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As Canada's coat of arms turns 100, is it time for an overhaul?

Canada's coat of arms was adopted by royal proclamation 100 years ago. But some say its design, which is based on the four "founding nations" of European setters — England, Scotland, Ireland and France — is overdue for a revamp that would recognize the role of First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Nunavut's new MP says she'd 'completely support' an updated coat of arms

A close up of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms showing Canada's coat of arms. (David Horemans/CBC)

Canada's coat of arms was adopted by royal proclamation 100 years ago, and some say it's overdue for a redesign.

Nunavut's new MP, Lori Idlout, said she was asked by the Capital Current, a Carleton University student journalism publication, about updating the coat of arms to be more representative of First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and expressed her support for it.

"It's not an initiative that I'm leading. It's something that I've responded to and that I completely support because it is important to start acknowledging the territories that we are on in Canada," she told CBC.

Idlout is the NDP's critic for Indigenous Services, Northern Affairs and Crown-Indigenous Relations. She said that "because of how Canada came to be, and how there's always been First Nations, Métis and Inuit on these lands, we need to make sure that they're incorporated into the coat of arms."

Nunavut MP Lori Idlout says she would support updating Canada's coat of arms to be more representative of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. (Don Sommers/CBC)

Canadian Heraldic Authority, the group responsible for coats of arms, flags and badges, said changing Canada's coat of arms is up to the federal government, which would determine the process and who would take part in it.

In an emailed statement, the authority said the process "would be informed by efforts of reconciliation and collaboration with Indigenous peoples in Canada."

The heraldic authority would play an "important role" and would contribute "its experience in incorporating Indigenous elements into heraldic designs," it said. 

The federal Department of Canadian Heritage did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Adopted by royal proclamation in 1921

Canada's coat of arms was adopted by proclamation of King George V in on Nov. 21, 1921, and primarily reflects colonizing European nations.  

The coat of arms, adopted in 1921 and last modified in 1994, primarily shows symbolism of colonizing European nations.

It shows a shield with maple leaves and symbols representing the "founding nations" of Canada: three royal lions for England, one for Scotland, the royal fleur-de-lis of France and royal harp of Ireland. Flanking the shield are a lion of England holding the Union Jack and Scotland's unicorn holding the flag of royal France. 

The coat of arms also bears a crown and Canada's official motto: A Mari Usque Ad Mare, a Latin phrase from the Bible that means "from sea to sea."

It appears on federal government buildings and in federal institutions like the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as on government publications, passports and on the rank badges of certain members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The coat of arms has been redrawn a number of times since its initial design, most recently in 1994 with the addition of the Order of Canada motto: Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam, which means "They desire a better country."

'An extremely important symbol'

"The coat of arms is an extremely important symbol in Canada," said Robert-Falcon Oullette, a senior fellow at the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy and Cree from Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

"This is the symbol that people, new Canadians, will see again and again, and they might not recognize it for what it is, but it does tell a story about who we are." 

In 2019, when Oullette was the MP for Winnipeg Centre, he tabled a petition in the House of Commons calling on the government to update the coat of arms to include representation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. 

'The coat of arms is an extremely important symbol in Canada,' said Robert-Falcon Oullette, a former MP for Winnipeg Centre. (CBC)

"When we talk about reconciliation, it's not only the things which impact our daily lives that we need to change, but also those symbols that are perhaps far above what we're thinking about on a daily basis but are still there and when you notice them, you go, 'Oh, there's something wrong with that,' " said Oullette. 

He suggested adding a walrus, beaver or medicine wheel to Canada's coat of arms, and adjusting the motto to "from sea to sea to sea" to include the Arctic coast. 

Canada's isn't the only coat of arms that could use a makeover, according to Oullette. 

He said Newfoundland's coat of arms, which has depictions of two Indigenous people with bows and arrows, could be changed to better reflect "what's important to themselves in that province and in their history." 

In his response to the 2019 petition, then-Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Andy Fillmore said the coat of arms expresses the heritage and identity of Canada "as it was perceived in the early 20th century." He said the maple leaves represent English and French settlers and Indigenous peoples.

Fillmore said revising the coat of Arms would require "meaningful engagement with Indigenous Peoples, through an extensive process overseen by the Canadian Heraldic Authority, with the continued support of the Government."

The unveiling of Governor General Mary Simon's coat of arms will be 'an important moment to showcase Indigeneity in heraldry,' said the Canadian Heraldic Authority. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Governor general to unveil her own coat of arms

Governor General Mary Simon, who is Inuk, born in Kangiqsualujjuaq in the Nunavik region of Quebec, is set to release her own coat of arms in 2022.

This will be "an important moment to showcase Indigeneity in heraldry," the Canadian Heraldic Authority said.

For Idlout, changing Canada's coat of arms isn't a top priority.

She said she's focused on more pressing issues, such as housing, mental health, and holding the government of Canada accountable. 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that Andy Fillmore was the heritage minister. In fact, he was parliamentary secretary to the heritage minister.
    Nov 30, 2021 10:33 AM CT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sidney Cohen

Journalist

Sidney Cohen is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife.

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