THE NUNAVUT FLAG – A Vexillographer’s Perspective

Peter J. Orenski


Rare has been the time in recent years when vexillitis – a feverish state associated with the imminent unveiling of a new flag – so afflicted the worldwide community of vexillophiles as in the weeks preceding 1 April 1999, the day when the new territorial flag of Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic was unfurled. Internet cyberwaves were filled with questions. The guessing game was at full throttle. Flag cognoscenti buzzed with excitement. Premature, and wrong, designs were passed around and even published by otherwise sober flag experts. Vexillitis triumphant.

At least two reasons account for this condition and for the global fascination with the outcome of Nunavut’s flag design endeavor. One reason lay in the nature of the event itself: The first change in the map of Canada since Newfoundland joined the Confederation in 1949; a huge new Territory of almost two million square kilometers being created – fully 20% of the Canada’s surface area; a region with absolutely no flag-design past and therefore bound to make flag history.

The second reason was Canada’s unusual reputation among vexillographers, or flag design specialists. American experts tend to envy the excellent flag designs of our neighbor’s provinces and territories, especially when contrasted with the monotonous, improvised, poorly thought-out and executed designs that characterize too many of our state flags; many Australians are fascinated by Canada’s vigorous decision to move away from the Union Jack and to create a national flag of unique beauty and character; and Europeans respect Canadian attachment to the traditional rules of English and French heraldry – simplicity, symbolism, color, distinctness – which, when judiciously applied to flags, produce banners of breathtaking impact.

Finally, I had a personal reason for avidly following the story of Nunavut’s flag: I have been involved in two major and a couple of minor flag design contests in the Unites States, have dealt extensively with Native American flag designs, and have published a detailed practical guide for organizing flag contests and for judging submissions in an objective and quantitative manner.4 Certainly, my ears were up, waiting to learn from Nunavut’s experience.

And what an unusual learning experience it has been! Lessons from it center around two main questions, both of which this article will now address: (1) What features characterize the process used to develop the Nunavut flag? and (2) What are the vexillographic attributes of the resulting flag?

1. Features of the Nunavut flag design process

In their attempt to design a flag for the new Territory of Nunavut – an enormous land mass inhabited by about 25,000 people, 85 percent of whom are Inuit1 – the Nunavut Implementation Commissioners, under the auspices of the Canadian Heraldic Authority (CHA), faced daunting challenges. One was the extremely low population density in the Nunavut area, 0.01 persons per square Km, which is some 300 times lower than the population density of Canada as a whole. Coupled with the low population density and the communication difficulties it entails, was the rugged, rigorous geography of Canada’s true Arctic region -- a desert by definition.2 Carrying out a flag contest under these conditions of geography and terrain, surely required commitment and steadfastness on a heroic scale. To my knowledge, nothing remotely so difficult has ever been undertaken in vexillography.

Nonetheless, the Commissioners – all Inuit and chosen from a variety of managerial and artistic backgrounds – persevered over the years following the settlement of the Nunavut land claim in 1993, and gathered a rich variety of design proposals from the inhabitants of the territory.

(Figure 1

These proposals were evaluated and reduced to a few finalists, from which Commissioners chose the final design for the Nunavut flag. 

What are the principal positive aspects of the Nunavut flag contest? Perhaps the most immediately striking are overcoming the rarest of topological and demographic obstacles and staying the course over several years.


Others are:

_ Ensuring that local traditions and symbols are adequately reflected in the design by securing the help of native people steeped in Inuit art, history and culture;

_ Minimizing interference from non-Inuit institutions while providing a supportive environment. Specifically, the Canadian Heraldic Authority set an example that similar institutions outside Canada can only hope to emulate: enlightened respect for native views; generous support with overall coordination, meeting rooms, and materials; scholarly advice whenever requested. In that same spirit, the Government of Canada and its Department of Canadian Heritage worked toward the timely production of full-color literature – illustrating and describing the grant-of-arms, achievement, and flag of Nunavut in English, French, Inuktitut and Innuinaqtun – of such magnificent quality that it instantly became a hotly sought-after keepsake for flag and heraldry experts around the world. To my knowledge, this is the first and only example of a grant-of-arms written in four languages, of which two belong to a native North American people;

_ Pulling off the near-impossible feat of maintaining total secrecy with regard to the final design, even as it was being reproduced onto flags shortly before 1 April 1999. While this created a sizeable market for gossipy speculation both rife and unrife, it contributed greatly toward enhancing the dignity of the process and final design.

