The history and future of six of Alberta’s municipal flags

Flag expert Ted Kaye said Alberta ‘may have the worst collection of flags of any province’

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The Canadian flag is instantly recognizable, with its Maple Leaf emblem a universal symbol for the nation and its people.

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The flags of Calgary, Edmonton or any of Alberta’s other municipalities? Not so much.

Nearly every city, town and hamlet in Alberta has an official flag, but most are seldom seen, flying only at city halls and in council chambers. That’s a problem, according to flag expert Ted Kaye.

“Flags help us say, ‘We’re part of this group. This is who we are,’” said Kaye with the North American Vexillological Association. “They are the ultimate icon of a place… But when a flag is not successful in its design, people don’t use it.”

Nearly all of Alberta’s flags fall short as civic symbols, Kaye said, with the biggest problem being that they represent local governments, not citizens. He said Alberta “may have the worst collection of flags of any province.”

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The vexillologist — a person who studies flags — has been recruited by several American cities to consult on flag redesigns. Kaye generally follows five key principles for evaluating flags: keep it simple, use meaningful symbolism, use two or three basic colours, avoid lettering or seals and be distinctive.

Fellow flag ace Michael Green said a strong municipal flag can bolster civic pride and shape a city’s brand. He pointed at Chicago’s city flag — a striking blue-and-white striped design with four six-pointed stars in the middle — as an example of what that can look like in practice.

“Having a flag as a baseline, you can build an entire brand around it,” said Green, with Flags for Good. “It’s a symbol that people look at and they actually have a fond attachment to, whereas in a lot of cities that’s not the case.”

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A “vast wave of redesigns” for flags is ongoing in the United States, Kaye said, but that’s a trend that hasn’t come to Alberta.

We took a dive into the designs and histories of six of Alberta’s most notable municipal flags, as well as what the future may hold for the ensigns as conversations into civic flags continue.


Calgary

Calgary’s flag — a red-and-white design featuring a large stylized ‘C’ and a cowboy hat — has been the subject of periodic social media debate in recent years. The Calgary Herald even ran a redesign contest for the flag in 2015.

But Kaye said Calgary’s flag meets all the design principles for a good municipal flag, and stands as one of the best banners in Alberta.

“Some people are questioning whether the white hat still is relevant, but it’s a very striking design,” Kaye said.

Criticisms of the flag largely centre around that cowboy hat, with some remarking on its similarity to the logo for fast-food chain Arby’s and others questioning whether a cowboy hat remains relevant as a symbol for the evolving city.

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Bruce Lee chaired the city committee dedicated to selecting a flag in 1983, and ended up personally selecting the winning entry — by Gwin Clark and eventual provincial MLA Yvonne Fritz — after judges were unable to pick among finalists. Council approved the pick shortly afterwards.

The city took over the gym at Ernest Manning High School for a day to display the hundreds of entries and make the selection. Lee said he still believes the flag does its job in representing the city positively.

“I take great pride in knowing I actually got to select the flag. . . At the time, it was very appropriate for a whole bunch of reasons,” Lee said.

“The demographics of the city has certainly changed in the last 38 years, for sure. Would there be something more appropriate to represent the city? That’s the question, and I don’t think so.”

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When asked last month whether she would be open to changing Calgary’s flag, Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the city must be conscious of how its brand demonstrates the city to the rest of Canada and the world amid an economic and cultural transformation.

“If our symbols are reflective of where we are at this point in time, that’s great, and if they’re not, perhaps we need to consider a change,” Gondek said.


Edmonton

Alberta’s capital city boasts a blue-white-blue flag with a large, detailed coat of arms in the centre, rich in symbolism for the city’s history and location on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River.

The flag was designed by late visual artist Norman Yates in 1966, and adapted by Edmonton’s council the following year for Canada’s centennial. The flag has seen a few small design tweaks in the intervening 50-plus years, but remains largely unchanged since its conception.

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Green said the flag’s main design flaw is its use of a large crest, which he said has its places on stamps, seals and letterheads, but doesn’t make sense on a flag which will primarily be seen from afar.

“Anything with detail does not belong on a flag,” Green said.

Then-Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson backed a 2016 campaign for the city to adapt a redesigned flag by local artist Ryan McCourt, which repurposed elements of the coat of arms to depict a sunrise over the city’s river valley.

That charge came to a halt the next year , after a public-opinion poll run by the city found no consensus on redesigning the flag or adopting McCourt’s design.

City of Edmonton spokesperson Kris Berezanski said the Edmonton flag continues to be flown in from of City Hall, and at all official city events, alongside the Canada, Alberta, Treaty 6 and Metis flags. Those final two flags were added following the failed bid to redesign the city flag.

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Lethbridge

On first glance, it’s easy to almost mistake Lethbridge’s flag for that of the United States.

In fact, that resemblance is a purposeful part of the design, explained Lethbridge Historical Society president Belinda Crowson.

