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.
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.
Historical significance of the beaver
After the early European explorers realized Canada was not the spice-rich Orient, the main profit-making attraction was the beaver population. 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 profitable that many Canadians felt compelled to pay tribute to the buck-toothed animal.
- Sir William Alexander, who was granted title to Nova Scotia in 1621, was the first to include the beaver in a coat of arms.
- The Hudson’s Bay Company put 4 beavers on the shield of its coat of arms in 1678 to show how important the hard-working rodent was to the company.
- A coin was created – which was known as a “buck” – that was equal to the value of one male beaver pelt.
- Louis de Buade de Frontenac, Governor of New France in 1678, suggested the beaver would be a suitable emblem for the colony – and proposed it be included in the coat of arms of the City of Québec.
- The French Kebeca Liberata medal, created in 1690 to celebrate France’s successful defence of the City of Québec, depicts the image of a seated woman (representing France) with a beaver at her feet (representing Canada).
- When the City of Montréal was incorporated in 1833, it included the beaver’s image in its coat of arms.
- Sir Sandford Fleming featured the beaver on the first Canadian postage stamp – the Three Penny Beaver – in 1851.
- Le Canadien, a newspaper published in Lower CanadaFootnote 1, featured the beaver in its masthead.
- The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste included the beaver in one of its emblems for a time.
- The Canadian Pacific Railway company still includes the beaver on its emblem today.
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. Luckily, at around that time, Europeans took a liking to silk hats and the demand for beaver pelts all but disappeared.
Today, thanks to conservation and silk hats, the beaver – the largest rodent in Canada – 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. This was especially true on the battlefield where coats of arms made it possible to distinguish allies from enemies. Today, they are used to preserve traditions and inspire love of country.
The Canada Coat of Arms, or Arms of Canada, were originally adopted by proclamation of His Majesty 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. The English translation of the Latin text is “They desire a better country”, which is taken from the Epistle to the Hebrews (New Testament) 11:16.
Design of the Canada Coat of Arms
The present design of the Arms of Canada was drawn by Cathy Bursey-Sabourin, Fraser HeraldFootnote 2 at the Canadian Heraldic Authority Footnote 3, which is part of the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General of Canada. It faithfully depicts the arms described in the Royal Proclamation of November 21, 1921. The design includes:
- symbols of the 4 founding European nations of Canada featured on the shield: the 3 royal lions of England, the royal lion of Scotland, the royal fleur-de-lis of France, and the royal Irish harp of Tara
- the lion of England holding the Royal Union Flag and the unicorn of Scotland carrying the flag of Royal France
- the floral emblems of the 4 founding European nations: the English rose, the Scottish thistle, the French fleur-de-lis, and the Irish shamrock
- the Royal Crown at the top, indicating 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”
Where you find the Canada Coat of Arms
The Canada Coat of Arms is used on federal government possessions like buildings, official seals, money, passports, proclamations and publications. They are also reproduced on the rank badges of some members of the Canadian Armed Forces. The Arms of Canada are also used by federal institutions, including the Supreme Court of Canada, the Federal Court of Canada and the Tax Court of Canada to symbolize their judicial independence from the Government of Canada.
The heraldic practice of attaching an inscription – or appropriate sentiment – to a coat of arms has been honoured by the Dominion of Canada and 8 of the 10 provinces. While none of the territories has a motto, many municipalities have their own.
The motto of the Dominion of Canada is A Mari Usque Ad Mare which is officially translated as “From Sea to Sea” and “D’un océan à l’autre”. The phrase comes from the Latin translation of Psalm 72:8 in the Bible.
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 Canada’s 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 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 – regardless of their ancestry – 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 not officially recognized as Canada's arboreal emblem until 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; they are ideal for promoting Canada as a world leader in the sustainable management of forests.
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, a well-known composer born in Verchères, Quebec. French lyrics to accompany the music were written by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a poet and judge born in Saint-Placide, Quebec. 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, a poet born in Hamilton, Ontario.
Read the history of “O Canada” and learn about the people behind the anthem.
The national flag
With its distinctive maple leaf, Canada’s red and white flag is easily recognized around the globe.
The adoption of the national flag in 1965 was the result of many years of discussion, thousands of concepts and designs, and a heated debate in Parliament. The search for a new Canadian flag began in 1925, when a committee of the Privy Council began to look into potential designs. In 1946, a parliamentary committee examined more than 2,600 submissions – but members could not agree on a new design. As the Centennial of Confederation approached, Parliament increased its efforts to choose a new flag.
In 1964, a Parliamentary committee was formed to select a new national flag from submitted concepts and designs. The chosen concept was proposed by George Stanley, Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College of Canada. The red-white-red pattern is based on the College’s own flag and the ribbon of the Canada General Service Medal of 1899. Stanley’s concept would inspire the team of graphic artists that would create the final design of the flag, and on February 15, 1965, the new National Flag of Canada was raised for the first time over Parliament Hill.
The leaf has 11 points, and the flag’s proportions are 2 by length and 1 by width.
The anniversary of our flag’s adoption 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, resilience, 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.
Read more about sport in Canada.
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.
Red and white are colours that have historically been used by many nations, including those that contributed to the founding of Canada. 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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