The Franco-Ontarian Flag

The plaque commemorating the Franco-Ontarian Flag was unveiled by the Ontario Heritage Trust and l’association canadienne-francaise l’Ontario du grand Sudbury at the University of Sudbury on Monday, September 25, 2017.

The bilingual provincial plaque reads as follows:


    The Franco-Ontarian Flag was first raised at the University of Sudbury on September 25, 1975, at a time when Sudbury was experiencing unprecedented growth in Franco-Ontarian arts and culture. Conceived by Gaétan Gervais, historian at Laurentian University, and student Michel Dupuis, the first flag was made by Jacline England, a student and staff member at the university. Refusing to take sole credit for the flag, its creators hoped that the Franco-Ontarian community would claim it as their own and a committee was formed to promote it. The flag was adopted as a unifying symbol during times of struggle and resistance, such as the Penetanguishene school crisis of 1979 and the SOS Montfort campaign in Ottawa in 1997. In 2001, the Ontario Legislature officially recognized the flag as the emblem of the Ontario French-speaking community. Since 2010, Franco-Ontarian Day has been celebrated annually on September 25. Today, the green and white flag with the French lily and the Ontario trillium endures as the most prominent symbol of the province’s diverse francophone community and represents more than 400 years of the French presence in Ontario.


    Le drapeau franco-ontarien a été hissé pour la première fois à l’Université de Sudbury le 25 septembre 1975 dans le contexte d’une explosion artistique et culturelle franco-ontarienne sans précédent à Sudbury. Conçu par Gaétan Gervais, historien à l’Université Laurentienne, et Michel Dupuis, un étudiant, le premier drapeau a été fabriqué par Jacline England, une étudiante et membre du personnel de l’université. Un comité est également créé pour promouvoir sa diffusion. En refusant de s’attribuer le mérite de sa conception, ses créateurs espèrent que la communauté franco-ontarienne fasse sien le nouveau drapeau. Il est adopté comme un symbole rassembleur présent durant les moments de lutte et de résistance, que ce soit lors de la crise scolaire de Penetanguishene en 1979 ou durant la campagne SOS Montfort à Ottawa en 1997. En 2001, la législature ontarienne le reconnaît comme l’emblème officiel de l’Ontario français et, depuis 2010, le Jour des Franco-Ontariens et des Franco-Ontariennes est célébré annuellement le 25 septembre. Aujourd’hui, le drapeau vert et blanc qui arbore le lys français et le trille ontarien est le plus important symbole de cette communauté diversifiée et représente plus de 400 ans de présence française en Ontario.

Historical background

The Franco-Ontarian flag was first raised in front of the University of Sudbury on September 25, 1975. Nobody knew at the time that Michel Dupuis, a second-year political science student, and Gaétan Gervais,1 a young history professor at Laurentian University, were behind the project. Why did Franco-Ontarians require a flag? Hadn’t Canada adopted one in 1965, and Ontario soon thereafter?

A changing French-Canadian identity

Part of the reason behind the flag's development resides in the considerable changes in French-Canadian identities that took place during the post-war years. Rising nationalism in Quebec produced a stronger French-language state within Ontario and accelerated secularism within its institutions. Tensions rose between French-Canadian traditionalists – seeing Canada as a pact between two founding nations, of which the French-Canadian minorities were an integral part — and Quebec neo-nationalists, who desired more autonomy for the province and saw Canada, as Marcel Chaput put it, as “le tombeau des minorités.”2

The rise of separatism in Quebec further shook the core of French Canada with the implosion of its nationalist secret society, l’Ordre de Jacques-Cartier in 1965, and with the now infamous Estates General of French-Canada in 1966, 1967 and 1969.3 Traditional historiography views this date as the time of a schism, which not only put an end to French-Canada as a national project, but also began the provincialization of Francophone identities.4

French-Canadian elites in Ontario thus channelled their efforts in obtaining new linguistic rights. The first French-language publicly funded secondary schools opened their doors in Sudbury and Vanier (Ottawa) in 1969, with funding coming from the province with the aid of newfound federal government funding from the Secretary of State. Furthermore, the 1970s proved to be an electrifying decade for Franco-Ontarians, most notably in Sudbury where a cultural explosion produced a number of lasting institutions, including the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario in 1971, and Prise de Parole, a publishing house, in 1973. It is of little surprise that the Nickel City would also, two years later, be the birthplace of the most recognizable symbol of the Franco-Ontarian community: the Franco-Ontarian flag.