The flag was crafted by late Lethbridge historian Alex Johnson in 1967 for Canada’s centennial, and was based on photographs and written descriptions of the flag of Fort Whoop-Up, a whisky-trading post near Lethbridge. The city officially adopted the flag a few years later, in 1971.

“To understand our flag, you have to put it into the 1960s context, with how popular Western culture was, how popular Western movies and TV was,” Crowson said.

“The people who started Fort Whoop-Up were American traders; they had come from Montana. And it was very common to have trade flags. So as you were moving around the area, because there are a number of different forts, you would fly the trade flag so people knew who they were trading with.”

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The Fort Whoop-Up flag’s resemblance to the U.S. ensign may have in part been meant as a taunt to Mounties, Crowson said, with the force formed in part to combat American whisky traders who illegally crossed the border to Canada.

The flag is flown at Lethbridge’s city hall, said city spokesperson Nick Kuhl, who added while council has not given any direction to revisit the flag, Lethbridge continues to “have dialogue with diverse community partners about our community’s history, values and the ways those are represented and celebrated publicly.” Crowson said while the flag represented the city’s historical attitude at the time it was adopted, it’s worth considering whether that is still true today.

From a design standpoint, Green said he believes the Lethbridge flag is in desperate need of a refresh.

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“I see what they were trying to do, but boy, does it not work. . . It’s like an optical illusion. It’s hurting my eyes,” Green said.


Red Deer

Red Deer’s flag is another adopted as part of a wave of civic pride brought on by Canada’s 1967 centennial, though the flag wasn’t finalized and approved by the city until 1977.

The flag is divided diagonally into three sections, representing the three levels of government: a Maple Leaf for Canada, a wild rose for Alberta and a civic coat of arms for Red Deer itself.

The city held a contest to design the flag in 1977, but city officials decided none of the three chosen winners were suitable for the municipality’s flag. Instead, council received designs from the city’s engineering department for approval.

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Kaye said the decision to put a coat of arms on a flag is “a very governmental idea,” and one which leads to designs which don’t tend to resonate with city residents. The Red Deer flag is one which exemplifies that principle.

“The people designing the flag are often in the city government, and they conflate the city government with the city itself,” Kaye said. “Crests and coats of arms belong to the government, but the flag belongs to the people, or at least it should.”

The city said the flag is flown in all municipal facilities and at some private businesses, but flags aren’t currently available for purchase. They added no discussions have been had about changing its design.


Medicine Hat

During his time as the first Chief Herald of Canada, Robert D. Watt was asked by “hundreds” of municipal governments and other institutions to design coats of arms, and sometimes flags.

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That was how the 1998 redesign came to be for Medicine Hat’s flag, which has a yellow background and features a blue stripe representing the South Saskatchewan River, as well as flames and wheels symbolizing the city’s gas, rail and manufacturing industries.

Watt said he visited the city and consulted with officials before granting the redesign. He said he believes a high-quality city flag can have a positive impact on municipalities.

“The key is, the design has to be relatively simple. The colour choice has to be restrained because you have to be able to appreciate what’s going on at a distance,” Watt said.

“If the community feels that it works well and the symbols are appropriate, over time it seeps into the consciousness and the understanding of the people of the community and becomes an appropriate and worthy symbol of the community and its history.”

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Kaye praised the design of Medicine Hat’s flag, and said its success would be replicable by other Alberta municipalities who may decide it’s time to refresh their banner.

“Canada has the advantage of a Heraldic Authority which will create great flags for you, great coats of arms and great flags based on those coats of arms,” Kaye said.

“The Canadian Heraldic Authority is available to every one of those towns and cities in Alberta, and only a handful have availed themselves of them.”

Medicine Hat’s previous flag featured an image of the head of a Cree medicine man, which is also the logo for the Medicine Hat News newspaper.


Grande Prairie

Louise Lissoway’s prize for designing the flag of Grande Prairie in a 1980 contest was, as she remembers it, $500.

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“I’m not a designer or a graphic artist or anything. I just have my natural abilities, and I thought, ‘I could use that money! I’m going to win this,’” Lissoway laughed. “I put my heart and soul into it and I came up with this, because I thought it represented the area.”

The 35-plus-year resident of Grande Prairie’s design centres a trumpeter swan against a blue background. Pine trees, a wheat sprig and oil derricks also appear, circled by small yellow Maple Leafs.

Lissoway said the city flag still flies outside public buildings, and seeing it around town continues to be a source of pride.

Green’s assessment of the Grande Prairie flag is that it looks outdated, similar to many other flags designed during the same time period.

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“Flags have to function in so many different ways now, so I think flags aged really quickly in the past 10, 20 years. They have to be used digitally far more now than they are used in real life,” he said.

Lorna Harder with the City of Grande Prairie said there are currently no plans for a flag redesign. Lissoway said she personally doesn’t see any need for a refresh.

“My design is very detailed, and nowadays people like this very modern look, where it’s very simple,” she said. “But if they changed it, I wouldn’t take it personally.”

—With files from Madeline Smith

jherring@postmedia.com

Twitter: @jasonfherring

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