it merged with. There’s no recognition of Brampton’s modern identity as a multicultural city.
But at least they’re not as bad as the worst city flag identified by the North American Vexillological Association, that of the city of Pocatello, Idaho, which manages to include the city slogan, a trademark, and a copyright notice. After some embarrassment, the city came up with a new, much better flag.
The former flag of Pocatello, Idaho
It would be wonderful to see Brampton and Mississauga come up with better designs. Brampton’s new logo and slogan, Flower City, better represents the city’s history and ambitions. A pretty good flag could be made out of that.
As for Toronto, let’s embrace our flag more. It’s a fine one and far better than the province’s. As Torontonians generally think of themselves as Canadian first, Torontonian second, and Ontarian third, perhaps we should give our municipal banner more love.