Rallying around the flag?

Unlike the creation of the Canadian flag in 1965 or the Acadian flag in 1884, the making of the Franco-Ontarian flag was a mystery. There was no nationwide contest or a general assembly to create it. Instead, two people — Gaétan Gervais and Michel Dupuis — secretly designed the flag and had it stitched together by Jacline England, a student and administrative assistant at Laurentian University. Although over 50 people witnessed its raising, and both English and French-language media were present, the public still did not know who initiated the project. In fact, Gervais and Dupuis refused to take credit for it altogether. Guy Gaudreau mentions in 2005 that it took him 15 years to realize that his fellow colleague was its creator.5 That being said, both Gervais and Dupuis were active in promoting it via the Comité du Drapeau. They were intent on distributing it in the four corners of Francophone Ontario.

The flag’s simple design was, as with any good flag, meant to be easily recognizable. Its fleur de lys — the symbol of the Francophonie — is a clear statement of 400 years of French presence in Ontario, indicating a deep-rooted continuity within the Franco-Ontarian community. The trillium anchors the community within the province. As for the colours, there is a major discrepancy between the accepted interpretation and reality – that the white symbolizes the rigorous Ontario winters and its green evokes its luscious forests.6 Indeed, the colours were chosen to avoid the Canadian red and the Québécois blue. This was a Franco-Ontarian flag, after all.7 Furthermore, the flag was clearly intended to rally in a way that would not be seen as provocative in English Canada. Initial reactions were tepid, and even sarcastic. The Sudbury Star asked, “If Franco-Ontarians feel in need of their own individual flag, why not another (with lions, of course) for the Anglos […]”.8 Donald Dennie, a retired sociology professor, criticized the flag. A Marxist, Dennie denounced it as being an elitist symbol imposed on Franco-Ontarians.9 In contrast, Lorenzo Cadieux, the founder of the Société historique du Nouvel-Ontario, suggested rather that it reflected a historical reality for Franco-Ontarians.10

Despite initially receiving mixed reviews, the flag soon took on a life of its own. It makes an appearance in the 1978 documentary J’ai besoin d’un nom, where we see the members of an Ottawa theatre troupe recreate the Passion of the Christ during the 1976 annual general meeting of the Association canadienne-française de l’Ontario (ACFO) in Sudbury — except replacing the cross by a coffin draped with the Franco-Ontarian flag.11 ACFO adopted the flag a year later as the official flag of Francophone Ontario.12 It was raised at the Hearst High School in October 197813 and at the École de la résistance in Penetanguishene in 1979 during the infamous Simcoe County school crisis.14 It finally became a permanent fixture – after being an object of resistance — of Laurentian University in September 1982.15 Flying on flagpoles at schools, cultural centres, colleges and other Francophone institutions, it remains an omnipresent symbol in Franco-Ontarian society today.

Official recognition

In 2001, the Ontario legislature adopted this flag as the official emblem of Franco-Ontarians.16 Furthermore, its birthday — September 25 — was proclaimed in 2010 as Franco-Ontarian Day.17 The flag has represented the battle standard for the Franco-Ontarian community, most recently during the SOS Montfort crisis in 1997,18 and has managed to garner a broad consensus as the symbol for the province’s Francophone community.19 Today, it is a symbol of over 400 years of French presence in Ontario and represents a diverse community of over 611,000 people.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Serge Miville in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2017

1 A recent biography on Gaétan Gervais is unequivocal about the importance of Gervais as a public intellectual in Francophone Ontario. François-Olivier Dorais, Un historien dans la cité. Gaétan Gervais et l’Ontario français (Ottawa: PUO, 2016).