What are some constructively critical lessons from the Nunavut flag project? To a vexillographer with ample background in flag design contests – admittedly conducted under much friendlier climactic conditions – the Nunavut experience highlights three shortcoming, two of them particularly regrettable since they could have easily been rectified, given the ample time frame available to Commissioners and the CHA.

The first, and by far most troublesome, of these shortcomings is that -- for a contest so unique, so important, and so eagerly followed by the vexillopolis, the international community of flag enthusiasts -- no advice and comment from experienced vexillologists or vexillographers was solicited before finalizing the design for the Nunavut flag. This is especially unfortunate as Canada is home to some of the world’s most respected, well-known, and active vexillologists and vexillographers as well as to the Canadian Flag Association (CFA). Yet no one called or wrote the CFA or other Canadian experts. In fact, no one asked any flag professional anywhere for advice that would have sidestepped some readily avoidable deficiencies in the design of the Nunavut flag.

The second shortcoming is an inexplicable departure from long-accepted standards of crediting sources of flag designs. No proper credit – or any credit, for that matter -- was given for the contribution of the Inuk youngster who submitted a design essentially identical to the one chosen. According to information available to Commissioners and the CHA, all symbols and colors eventually picked were present in that young man’s design: the divided white-and-yellow background, the blue star (albeit placed at the hoist, where it properly belongs) and the central red inuksuk or stone monument. Had any vexillologist been asked, he or she would have responded that accurately and fairly crediting sources has long been the norm in the flag world, and would have cited examples ranging from young student Susan Hareho Karike, credited with the arresting design of Papua New Guinea’s flag,3 to 13-year-old Benny Benson, the native American schoolboy responsible for the classic flag of Alaska.

Finally, even though proven, rigorous, objective methods exist for evaluating flag designs,4 the Nunavut effort instead relied exclusively on qualitative, subjective judgments. The blame for this, in my opinion, lies squarely with the vexillological community. We have been extraordinarily lax in at least two regards: (a) We have failed to utilize the available quantitative flag-evaluation methodology in the vexillographic contests for our own (NAVA and FIAV) meetings – relying instead on top-the-head reaction, gut-level feel, and vexillo-instincts as surrogates. The result? Too many of our own flags display untoward complications of color and symbolism; (b) We have neglected, as organizations, to produce and disseminate information about good flag design. As long as we ourselves do not utilize the available objective, systematic, quantitative, scientific standards for evaluating flag designs, as long as we do not adequately disseminate information about our best methodology -- we cannot very well expect others to employ this information ... or to call upon us for advice; we condemn ourselves to remaining the proverbial cordonnier mal chaussé.


2. Vexillographic ranking of the Nunavut flag

(Figure 2)

To remove some of the sting from the proverb just cited, let us become, in somewhat of a novel metaphor, vexillographes bien haussés, by analyzing the Nunavut flag according to precise, objective, quantitative standards. As it always helps in such analysis to refer to other flags – let us choose some appropriate models such as the flags of Canada and Northwest Territories, from which Nunavut emerged. (Figures 2 and 3)

(Figure 3)

First, some minimal background. In the past five years, we have proven with considerable finality that flags can be readily analyzed and objectively ranked by people without any vexillographic background provided they have been exposed to basic rules of good flag design.4 What are these rules and whence do they arise? They arise from classic heraldry and they are crystallized common sense: Good flag design utilizes simple colors and symbols, persuasive by their distinctness. In contrast, bad flag design employs complex colors and symbols, unremarkable and indistinct, often accompanied – especially, and sadly, in American civic and state flags – by words, words, words. So that’s it? Simplicity, Symbolism, Color, Distinctness? Yes. And stifle the instinct to use words? Surtout.

Now for the systematic part: Let’s assign a range of 0-10 points to each of the four categories above, so that a truly bottom-feeder flag design – such as that of the Tumbling Waters Museum of Flags5, a member of the International Federation of Vexillological Associations since 1975 – would be awarded close to 0 in most categories, for near-zero total points. On the other hand, a flag with 2-3 colors and symbols, well separated and distinctly colored and arranged -- such as the flag of NAVA5 – would rank well in all categories, with a chance to achieve the maximum "grade" of 40 total points.

