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Official Symbols

What represents Canada? What do people recognize with our great country? Among the most popular universal symbols of Canada is maple syrup, the sport of hockey, and for certain the Mountie as even further popularized in Paul Gross' Due South. Below are the official symbols of Canada, and a historical note to go along with each.


Arms of Canada

Arms of Canada

During the first decades after Confederation, questions relating to the Arms of Canada had not received the attention they deserved. The Royal Arms of the United Kingdom were then freely used to identify the offices of the Government of Canada.

Shortly after Confederation, a Great Seal was required and a design was approved by a royal warrant dated May 26, 1868. This design displayed, quarterly, the arms of the original four provinces of the new federation: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It was never used as the Great Seal, but was gradually adopted as the Arms of Canada.

When other provinces joined Confederation, the attempt to add the arms of the new provinces to this federal composite design resulted in a crowded and confused appearance. For this reason, the Canadian Government submitted a request to the Sovereign for a grant of arms. This request was approved and the arms assigned to Canada were appointed and declared in the proclamation of His Majesty King George V dated November 21, 1921.

Great Seal

Great Seal

The Great Seal of Canada is used on all state documents such as proclamations and commissions of cabinet ministers, senators, judges and senior government officials.

The seal is made of specially tempered steel, weighs 3.75 kilograms and is 12.7 centimetres in diameter. The seal dates back to the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada. A new seal will be struck for her successor.

The seal bears the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II, in her robes, holding the orb and sceptre, and shows her sitting on the coronation chair.

The present seal was made by the Royal Canadian Mint. The inscriptions on it are in French and English. Previous Great Seals of Canada were inscribed in latin.

The seal is kept by the Office of the Registrar General of Canada. The Registrar General is also Minister of Industry.

Canada Wordmark

Canada Wordmark

When Chris Hadfield was floating in space, working on the multi-billion dollar space station construction program, the most visible word in his universe was the federal government's "wordmark" - the big letters on the Canadarm spelling out C-a-n-a-d-a, with a stylized maple leaf flag over the last "a."

This symbol can be found on 20 000 federal office buildings, warehouses, and wharves. It's on books. It's on hockey arenas. It's on thousands of federal vehicles. It flashes on your television screen at the end of commercials promoting national parks. It fills movie screens at the end of recruitment ads for the Canadian Forces.

The artfully designed combination of "Canada" and the flag is the fruit of an ambitious federal marketing policy to create a symbol that will be recognized and respected, even inspirational. And the saturation appears to be working. A poll conducted in August and September, 1999, found that 78 per cent of Canadians say they have seen the wordmark. Of those, 81 per cent know it represents the Government of Canada.

Maple Leaf

Maple Leaf

Well before the coming of the first European settlers, Canada's Indigenous peoples had discovered the food properties of maple sap, which they gathered every spring. According to many historians, the maple leaf began to serve as a Canadian symbol as early as 1700.

In 1834, the first St. Jean Baptiste Society in North America made the maple leaf its emblem. In 1848, the Toronto literary annual The Maple Leaf referred to it as the chosen emblem of Canada. By 1860, the maple leaf was incorporated into the badge of the 100th Regiment (Royal Canadians) and was used extensively in decorations for the visit of the Prince of Wales that year.

Alexander Muir wrote The Maple Leaf Forever as Canada's confederation song in 1867; it was regarded as the national song for several decades. The coats of arms created the next year for Ontario and Quebec both included the maple leaf.

The maple leaf today appears on the penny. However, between 1876 and 1901, it appeared on all Canadian coins. The modern one-cent piece has two maple leaves on a common twig, a design that has gone almost unchanged since 1937.

Maple Tree

Maple Tree

Trees have played a meaningful role in the historical development of Canada and continue to be of commercial, environmental and aesthetic importance to all Canadians. Maples contribute valuable wood products, sustain the maple sugar industry and help to beautify the landscape.

Since 1965, the maple leaf has been the centrepiece of the National Flag of Canada and the maple tree bears the leaves that have become the most prominent Canadian symbol, nationally and internationally. Maple leaf pins and badges are proudly worn by Canadians abroad, and are recognized around the world. Although the maple leaf is closely associated with Canada, the maple tree was never officially recognized as Canada's arboreal emblem until 1996.

Many Canadians in the forest sector have long requested that the Government select the maple tree as Canada's arboreal emblem. They now enjoy the use of the maple tree as an official symbol when promoting Canada as a world leader in sustainable forest management.

The maple tree was officially proclaimed national arboreal emblem of Canada on 25th April, 1996.



After the early Europeans explorers had realized that Canada was not the spice-rich Orient, the main mercantile attraction was the beaver population numbering in the millions. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the fashion of the day demanded fur hats, which needed beaver pelts. As these hats became more popular, the demand for the pelts grew.

King Henry IV of France saw the fur trade as an opportunity to acquire much-needed revenue and to establish a North American empire. Both English and French fur traders were soon selling beaver pelts in Europe at 20 times their original purchase price.

The trade of beaver pelts proved so lucrative that the Hudson's Bay Company honoured the buck-toothed little animal by putting it on the shield of its coat of arms in 1678. Sir William Alexander, who was granted title to Nova Scotia in 1621, had been the first to include the beaver in a coat of arms.

The beaver was included in the armorial bearings of the City of Montréal when it was incorporated as a city in 1833. Sir Sandford Fleming assured the beaver a position as a national symbol when he featured it on the first Canadian postage stamp - the "Three Penny Beaver" of 1851.

Despite all this recognition, the beaver was close to extinction by the mid-19th century. There were an estimated six million beavers in Canada before the start of the fur trade. During its peak, 100,000 pelts were being shipped to Europe each year; the Canadian beaver was in danger of being wiped out. Luckily, about that time, Europeans took a liking to silk hats and the demand for beaver pelts all but disappeared.

