This week we celebrate the sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation the only way we know how… heraldically! This post will trace the history of the identifying emblem of Canada from the seal of the United Provinces of Canada (1841-67), through the confederated coat of arms (1867-1921), to the royal arms we’re familiar with today.
Prior to 1867, “Canada” referred to a polity that had been created in 1841, out of the union of two previous entities, Upper Canada and Lower Canada. These two British colonies had had their own seals, and the seal of the United Province of Canada displayed these seals side-by-side. Here is an example of this United Province seal reproduced on a pin dish manufactured by Doulton & Co. in 1967. The seal of Lower Canada is on the left, and the seal of Upper Canada is on the right.
This seal is also carved above a door to the East Block of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Of course, the two seals of Upper Canada and Lower Canada were not nearly as important as the Royal Arms hanging over the whole thing, which represented the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland… and by extension everywhere else that the British had conquered.
The seal of Lower Canada (“Can. Inf.”) features an oak tree, a river and ships at anchor, and, in the distance, a town and church on a hill. The motto, “Ab ipso ducit opes animumque ferro,” can be rendered as “it derives power and courage from the steel itself” (from the Odes of Horace). (Earlier versions of this seal had a pruning knife on the ground. The idea is that the knife had been used to prune the oak tree, thus the tree’s sawed-off branch. This likely refers to the creation of Upper Canada, which was carved out of Quebec in 1791, leaving a rump state designated Lower Canada.)
The seal of Upper Canada (“Can. Sup.”) features a calumet or peace pipe, with an anchor and a sword of state, all bound together by a crown of olives. Above this device is representation of the royal crown, and in the upper right hand corner is the Union Jack. Below it are two cornucopias. The text around the circle, “Imperi porrecta majestas custode rerum caesare,” can be translated as “The greatness of the empire is extended under the guardianship of the sovereign” (this is also from Horace).
Both of these seals may be seen inside the Parliament buildings (near the entrance to the House of Commons if I remember correctly).
But throughout the Empire, the Royal Arms are what mattered the most. Since 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne, they have existed in the form shown below. On the shield, the three gold lions on red represent England, the single red lion on gold represents Scotland, and the gold harp on blue represents Ireland. (England and Scotland are also represented, respectively, by the lion and unicorn supporters.) “Dieu et Mon Droit” (“God and my right”) is the motto of the British sovereign; “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense” (“Shame be to him who thinks ill of it”) is the motto of the Order of the Garter, England’s premier order of chivalry. (The deer, fish, water, and boats are all decorative. This rendition was done by Alexander Scott Carter and was part of a larger painting celebrating the silver jubilee of George V in 1935. It adorned the ceiling of the lobby of the head office of the Imperial Bank of Canada in Toronto until the 1960s, when the building was pulled down.) These arms were used extensively in colonial- and dominion-era Canada, and you can still see them here and there, especially in courthouses.
On July 1, 1867 the first British North America Act went into effect. The Province of Canada was redivided and the new entities named Ontario and Quebec. But they were confederated, along with the colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, in a new polity designated the Dominion of Canada.* This polity had its capital at Ottawa and enjoyed a sort of home rule status within the British Empire. Each of its constituent provinces was granted its own coat of arms, and the arms of the Dominion were simply these four coats of arms all combined on the same shield. Here it is in full colour; Ontario is in the top left, Quebec in the top right, Nova Scotia in the bottom left, and New Brunswick in the bottom right.
You can see it on the Canada Gate at Buckingham Palace in London.
On a monument to the Northwest Rebellion at Queen’s Park in Toronto.
And on the nineteenth-century letterhead of the Auditor General.