Using this quantitative method, let us evaluate the flags of Canada, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, as we would in a typical flag contest judged by a group of ordinary citizens trained in the basics of good flag design. I have assigned the scores that the three flags would likely receive from any representative group.

Simplicity Symbolism Color Distinctness TOTAL
CANADA 9-10 9-10 10 10 38-40
NWT 2-5 3-6 2-5 4-6 11-22
NUNAVUT 6-8 7-9 4-6 7-8 24-31

If we could listen to discussions among the flag judges, here is what we would be most likely to overhear.

Why is Canada’s rating so high?

Simply put, because one is hard-pressed to find a better national flag. In all categories the Maple Leaf flag meets the highest standards in flag design: just two colors, two symbols (Canadian pale and maple leaf) expressed in 4 components, supremely effective in color and distinctness at any distance, on every type of material, in any kind of light, at every size. Add the element of originality – first use of the "Canadian pale" i.e., 1:2:1 ratio between the stripes; first use of the maple leaf as a flag charge – and its advantage becomes even more overwhelming.6

What are some design problems with the NWT flag?

It starts with lack of simplicity. The central charge contains no fewer than five (!) colors – light-blue, red, green, yellow, black – unrelated to the basic white and dark blue of its Canadian pale. Not only does this add substantially to manufacturing cost, it confuses the eye and becomes indistinct in marginal lighting. Same problem with symbolism: Its elements – Canadian pale, shield, polar ice pack, Northwest passage, tree line, forested area, tundra, minerals, fur – all compete for attention and manage to blur it. Hence color simplicity (seven colors) is poor; symbolism simplicity (nine symbols) ditto. Result? Distinctness suffers, especially at small sizes or poor lighting or pronounced distances, as does the overall visual impact of the flag. It is a safe bet no vexillologist or vexillographer was consulted on this project either.

From a general perspective, the NWT flag is an object lesson is what typically happens when the shields of armorial bearings are transferred en masse to flags, a habit as unfortunate in Canadian vexillography as the ubiquitous state-seal-on-a-bedsheet is in the American counterpart. Can we stifle these habits, along with wordy flags, on both sides of the border? Hopefully in our lifetime.

And the Nunavut flag?

As the numbers clearly show, at its lowest raking Nunavut’s score still surpasses the best score achieved by the NWT flag – and it outranks the latter by substantial margins in every category. But it is not in the same class as the national flag. Why? Let’s take a careful look at each design category:

1. Simplicity

The flag features five colors (white, yellow, red, blue, black) and 4 symbols (for snow, sun, stone monument, and North Star) – a significant improvement over NWT, but falling far short of the stark beauty of the Maple Leaf flag.

2. Symbolism

The best and most memorable element of the flag is of course the inuksuk, which symbolizes the stone monuments guiding Inuit people on land and also mark sacred or otherwise special places. Just about everything is extraordinary about this symbol: Its immediate, almost magnetic pull toward more than 5,000 years of Inuit history in the northernmost reaches of North America; its excellent color and shape, which give the flag distinctness, uniqueness, and grandeur; its outstanding graphic quality, with its five degrees of inclination toward the fly – while keeping its center of gravity displaced toward the hoist by two percent of the flag length; its refreshing novelty; its symbolic color link to the Maple Leaf. It is a world-class vexillographic image.

All other elements of the flag, however, manifest palpable inadequacies – the price of neglecting to seek advice and comment from Canadian vexillologists and vexillographers.

2a. The Niqirtsituq or North Star – Arguably the most important symbol on the flag because it represents "the traditional guide for navigation and more broadly, forever remains unchanged as (does) the leadership of the elders in the (Inuit) community."7 Asked to comment on the North Star symbol, a vexillographer would have made these points: (1) Its position at the fly end not only places it in the less prestigious position compared to the hoist, but also subjects it to damage as the flag wears in use, particularly in the dramatic conditions of Canada’s Arctic region; in addition, when the flag hangs properly folded, from a staff, a star at the hoist would remain visible whereas at the fly it vanishes in the folds. Why diminish the symbolic value of the Niqirtsituq in this manner? (2) Graphically, the star is undersized by at least 25 percent when viewed against the powerful inuksuk. What is the purpose for downgrading the visual impact of this symbol? (3) The color specification (Pantone 301) rarely reproduces well in printing either on paper or on fabric -- a point readily proven by studying the official image;7 this color shade tends to print lighter and to wear poorly. Please consult a flag manufacturer and the color specialist at your main printing establishment. They will likely point you toward Pantone 286 or 281. Is there a reason for risking a washed-out image for this important symbol?

