Unofficial symbols of Canada
Some objects, sites and structures in Canada have become, either through tradition or public perception, symbols by which Canadians identify themselves. These landmarks are also recognized around the world as being distinctly Canadian. Here are a few examples of these unofficial symbols.
The Great Seal
The Great Seal of Canada is one of the oldest and most honoured instruments of our government. Since the earliest days of our nation, Canada’s most important documents have been made official through the Seal’s imprint.
The Great Seal of Canada symbolizes the power and authority of the Crown given to our parliamentary government by the sovereign. It is used for both ceremonies and administrative purposes. Each time a new governor general is installed in Canada, he or she is solemnly charged with custody of the Seal as representative of the Crown. The Great Seal is used on all state documents, such as royal proclamations and commissions issued for the appointment of Cabinet ministers, lieutenant governors, senators and judges.
While the Great Seal exists since Confederation, it changes with each successive reign. Made by the Royal Canadian Mint, the present seal bears the image of the Queen Elizabeth II in her robes on the coronation chair, holding the orb and sceptre. At the base is the Canada Coat of Arms. The inscriptions on it are in French and English; previous seals were inscribed in Latin. The Great Seal is made of steel, weighs 3.75 kg and is 12.7 cm in diameter.
The Seal is kept by the Office of the Registrar General of Canada. The Registrar General is also Minister of Industry.
The maple leaf
Perhaps the most prominent symbol of Canada is the maple leaf. From taking centre stage on our national flag to being a key element of design in the Canada Coat of Arms, the maple leaf is a distinctively Canadian emblem.
Historians believe the maple leaf began to serve as a Canadian symbol as early as 1700. Long before the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal peoples had already discovered the food properties of maple sap – which they gathered every spring.
Since the 1800s, Canadians have paid tribute to the maple leaf many times.
- In 1834, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste made the maple leaf its emblem.
- In 1848, a Toronto literary annual entitled “The Maple Leaf”, referred to the maple leaf as the chosen emblem of Canada.
- In 1860, the maple leaf was incorporated into the badge of the 100th (Prince of Wales’s Royal Canadian) Regiment of Foot and was used in decorations for the visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada that year.
- In 1867, Alexander Muir wrote “The Maple Leaf Forever” as a song for Confederation.
- In 1868, both Ontario’s and Quebec’s coat of arms included the maple leaf.
- From 1876 to 1901, the maple leaf appeared on all Canadian coins.
- During the First World War, the maple leaf was included in the badge of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
- In 1921, three maple leaves were included in the Canada Coat of Arms.
- From 1937 to 2012, the maple leaf was used on the front of the Canadian penny.
- In 1939, during the Second World War, many Canadian troops used the maple leaf as a distinctive sign, displaying it on badges as well as army and naval equipment.
- In 1957, the colour of the maple leaves on the Canada Coat of Arms was changed from green to red – one of Canada’s national colours.
- In 1965, the red maple leaf flag was officially adopted as the national flag of Canada.
The Parliament buildings
The Parliament buildings are a distinct symbol of the Canadian government and familiar structures to people around the world.
Prominently located on a hill above the Ottawa River in the nation’s capital, the Parliament buildings include four buildings designed in Modern Gothic Revival style: the West Block, the Centre Block, the East Block, and the Library.
The Peace Tower is the centrepiece of the buildings, standing over 92 metres high. Named in honour of Canada’s commitment to peace, it houses an observation area and a Carillon – a set of 53 bells. The Dominion Carillonneur entertains visitors to Parliament Hill with regular recitals.
Read about the history of Canada’s first Parliament buildings.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is Canada's national police force. It is responsible for enforcing the law, preventing crime and maintaining peace, order and security. The RCMP provides policing services at three different levels across the country: federal, provincial/territorial and municipal.
Even though the RCMP is a modern police force, the scarlet tunic and the black horse remain an important part of its tradition. The symbol of the horse and uniformed rider also forms part of Canada’s national identity, and is celebrated by the popular Musical Ride ceremony.
Learn more about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
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