The beaver attained official status as an emblem of Canada when an "act to provide for the recognition of the beaver (castor canadensis) as a symbol of the sovereignty of Canada" received royal assent on March 24, 1975.

Canadian Horse

Canadian Horse

"The Canadian horse has been an integral part of our history and our heritage. Scientists now believe that horses originated in North America 50 million years ago. When the first humans arrived in North America they migrated from Asia across a strip of land that is now gone. At the same time the horses were migrating to Asia by the same route. Our first nations were the first humans to have contact with horses. Eventually these horses disappeared from North America. They moved to China, then the Middle East and finally northern Europe.

"The circle was completed by the mid-1600s. The ancestors of the current Canadian horse came from France with the early French settlers. They were introduced to Canada between 1647 and 1670 by Louis XIV who sent roughly 30 horses from his own stables in Normandy and Brittany. There was no standard Norman or Breton breeds in the 17th century. As a result, the Canadian Horse can trace its ancestry back to several breeds, including the Andalusian, the Arabian and the Percheron horses.

"Canadian horses were indispensable to the settlers in New France. They helped clear, plough and cultivate the soil. They made roads. They transported people and goods. They carried children to school and doctors to the sick and dying. They provided entertainment in the form of horse racing. Indeed they were the foundation of the economic well-being of New France.

"The Canadian horse is a perfect symbol for Canada. It has those traits that we, as Canadians, value. I am talking about all Canadians. The Canadian horse is strong for its size. It is both persistent and resilient. It is an intelligent and well-tempered Horse. The Canadian horse has a long life. Like this country itself, Canadian horses are very peaceful. From the time of ancient Greece, the horse has been an emblem signifying strength and courage. The Canadian Horse is one of the world's strongest and most courageous breeds. For this reason, it is the perfect emblem for Canada."

The description above is an exerpt from the official debates of the House of Commons when the Bill to make the Canadian horse an official symbol of Canada was being debated. The Bill was proclaimed into law on April 30, 2002.

Hockey Player

Canada's Official Sports

It most likely does not come to a surprise to anyone that one of Canada's official sports is hockey. Canada reasserted itself as the world's greatest hockey nation at the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic Games where both the women and men's hockey teams won the gold medal.

What may be a lesser known fact about Canada is that we have another official sport, lacrosse. Lacrosse had been the unofficial sport of Canada since before Confederation, although popularity has lessened somewhat since then. How did it come to be an official sport, then? In 1964, a bill was introduced to declare hockey as Canada's national sport. An opposing bill countered that though, legally, lacrosse had not been Canada's official game, popular opinion had made it so. Thus, the bill sought official recognition of lacrosse in this manner. Ultimately, neither bills were debated by Parliament. The issue arose again in Canada's Centennial Year when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson proposed separate national summer and winter sports. This matter, however, would not be resolved for 27 years.

In 1994, Bill C-212 was introduced to officially declare hockey as Canada's national sport. Opposition came from supporters of lacrosse who wanted to recognize the traditional and cultural significance of this sport. Consequently, Bill C-212 was amended to recognize both sports. Thus, on May 12, 1994, Canada's National Sport Act (Bill C-212) became law, reading: "To recognize hockey as Canada's National Winter Sport and lacrosse as Canada's National Summer Sport". While hockey's popularity is unquestionable - especially in Canada, lacrosse is still enjoyed by Canadians and has gained popularity in the United States, England, Ireland, and Scotland.

You can find lacrosse shorts, heads and equipment from LacrosseMonkey, one of the top lacrosse retailers.

Canadian Flag

Canadian Flag

The search for a new Canadian Flag started in earnest in 1925 when a committee of the Privy Council began to research possible designs for a national flag. However, the work of the committee was never completed.

Later, in 1946, a select parliamentary committee was appointed with a similar mandate, called for submissions and received more than 2,600 designs. Still, the Parliament of Canada was never called upon to formally vote on a design.

Early in 1964, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson informed the House of Commons that the government wished to adopt a distinctive national flag. The 1967 centennial celebration of Confederation was, after all, approaching. As a result, a Senate and House of Commons Committee was formed and submissions were called for once again.

The exercise captured the imagination of the country. The committee held 46 sittings. It listened to hours of testimony from heraldic experts, historians and ordinary citizens. It was flooded by more than 2000 proposed designs. Thousands of Canadians responded with flag designs of their own, using everything from beavers munching on birch trees to the northern lights shining over the Arctic Ocean to represent the country.

In October 1964, after eliminating various proposals, the committee was left with three possible designs - a Red Ensign with the fleur-de-lis and the Union Jack, a design incorporating three red maple leaves, and a red flag with a single, stylized red maple leaf on a white square. Mr. Pearson himself preferred a design with three red maple leaves between two blue borders.

The names of Mr. John Matheson and Dr. George Stanley are well known in the story of the evolution of a new Canadian flag. Mr. Matheson, an Ontario Member of Parliament, was perhaps one of the strongest supporters of a new flag and played a key advisory role. Dr. Stanley was Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College in Kingston, and brought to the attention of the committee the fact that the Commandant's flag at the College - a maple leaf on a red and white ground - was quite attractive.

The committee eventually decided to recommend the single-leaf design, which was approved by resolution of the House of Commons on December 15, 1964, followed by the Senate on December 17, 1964, and proclaimed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, to take effect on February 15, 1965.

The National Flag of Canada, then, came into being - almost 100 years after the Dominion was created in 1867. Please read on for a complete history of the flags that have flown over Canada since the 1500s.

SOURCES: Ministry of Canadian Heritage and The Toronto Star.

See also
Flag History

Copyright Craig I.W. Marlatt