2b. Background colors – It is true that yellow and white also divide the background in the flag of Vatican City. However, as one vexillographer jested, "The Pope has an army of one billion, so don’t try this experiment at home." The fallibility of a yellow-and-white flag background derives from several sources, which a vexillographer would have described to the Commissioners and the CHA as: (1) Traditional heraldic rules of tincture designate these hues as "metals," have them stand for gold and silver, respectively, and suggest they be used primarily as fimbriations, or separation fields, between colors. The current flag of South Africa is a perfect model in this regard. By all means, keep the symbolic value of these colors – the brilliant sun during Nunavut’s short summer and the snowy landscape for the rest of the year – but respect the wisdom of heraldic counsel; (2) Vexillographic and practical common sense alike discourage the use of yellow/white fields because these colors have poor distinctness -- and hence provide inadequate contrast -- under either bright or marginal lighting; furthermore, in use they fade into unattractive, weak hues. Particularly in the Nunavut environment, where bright sunshine alternates with darkness, a yellow-and-white field should be avoided if at all possible.

3. Colors

(Figure 4)

"The colours, blue and gold, are the ones preferred by the Nunavut Implementation Commissioners to symbolize the riches of the land, sea and sky. Red is a reference to Canada." So reads the complete official color description of the Nunavut flag.7 Note that white isn’t mentioned at all. Also, the black outline around the inuksuk not only adds an extra color, but is a leftover from the days when graphic artists outlined most everything in black to hide or minimize color bleed – a precaution that modern technology has largely rendered obsolete. 

Given this background, our ghost vexillographer would have asked the Commissioners’ opinion of the flag shown in Figure 4. Or, as a minimum, would have suggested that graphic artists find an alternative to the unnecessary black outline.

4. Distinctness

To the inuksuk our vexillographer would award a ten; for the background a four at most; for the star an eight. Hence the average is a little over seven. A good test for distinctness is to make a black-and-white photocopy of any design. Compare the photocopies of Canada, NWT, and Nunavut, and the images will doubtless speak volumes.

In conclusion, this article I have endeavored to provide a balanced view of the process employed in arriving at Canada’s most significant contribution to world vexillography since 1969, when the NWT flag was adopted. Also, I undertook a detailed vexillographic analysis of the flag that resulted from this ambitious and in many ways unprecedented project. It would be a great satisfaction if this analysis were to produce a continued exchange of ideas, facts, and opinions that would energize and delight the worldwide community of flag enthusiasts.

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1 In the past, the inhabitants have been called "Eskimo," but the preferred term is Inuit, which means "People who are alive at this time." The ancestors of the Inuit are believed to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska around 10,000 years ago.

2 The land and sea of Nunavut are frozen and white for at least half of the year, with temperatures, excluding windchill and whiteouts, as low as minus 40 degrees – Celsius or Fahrenheit, it hardly matters since the scales converge there – and it explodes with a riot if color and life in the sunlight of its short summer. The 3,600 inhabitants of the capital of Iqaluit are located at 64 degrees of longitude (Arctic Circle = 67°) and experience 24 hours of sunlight in June (mean temperature = 15°C) and 6 hours of sunlight in December (-35°C). The northernmost community is Grise Fiord, where 130 people live at 77 degrees of longitude and in complete darkness during December.

3 Flagscan, no. 44, 1996, p. 26 and The World Encyclopedia of Flags by Alfred Znamierowski, Lorenz Books, 1999, p. 182.

4 E.g., A Flag for New Milford, The Practical Guide to Creating a Civic Flag, The Flag Bulletin XXXV:1-2/168, The Flag Research Center, 1996; Hampton Roads Regional Flag Project Commemorative Booklet available from the Website <>

5 NAVA News, Vol. 32, No. 5, September/October 1999.

6 By way of friendly comparison, Old Glory uses three colors and three symbols (canton, star, stripe) expressed in 64 components, but is also supremely effective and distinctive on various materials, in varied lighting conditions and at sundry dimensions. The design originality is likewise exceptionally high and has influenced the symbolism of a number of other national flags.

7 Government of Canada, publication QS-6133-001-HB-A1.