A Fire, a Chair, and Crested Notepaper: Canada’s Coat of Arms at 100

Article 3 / 9 , Vol 44 No. 3 (Fall)

A Fire, a Chair and Crested Notepaper: Canada’s Coat of Arms at 100

Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada. Between 2009 and 2013, he was Saguenay Herald at the Canadian Heraldic Authority and has researched and written extensively about Canada’s symbolic heritage.

A century ago this autumn, Canada adopted a new coat of arms. In this article the author recounts the events that prompted discussions for a new design and notes how Parliament and parliamentarians affected the selection in unexpected ways.

Canada might not have its current coat of arms if the Centre Block on Parliament Hill had not burned in 1916. The coat of arms of Canada is one hundred years old this November, and the origins of this confection of lions, fleurs-de-lis and maple leaves – with a unicorn for good measure – is little known, even among heraldry enthusiasts.

Even in 1921, the coat of arms discussion did not capture the public imagination as the Great Flag Debate would some 40 years later. Nor did the question provoke significant partisan disagreement; Parliament did not even consider coat of arms designs, leaving the decision to cabinet, who in turn delegated it to a panel of civil servant advisors.

While the coat of arms question never prompted a spirited House of Commons debate, the coat of arms committee’s records at Library and Archives Canada reveal that Parliament and parliamentarians influenced the process in more subtle, unexpected ways. The rebuilding of the Centre Block after the devastating 1916 fire presented an opportunity to reconsider Canadian symbols. And when discussions between the Canadian coat of arms committee and the English heralds reached an impasse, it was the timely intervention of the Empire Parliamentary Association, precursor to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, that revived the project.

A Burning Question

Canada needed a new coat of arms in the 1910s, perhaps just as much as it needed a new flag in the 1960s. Since 1868, a shield that incorporated the coats of arms of the provinces had served as a makeshift coat of arms for the government and the country. At first, the design honouring the four original provinces was relatively simple. However, with the addition of new provincial and territorial emblems, the shield became more and more complicated. What’s more, the old designs never went away. Although the four-province shield remained the only “official” design, shields representing five, seven, and nine provinces appeared on flags, souvenirs, and even official government documents.

To Edward Marion Chadwick, the rebuilding of the ruined Centre Block presented the perfect moment to redesign Canada’s coat of arms. He also believed that he was the person to redesign it. The Toronto lawyer was an avid heraldic researcher who had designed the coat of arms of Saskatchewan, revised Ontario’s heraldic emblems, and devised a shield for Yukon that inspired the territorial coat of arms adopted long after his death. Late in 1917, Chadwick drafted a detailed proposal for a new Canadian emblem that displayed British and French elements, as well as his longstanding interest in First Nations imagery.

Chadwick found an ally in Senator Angus Claude MacDonnell, who made sure that the proposal reached John Pearson, the architect of the new Centre Block. Pearson was intrigued. “What is being done about a Dominion Coat of Arms?” he asked Thomas Mulvey, the Under-Secretary of State, on January 19, 1918. “I want to use it in several places in the New Building.” Less than a week later, at Pearson’s request, the deputy minister of public works nudged Mulvey again for designs and sketches.

The architect, however, would have to be more patient, for Chadwick’s coat of arms design had failed to impress Sir Joseph Pope, Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs and the government’s de facto chief of protocol. To Pope’s eye, Chadwick’s design lacked Britishness. “The whole arrangement strikes me as disproportionately illustrative of the aboriginal and French periods of our history,” he wrote to Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden.

Pope’s objections to Chadwick’s First Nations supporters reflected a belief that Canadian history began with the arrival of Europeans. “I myself do not see any necessity for commemorating the Indians at all,” he told the Prime Minister; to Pope, Indigenous people and cultures were a part of the distant past, and not a part that he cared to remember. Nevertheless, his objections may have unintentionally saved future governments embarrassment. Chadwick’s interest in First Nations culture was genuine and he strove for authenticity in his presentation of First Nations regalia, but the figures appear as caricatures, especially to modern eyes reconsidering national symbols through an anti-racist lens. As a case in point, in June 2021, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador committed to revisiting the blazon of its coat of arms, first devised in 1637, which describes similarly stereotypical First Nations supporters as “savages of the clime.” Had Chadwick’s design been adopted, the federal government would have faced pressure to redesign it sooner or later.

