Official symbols of Canada

Over the past century, the following symbols have been formally adopted by the Government of Canada and are now considered official symbols of our country.

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The beaver

The beaver was given 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. However, the beaver was a part of the Canadian identity long before Parliament passed the National Symbol of Canada Act.

With the arrival of European settlers, the beaver became the country’s main profit-making attraction. 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.

Sir Sandford Fleming featured the beaver on the first Canadian postage stamp.

Despite all this recognition, the beaver was close to extinction by the mid-19th century. There were an estimated 6 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.

Today, thanks to conservation, the beaver is alive and well all over the country.

The Coat of Arms

In the Middle Ages, coats of arms served as a sort of identification card.

The Canada Coat of Arms, or Arms of Canada, were adopted by proclamation of King George V in 1921. In 1994, a circular, red ribbon was added to the arms, displaying the motto of the Order of Canada: Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam (meaning “They desire a better country”).

The present artistic rendering of the Arms of Canada was drawn by Cathy Bursey-Sabourin, Fraser Herald at the Canadian Heraldic Authority. The Royal Crown at the top indicates that these are the Arms of His Majesty the King in Right of Canada. They are commonly called the “Canada Coat of Arms”, the “Coat of Arms of Canada”, the “Arms of Canada” or the “Royal Coat of Arms of Canada.”

The motto of Canada is A Mari Usque Ad Mare, which translates to “From Sea to Sea”.

The Maple Leaf Tartan

The Maple Leaf Tartan was declared an official national symbol on March 9, 2011.

Created in 1964 by David Weiser, the Maple Leaf Tartan was designed in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967. Inspired by the colours of the maple leaf through the changing seasons, the tartan’s pattern incorporates the green of summer leaves, the gold of early autumn, the red of the first frost and finally, the brown tones of the fallen leaves before winter.

The Maple Leaf Tartan

The Maple Leaf Tartan is used by The Royal Canadian Regiment Pipes and Drums, and has also been worn by the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions. A symbol of national pride, the tartan was designed to be worn by Canadians from all backgrounds, especially on national days like Canada Day (July 1) and Tartan Day (April 6).

The maple tree

Although the maple leaf is closely associated with Canada, the maple tree was only recognized as Canada's arboreal emblem in 1996.

Of the 150 known species of maple (genus Acer), only 13 are native to North America. 10 of these grow in Canada: the sugar, black, silver, bigleaf, red, mountain, striped, Douglas, vine and Manitoba maples. At least one of the 10 species grows naturally in every province. Canada’s arboreal emblem is the generic maple species.

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

The national anthem

“O Canada” was proclaimed Canada’s national anthem on July 1, 1980, one century after it was first performed in the City of Quebec on June 24, 1880.

The music was composed by Calixa Lavallée, and the French lyrics to accompany the music were written by Adolphe-Basile Routhier. Many English versions have appeared over the years. The version on which the official English lyrics are based was written in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir.

Read the history of “O Canada” and learn about the people behind the anthem and the anthems of Canada.

The national flag

With its distinctive maple leaf, Canada’s red and white flag is easily recognized around the globe.

The national flag of Canada was adopted on January 28, 1965, by proclamation of Queen Elizabeth II. On February 15 of that same year, the new National Flag of Canada was raised for the first time over Parliament Hill.

This anniversary is observed across the country on February 15, which is known as National Flag of Canada Day.

Learn more about the National Flag of Canada, including its history, dimensions, flag etiquette and rules for half-masting.

The national horse

While the Canadian horse was declared by Parliament to be Canada’s national breed in 1909, it was not until May 2002 that it was recognized as the national horse of Canada by Act of Parliament.

The origins of the Canadian horse date back to 1665. At that time, the King of France sent horses from the royal stables to New France – the Norman and Breton horses were of mixed origin and included Arabian, Barb and Andalusian horses. Over the next century, the horse population of New France developed in isolation from other breeds, gradually becoming a breed of its own – the Canadian horse.

The Canadian horse is known for its great strength and endurance, intelligence, and good temper. Threatened with extinction in the late 19th century, efforts were made in the late 1800s and throughout the 20th century to preserve the distinctive Canadian horse.

The national sports

The Parliament of Canada declared ice hockey as the national winter sport and lacrosse as the national summer sport when it passed the National Sports of Canada Act on May 12, 1994.

The national colours

It was long believed that red and white were designated as Canada’s national colours by King George V in the proclamation of the Canada Coat of Arms in 1921. However, the proclamation contains no such declaration.

Read the text of the proclamation of Canada’s coat of arms in the Canada Gazette, vol. 55, no. 25, Regular Issue, December 17, 1921, p. 2406.

Notwithstanding this popular historical misconception, red and white, the colours that adorn the National Flag of Canada, have undeniably come to represent Canada both at home and abroad.

Many Canadians have also come to embrace these colours as representative of natural features prominent in some parts of our country: the white of winter snows, and the red of autumnal maple leaves.

Over time, red and white have truly become Canada’s national colours, through common use and collective pride, even if they are not enshrined in law.

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