new_city_coat_of_armsEarlier this year, the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie got their first look at their new coat of arms. It had all the typical elements of a medieval coat of arms, but this was clearly no European design. The motto is in Ojibway, a rugged-looking fur trading post tops the design and the shield is flanked by two timber wolves, both of whom are oddly clutching steelworker’s tools. Canada is home to some of the world’s most visually stunning and outrageous heraldry. While other countries may stick to lions, unicorns and medieval shields, Canada’s badges and coats of arms abound with bison mermaids, flying polar bears, and First Nations monsters — all tossed together in whimsical scenes of fire, ice and glory. And all of it is officially sanctioned by the Queen. ‘‘If people are willing, we’ll be wild, if they want to be conservative we’ll be conservative, but we’re not short of ideas,” said Chief Herald of Canada Claire Boudreau. “I know that what we do is above any standard that I’ve seen internationally. I can say we’re the top.”

For most of Canadian history, any citizen wanting a coat of arms had to go through the rigorous process of appealing to the 500-year-old College of Arms in London. That all changed in 1988 when Canada, at the urging of the country’s heraldic enthusiasts — successfully patriated all heraldry control from the UK. Overnight, an art once limited to medieval nobility was within reach of any Canadian.

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The Canadian Heraldic Authority exists to “ensure that all Canadians who wish to use heraldry will have access to it.” “If people are willing, we’ll be wild, if they want to be conservative we’ll be conservative, but we’re not short of ideas,” said Ms. Boudreau. Much of this “wildness” comes in the form of consistently odd fauna choices. The Quebec City Ballet features a pair of “half-swan, half-gazelle” hybrids for its coat of arms. The Royal St. John’s Regatta chose a pair of caribou mermaids.

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Winnipeger Philip Lee also opted for unusual mermaids; a bison-mermaid on the left and a dragon-mermaid on the right. As an official description reads, the fishtail bottoms of the two creatures are meant to symbolize Mr. Lee’s skills in “water research and limnology studies.” The Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants chose to feature two winged polar bears. The wings stand for migration, but the ferocious bears stand for “protecting the standards of the immigration profession.”

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Even the Federal Court of Canada opted for elaborate monsters: The winged sea caribou, a creature with a caribou head, a salmon tail and raven wings and talons. The fearsome beast represents the court’s involvement in aviation and maritime law. To honour his Chinese heritage and Alberta home, former Alberta Lt. Governor Norman Lim Kwong opted for a pair of half dragon, half Albertosaurus creatures — along with a trio of footballs to denote his 1950s CFL career.

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At Heraldic Authority headquarters just down the street from Rideau Hall, Ms. Boudreau oversees a small staff of “Heralds of Arms” tasked with churning out Canada’s robust annual production of new heraldry. “We’re a young team, we’re totally enthusiastic about what we do, and it shows,” she said. Half the authority’s applications come from the standardScreen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.31.11 PM.jpg stable of heraldry adopters such as military regiments and universities, but the other half comes from civilians: Canadians simply looking to work with a herald on drawing up a family coat of arms. It is this democratization of Canadian heraldry that often yields its most colourful results. “We say ‘go for it, we’ll make it beautiful’ — It will be more poetic; you mix a horse with a dove and the result speaks more to you.”

Ms. Boudreau’s own coat of arms features a pair of rainbow-coloured panthers breathing fire. For good measure, the design is topped by a third fire-breathing monster endowed with the “body of a lion, a horse’s head with horns, a griffin’s forelegs and a lion’s hind legs.” This diversified nature makes it a symbol of tolerance and of the spirit of adventure by which alone the frontiers of the unknown can be pushed back,” reads the accompanying description. Canada is the only country, which embraces emblems from other cultures. The mottos featured on Canadian coats of arms range from Polish to Hungarian to Inutitut, and the designs abound with Chinese and First Nations design elements.

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Probably the most uniquely Canadian heraldic feature is the narwhal, the Arctic whale characterized by its long, spiraling tusk. Although it can be tricky to pose the 100 kg marine mammals into any kind of regal position, several prominent bodies have been unable to resist adopting the creature as a kind of Canadian unicorn. A narwhal balanced on its hind flippers features prominently on the Nunavut coat of arms. The Northwest Territories similarly opted for a pair of demure golden narwhals on top of its heraldic shield and even the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada’s own coat of arms features a stern narwhal paired alongside an equally stern beaver. The Nunavut coat of arms, like many others, also employs echoes of Aboriginal elements — another feature of Canadian heraldry.

Originally printed on March 27, 2014. Reprinted with permission from The National Post.
Also check out Marian Bantjes excellent piece on heraldry design.


Tristin Hopper is an award-winning reporter working for the National desk of the National Post.
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