The Dominion of Canada, like the United States to its south, was expandable, and it wasn’t very long before other provinces joined Confederation. The first to do so, in 1871, was Manitoba, to the west of Ontario. And just as the US added a star to its flag with every new state, so also did Canada add a new coat of arms to its shield with every new province (although these arms could themselves change over time). A five-provinces shield may be seen on this Royal Canadian Insurance Company stock certificate, dated 1874. The arms of Manitoba, featuring a galloping buffalo, are in the bottom right. (The supporters, taken from the British Royal Arms, are unofficial, but I like the nineteenth-century custom of showing them leaping out from behind the shield.)
For some reason, this coat of arms appeared recently on the label of an Alsatian wine. My friend Rafal Heydel-Mankoo posted this to Facebook.
In 1873, two more provinces – British Columbia and Prince Edward Island – joined Confederation, giving rise to a seven-quartered coat of arms. The lion, crown and leaves on the bottom left represented British Columbia until 1895; the trees on the bottom right are an early form of the arms of PEI.
Here is another rendition of the above, from a nineteenth-century butter keeper. The colours are a tad eccentric but we do see PEI’s motto, “Parva sub ingenti,” that is, “the small under the protection of the great,” from the Georgics of Virgil.
In 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan were added as provinces, bringing the total number to nine. But the plate below, although featuring nine sections, actually predates 1905. It shows, in the seventh and eighth spots, E.M. Chadwick‘s designs for the Northwest and Yukon Territories (this is before Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the Northwest Territories). In the sixth spot, it also shows his design for the arms of Prince Edward Island, which had not yet received a proper grant of arms. The arms in the center, with the Union Jack and sun, represent British Columbia.
Below is a proper nine-provinces coat of arms, in use from 1907 to 1921, on display on the Dominion Express building on St. James’s Street in Montreal. You can notice certain changes: in the center, British Columbia’s arms now have the Union Jack above the sun, and on the bottom left, Prince Edward Island has reverted to its trees (now also with a lion). Alberta’s mountains are in the lower center, and Saskatchewan’s wheat sheaves are in the lower right. The supporters are decorative.
Here is a coloured version of the shield above, on the fly of the Canadian red ensign. (It seems as though there was no standard ordering of the quarters; in fact, the original four-provinces shield remained in common use throughout this period.)
The trouble with a nine-quartered shield, of course, is that it is rather unwieldy. There were those who wanted to simplify it, and in the wake of the First World War that simplification took a certain British-patriotic form, emphasizing the ties that bound Canada to its metropole. Here is the full coat of arms as it was assigned in 1921.
I understand that the College of Arms was under orders from the Colonial Office to give the Canadians whatever they wanted – and what they wanted, at the time, was something that proclaimed a close association with the United Kingdom. So Canada’s Royal Arms ended up looking like a variant of the British Royal Arms, with identical quarters for England, Scotland, and Ireland. France (three gold fleurs de lys on blue) and Canada (three maple leaves on white) flesh out the design. The idea is that the top four quarters represent Canada’s “four founding races.” But Canada has always had more ethnic groups than the English, Scots, Irish and French – more importantly, the quarters displayed represent the royal arms of those particular places. Although Canada and the UK share a monarch, even in 1921 they were separate countries, and ideally we should not find lions and harps on Canada’s coat of arms, any more than we should find maple leaves (or kangaroos, or fern leaves, or proteas, or what not) on the royal arms of the UK.
But this is what we have got. At least a shield with five sections is simpler than a shield with nine. And it certainly looks classy! The motto, “A Mari Usque Ad Mare” (“From sea to sea,” from Psalm 72), is especially appropriate to Canada’s history and geography. Here it is carved above the doors of the Centre Block of the parliament buildings in Ottawa:
And here is the whole thing carved into the facade of Postal Station B in Ottawa:
Here is a numismatic rendition from the 1940s that I posted last year. I like how artist Kruger Gray has depicted a real compartment (actual ground for the supporters to stand on), and has omitted the motto, helmet, mantling and crest. This is an allowable artistic decision and nicely simplifies the composition.