2 Author’s translation: “The tombstone of Minorities”. Marcel Chaput, Pourquoi je suis séparatiste (Montréal: Les éditions du jour, 1961). The rich historiography on the subject is constantly being debated.

3 Much has been written on the Estates general and their impact as a symbolic point of rupture between French-Canadians. The most recent scholarly study of the event is in Jean-François Laniel and Joseph Yvon Thériault eds., Retour sur les États généraux du Canada français : Continuités et ruptures d’un projet national (Montréal: PUQ, 2016).

4 The amount of scholarly work on this subject is substantial and still open to much debate. The historiographical debate is unnecessary for the purposes of this paper, however, and we believe best to refer to two books by historians that best portray this argument. Marcel Martel, Le deuil d’un pays imaginé. Rêves, luttes et déroutes du Canada français (Ottawa: PUO, 1997); Gaétan Gervais, Des gens de résolution. Le passage du « Canada français » à l’ « Ontario français » (Sudbury: Prise de parole/Institut franco-ontarien, 2003). The student interested in a short English-language account (which is also available in French), however, may wish to consult Marcel Martel, French Canada: An Account of its Creation and Breakup, 1850-1967 (Canadian Historical Association: 1998, vol. 24).

5 Guy Gaudreau, (dir.), Le drapeau franco-ontarien (Sudbury: Prise de parole/ACFO du grand Sudbury inc., 2005), 7.

6 Stéphanie St-Pierre, “Le drapeau franco-ontarien : « puissent ses couleurs nous rallier dans une nouvelle amitié et fraternité » 1975-1977,” in Guy Gaudreau, op. cit.: 14-15.

7 Ibid., p. 14.

8 “Questions raised along with ‘flag’,” The Sudbury Star, September 27, 1975, 4. Cited in Stéphanie St-Pierre, “Le drapeau."

9 Donald Dennie, “Le Franco-Ontarien,” Le Voyageur, November 2, 1977, 41. Cited in Stéphanie St-Pierre “Le drapeau”.

10 Stéphanie St-Pierre, “Le drapeau”: 38.

11 J’ai besoin d’un nom, directed by Paul Lapointe, 1978 (Toronto: National Film Board of Canada, Studio Ontarois).

12 Stéphanie St-Pierre, “Le drapeau”: 41.

13 Jean Gagnon, “Le drapeau franco-ontarien flotte au mât de l’école secondaire de Hearst,” Le Nord, October 11, 1978, 1.

14 The “school of resistance” in downtown Penetanguishene was an illegal French-language school housed in an old post office on Main Street in 1979.

15 “Déploiement du drapeau franco-ontarien à la Laurentienne, un pavillon, un symbole, une identité,” Le Voyageur, September 29, 1982, 1.

16 Franco-Ontarian Emblem Act, 2001, C. 5.

17 Bill 24, Franco-Ontarian Day Act, 2d sess., 39th Parliament, 2010, S.O. 2010 C.4.

18 Michel Gratton, Montfort: La Lutte d’un Peuple, (Ottawa: CFORP, 2003).

19 Ironically, Sudbury, the city where the flag was conceived, initially resisted floating the flag. The “flag-flap” question in 2003 deeply divided Sudbury as opponents of the flag deemed it discriminatory to a multicultural Canada. Indeed, the issue was not put to rest until 2006 when the city decided to adopt the symbol and float it permanently at city hall. Denise Quesnel, “Un mouvement politique indécis, 1995-2004,” in Guy Gaudreau, Le drapeau: 87-98; Stéphany Laperrière, “Le drapeau franco-ontarien flotte devant l’hôtel de ville du Grand Sudbury depuis 10 ans,” SRC Nord-Ontario, December 1, 2016.