As much as Pope disliked Chadwick’s design, he must have appreciated the small flurry of heraldic chatter that it provoked. After all, he had an ulterior motive. As early as 1915, Pope had grumbled about the chaotic use of coats of arms on official stationery. Even offices of the same government organization sometimes used different emblems. Members of the House of Commons, for instance, typically used letterhead depicting the British coat of arms in green, but the Speaker’s stationery sometimes sported the seven-province shield with a lion and a unicorn as supporters and the British royal motto, “Dieu et mon droit.” A new Canadian coat of arms would be a step toward a common federal visual identity, instead of leaving departments to their own devices.

Beavers, Bison, Maple Leaves, and Moose

It took a year, but the chatter eventually turned into action. On March 26, 1919, the Privy Council struck a committee to consider the coat of arms question. Pope and Mulvey represented the External Affairs and Secretary of State’s departments, while Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty offered historical perspective and Lieutenant-General Willoughby Gwatkin, Chief of the Canadian General Staff, represented the military. Based in London, Gwatkin would also serve as the committee’s liaison with the College of Arms, the English heraldic authority that would approve the final design. None of the committee members had any particular expertise in heraldry.

Although the public generally showed little interest in the coat of arms project, a few stories appeared in newspapers, and a few Canadians suggested designs. Commercial artist W.H. Sadd of Manotick, near Ottawa, proposed an American-inspired shield, featuring four coloured stripes honouring the four original provinces and nine blue maple leaves for the provinces of 1919. Geography teacher Edgar Biggar of New Toronto (now Etobicoke) presented no fewer than five ideas, with a variety of Canadian fauna as supporters and on the shields. For his part, Randolph J. Maclean, Jr., an electrician from Woodstock, New Brunswick, chose to think outside the shield: his design, a beaver beneath an arch representing the provinces, appeared on an autumnal maple leaf rather than on the typical escutcheon.

Across the Atlantic, Rudyard Kipling, of The Jungle Book fame, took an unexpected interest in the coat of arms project. Kipling hoped that the new emblem would honour Canada’s military accomplishments. He suggested, during a meeting with the Canadian High Commissioner in London, a series of “honourable augmentations” to whatever design was selected, to represent the theatres where Canadian soldiers had served during the First World War.

The committee took none of these suggestions. Instead, the proposal that they sent to the College of Arms in London was a variation on the royal arms of the United Kingdom. In one of the quarters, they replaced the three lions of England with three fleurs-de-lis, the pre-Revolutionary arms of France, to represent Canada’s French heritage. To further Canadianize the design, they added three red maples leaves on a white “chief” to the top of the shield. At the committee’s request, the Toronto heraldic artist Alexander Scott Carter prepared an illustration.

The initial choice of red maple leaves on white has become the stuff of mythology, especially for those looking for ancestors for the Canadian flag. Eugène Fiset, the deputy minister of militia and defence, had first suggested these colours early in 1919: to Fiset, the red leaves evoked not only the splendour of the Canadian autumn, but also Britishness and wartime sacrifice, while white represented northern snows.

The committee liked the white, but Pope in particular hated the red leaves. Green leaves, he remarked, would suggest vernal vitality rather than autumnal decay. In the end, Pope got his way, but the final design would also feature white and red mantling (the flowing cloth around the helmet), probably an accidental vestige of the earlier design. Decades later, proponents of a distinctive national flag claimed that King George V himself had selected red and white as Canada’s national colours, but there is no evidence to support this.

In London, the colours were about the only acceptable part of the Canadians’ design. Sir Henry Farnham Burke, as Garter Principal King of Arms the highest-ranking English heraldic officer, believed that altering the royal arms for use in Canada would require an act of the British parliament. The English heralds proposed instead a very different design, retaining a red and white colour scheme but reducing the maple leaves from the dominant symbol to one-half of a wreath surrounding an imperial crown. The Canadian committee, however, insisted on its version of the royal arms. One frustrated committee member would later describe Burke as “a narrow-minded bureaucrat,” and by the autumn of 1920, the committee was sounding out the willingness of King George V to override his heraldic advisors. For several months in early 1921, the process stalled.