For much of the twentieth century, Allan Beddoe’s rendition was standard, and appeared on the currency notes (shown is a detail of the one dollar bill that was in circulation between 1974 and 1989). The colour of the maple leaves at the bottom of the shield was undefined in 1921 – they were usually depicted as green, but in 1957 Prime Minister John Diefenbaker decreed they should be red, and thus they have remained.
In 1987, Canada Post released a stamp celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, featuring a handsome stylized version of the arms of Canada on a pinstriped background. I have in my possession a clipping of a letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail (Toronto), taking issue with the torse – the red and white striped ribbon between the helmet and the lion above the shield. The correspondent points out that the white, not the red, stripe is supposed to be on the left. (This is true, but of all the things that can go wrong in heraldic art, not that big a deal, in my opinion.)
Since 1995, the standard rendition of the arms of Canada has been by Cathy Bursey-Sabourin, who serves as Fraser Herald at the Canadian Heraldic Authority. The main substantive difference is the addition of the motto-circlet of the Order of Canada around the shield, bearing the legend “Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam” (that is, “desiring a better country”). I like how she has rendered the mantling on either side of the helmet as ten maple leaves, one for each province (Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949).
Here is a rendition of these arms on the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa. The famed Chateau Laurier hotel can be seen in the reflection.
What does the future hold for Canada’s coat of arms? My friend D’Arcy Boulton argued in the 1970s that it ought to be the three maple leaves alone, and I agree with him. (I would also substitute a proper compartment for the rose-thistle-shamrock-lily “bouquet” one normally sees beneath the shield, which is insubstantial and repeats the notion that Canada had four founding races.) A coat of arms blazoned Argent three maple leaves conjoined in one stem Gules would, like the current flag of Canada, be simple, accurate, and inclusive of all Canadians.
But as with anything symbolic, it would take a huge amount of political will to get it changed.
In the meantime, let us celebrate 150 years of confederation! Yay Canada!
* Regarding the word “Dominion”: Canada is a monarchy, but officially it is not the Kingdom of Canada but the Dominion of Canada. The reason for this moniker, apparently, is that when the British North America Act went into effect in 1867, the British and Canadians were worried about annoying the United States with any forthright assertions of monarchy and so chose “dominion” as a euphemism, from Psalm 72:8: “He shall have dominion from sea to sea.” (The sentiment also appears in Zachariah 9:10, “His dominion shall be from sea even unto sea”). This verse also provided Canada with its motto, and “dominion” turned out to be a useful title, denoting home-rule status in the British Empire, later granted to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland, even if Australia was known officially as the Commonwealth of Australia, South Africa the Union of South Africa, and Ireland the Irish Free State.
You would never know that Canada was a dominion from anything official, however. Two alleged problems exist with the title: “Dominion” does not exist as a French word (the two Biblical verses are “il dominera de la mer à la mer” and “sa domination ira de la mer à la mer”), and it reeks of a colonial junior partnership. But neither complaint is valid. Yes, “dominion” didn’t exist in French in 1867, but surely there has been enough time for it to become domesticated in that language – I have found it in several French dictionaries in its precise sense of “self-governing country in the British Empire following the Canadian model.” Under the influence of French, “surveil” is now an English verb, and “imaginary” an English noun – surely we can allow some influence in the opposite direction?! “Dominion” need not connote an undesirable political situation either. It is true that, on account of the Statute of Westminster (1931) and the Constitution Act (1982), Canada now enjoys a lot more than “home rule,” but there is no reason why Canada cannot still be a “Dominion” – it was the original Dominion, after all, and as long as it is ruled by the Queen (or King) of Canada, the title is surely appropriate.
Addendum: there is a story behind the sesquicentennial logo at the top of this post. In 2013 the government announced a short list of five potential sesquicentennial logos, none of which was very inspired. In response, a group of Canadian designers announced their own list, which included some real gems (click and see). The government then announced a contest and selected the winning entry, by a nineteen-year-old digital art student, in 2015. This did not go over well with the professionals. (I think they’re right on some level, but the winner was better than the original five, for sure.)