Two official flags have represented Newfoundland and Labrador since Confederation with Canada in 1949. First the Union Jack, followed by the current provincial flag in 1980. Created by local artist Christopher Pratt, the new flag's design is based on the Union Jack as well as on ancient Beothuk and Innu ornamentation. As a result, it pays tribute to the province's past, while acknowledging its role in shaping our present and future.
A number of unofficial flags have also been associated with the province. Among the most popular are two tricolours: a white, green, and blue flag with a spruce twig near its top left corner, known as the Labrador Flag, and the Pink, White, and Green Newfoundland tricolour, flown predominantly in the St. John's area and often as a symbol of Newfoundland nationalism.
The Union Jack
When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, the Union Jack was its official flag. It was first adopted in 1931 by the National Flag Act, and reaffirmed as the provincial flag in the 1952 Revised Statutes of Newfoundland. By the early 1970s, however, there were calls to replace the flag with one unique to the province. The Union Jack was widely associated with the United Kingdom and to varying degrees with all former British colonies, which often created confusion and embarrassment for provincial delegations visiting other places. At the 1967 Montreal Expo, Newfoundland was represented by a blue flag bearing the provincial coat of arms because the Union Jack was reserved for the Governor General.
Potential alternative designs became the subject of much public debate throughout the 1970s. Some argued that any new provincial flag should incorporate the Union Jack into its design as sign of respect to the men and women who served under it in the two world wars and as an acknowledgement of the province's deep historical ties to Britain. Others disagreed, arguing that the Union Jack ignored the province's aboriginal heritage, disregarded its increasingly multicultural society, and suggested it was still a British dependency.
Some organizations and individuals instead advocated the Pink, White, and Green (PWG) or variations of it, arguing the tricolour was distinctive to the province and tied to its past. Prominent among these were the Newfoundland Historical Society, the St. John's Folk Arts Council, and Newfoundland Historic Trust. The three groups submitted a joint report to the government in 1977 recommending that the new flag be an altered PWG. The report suggested that the centre white panel should contain the provincial shield surmounted by the Union Jack and flanked on either side by pitcher plants.
Flag Committee Appointed
In November 1979, the provincial government appointed a seven-member committee, chaired by MHA John Carter, to receive flag proposals from the public and recommend a final design to the House of Assembly by 30 April 1980. In the coming months, the committee held public hearings across the province, where two major concerns were expressed again and again: the new flag must represent Labrador and be unique to the province.
Although committee members received many designs – often featuring caribou, pitcher plants, codfish, the provincial coat of arms, and even fisher's boots – they were satisfied with none. In 1980, they approached the prominent local artist Christopher Pratt and asked him to design a flag of geometric design. He agreed to submit a series of proposals and to do so at no charge.
In the coming weeks, Pratt researched Beothuk and Innu ornaments and decorations at the provincial museum and sorted through the proposals submitted to the flag committee. In the end, he decided to combine aboriginal art with the Union Jack to create a new flag. Although he found that only minority support existed in the public submissions for the Union Jack, he explained his reasons for incorporating it in the research notes he kept at the time:
“[T]he voices in favour of including it in any new provincial flag are those of people who really care about flags, and the Union Jack in particular: fraternal organizations, the Monarchist League and so on, but most especially the Legionnaires who served under it. I believe that 'minority' input is too important to dismiss out of hand. So, having looked at, researched, considered and sketched many other options, I have decided to try a format that will in some way reference the Union Jack, and have the same colours – red, white and blue. They are the colours of victory in this century over fascism and tyranny … and symbolic of the origins of our laws, institutions and liberties: Great Britain, France and the United States.”
New Provincial Flag Adopted
On 17 April 1980, Pratt presented a series of designs to the flag committee, whose members unanimously selected the one that is now the provincial flag. When it was unveiled in the House of Assembly on 29 April, however, the design sparked much controversy. Initial reactions from the Liberal Opposition, as well as from the public, were largely negative. Former premier Joseph Smallwood quipped that the flag was “the worst Newfy joke yet,” while the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion voiced strong displeasure that an unaltered Union Jack was not in the new design. Others supported the flag, including the Evening Telegram, which wrote editorially that the flag was “striking and unique.”
On 26 May 1980, the House of Assembly passed legislation adopting the new flag by a vote of 22 to 10. It was first flown on Discovery Day, 24 June 1980, in a flag-hoisting ceremony outside the Confederation Building.
The flag incorporates three colours set against a white background. Blue represents the sea, red human effort, gold self-confidence, and white the snow and ice. Four blue triangles echo the Union Jack and represent the province's Commonwealth heritage, while the larger red and gold sections represent its future. Two red triangles signify the island and mainland portions of the province, while a gold arrow points towards a bright future.
The design also incorporates Beothuk and Innu ornamentation, as well as a Christian cross and an outline of the maple leaf. A trident is also visible, acknowledging the province's deep association with the sea and its resources. The golden arrow resembles a sword when the flag is hung as a banner, a sign of respect and remembrance to war veterans.
A white, green, and blue tricolour with a spruce twig in its upper left corner is widely accepted as representing Labrador. From top to bottom, the tricolour features three unequal horizontal bars – white, representing snow; green the land; and blue Labrador's lakes and waters. In the top left corner is the twig of a black spruce, a tree common to all regions of Labrador. The twig grows from one stalk, representing the common origin of all humanity, while its three branches symbolize Labrador's three peoples: the Inuit, Innu, and European settlers. The shorter inner sprig represents the past, while the larger outer sprig represents a bright future.
Although unofficial, the flag is popular and influential. For example, when the Nunatsiavut Government was formed in 2005, it incorporated the colours of the Labrador Flag into its own. Today, the flag appears on T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, and other products, and its colours and spruce bough adorned the official website of retired Labrador Senator William Rompkey.
The flag was designed in 1973 by Michael Martin, MHA for southern Labrador, in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of Confederation. Martin later explained he hoped the flag would serve as a unifying symbol for all Labradorians, while underscoring the region's distinctiveness from the island of Newfoundland, which for centuries had treated the mainland territory as a dependency. “It was never meant to be a separatist flag. It was meant to be a positive symbol of who we were, and are, and hope to be – collectively, all races, religions and political parties, proud of ourselves and our heritage.”
Sixty-four flags were created by 31 March 1974, each one sewn together by Martin's wife, Patricia. They were distributed to Labrador's 59 towns and villages, and its three MHAs.
Pink, White, and Green
Another popular unofficial flag is the Pink, White, and Green (PWG), or Newfoundland tricolour. It is most widespread on the island portion of the province, especially in the St. John's area, and is today a symbol of Newfoundland nationalism – a badge of pride and identity. First flown in the late 1800s, the flag largely disappeared from public use after the First World War, displaced by the rising popularity of the Union Jack.
During the flag debates of the 1970s, however, it resurfaced as an alternate design. At the same time, the province was experiencing a cultural revival, led by local artists and intellectuals, which explored and promoted Newfoundland and Labrador's distinctive customs and heritage. The PWG quickly grew in popularity, becoming a symbol of everything admirable and distinct in the province's past, and of all it stands to accomplish in the future.
The PWG today appears on a wide range of products: T-shirts, hats, mugs, magnets, car plates, bumper stickers, rum bottles, and even in a newspaper masthead (the print (2003-2008) and online (2011-present) runs of the Independent). Despite its enduring popularity, however, little apparent enthusiasm exists across the province to make the PWG its official flag. An informal poll commissioned by Premier Danny Williams in 2005 indicated that only 25 per cent of the population supported adopting the tricolour as the provincial flag, with most of those in favour coming from St. John's and surrounding areas.