Parliamentarians to the Rescue

The nudge that the coat of arms committee needed to restart the project came from the Empire Parliamentary Association, predecessor to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. To mark the rebuilding of the Centre Block, the association’s United Kingdom branch had commissioned an exact replica of the speaker’s chair at Westminster as a gift for their Canadian counterparts. An illuminated presentation scroll was to accompany the chair and the branch hoped that it might feature the new Canadian coat of arms.

The committee answered the call. On April 11, 1921, two days after receiving the Empire Parliamentary Association’s request, Mulvey telegrammed Scott Carter in Toronto, requesting that he prepare a new rendering of the arms as quickly as possible. By the end of the month, the committee had submitted its favoured design to the Privy Council. Following advice from London that the King disapproved of placing the maple leaves above the royal arms, the committee had moved them to the bottom of the shield. Green leaves also replaced the red – a victory for Pope.

The design may have come too late for the Empire Parliamentary Association – in the end, no scroll accompanied the speaker’s chair when it was delivered in May 1921 – but by the summer, the new design was wending its way to approval. Yet it still had its detractors. Offended by the Canadians’ choice to seek the King’s personal approval, Burke at the College of Arms continued to criticize the design. First, he suggested that the placement of the fleurs-de-lis might spark a diplomatic row, as it amounted to a Canadian claim of sovereignty over France. The Canadian commissioner-general in Paris quietly sought confirmation that the French government would not interpret it that way. Undeterred, Burke continued to pitch new designs, conceding defeat only in October, when Mulvey indicated politely but firmly that the Canadians preferred the design that the King had approved. The Royal Proclamation authorizing the arms followed, dated November 21, 1921.

In time, the coat of arms would appear on passports, banknotes, coins, medals, military uniforms, official government documents, and unofficial souvenir items. The shield would adorn the fly of the Canadian Red Ensign – the placeholder national flag – for forty years, and bakers would edge the arms with icing on a massive birthday cake for the Centennial of Confederation in 1967. Rendered in stone rather than sugar, the arms appear in several places in the Centre Block. John Pearson’s patience was rewarded, for the traditionally mediaeval design complemented his spectacular Gothic revival masterpiece.

The arms also proved a means of achieving that other, practical goal, consistency in federal stationery. The Editorial Committee on Government Publications lost no time in recommending that the government require all federal departments to use the new arms in place of the British royal arms or earlier Canadian devices. Had there been a prize for early adoption, it should have gone to the Office of the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, which arranged for an intaglio die to be engraved and letterhead printed by early February 1922, even before the King’s Printer had received the final line art. Over the next few years, the rest of the civil service fell into line.

True, the new coat of arms design did not inspire popular excitement. It reflected the preferences of a small group of civil servants, for whom Canada was a British nation; the inclusion of fleurs-de-lis was the only nod to Canadians of non-British origin. Today, a coat of arms that emphasizes the emblems of “founding nations” may seem an inadequate representation of a diverse country.

Yet emblems can, and do, evolve with the countries they represent. Twice over the past century, the federal government has asked artists to reinterpret the “look and feel” of the arms, without changing the symbols included. The 1957 version, by Alan Beddoe, changed the maple leaves to red, in line with the committee’s original vision. The 1994 interpretation, by Cathy Bursey Sabourin, Fraser Herald at the Canadian Heraldic Authority, enlarged the maple leaves and added a maple motif to the mantling, further Canadianizing what to some might seem an Imperial emblem.

Canadians’ understanding of certain elements has also evolved, again, without changing the design. The arrangement of the maple leaves – three on a single stem – was an aesthetic choice for the committee, but until very recently the publications of the Department of Canadian Heritage interpreted the three leaves as representing unity among Canadians of different backgrounds. This interpretation dates back to at least the 1960s and has become part of the coat of arms’ story.

As we mark the one-hundredth birthday of the coat of arms of Canada, remembering its origins helps us to make sense of the coat of arms’ design. Like other emblems, it recalls the concerns that led to its creation, from the lofty and emotional affirmation of Canada’s place in British Empire to the mundane necessity of common letterhead. It will undoubtedly continue to evolve – artistically, symbolically, and perhaps even in terms of its elements — over its next hundred years. After all, although its designers created an emblem with the masonry of the reconstructed Centre Block in mind, the coat of arms’ meaning is not carved in stone.