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Governor General of Canada / Gouverneur général du Canadaa




Heraldry yesterday and today

ImageHeraldry began as an emblematic form of individual identification, first appearing in 12th-century Europe when knights began painting their shields to identify themselves while wearing full armour. These early coats of arms, while generally very simple, clearly showed the person's identity. As coats of arms grew in popularity, more symbols were needed and coats of arms became more complex. Heraldry soon spread to other sections of medieval society: the church, secular corporations and the merchant class in towns and cities.

Gradually, monarchs took control of the official granting and use of coats of arms, which allowed them to honour people and groups. Coats of arms thus developed as grants of honour received from a sovereign exercising his or her personal prerogative. Heralds -- court officials who also acted as diplomats -- were responsible for keeping track of heraldry within a monarch's jurisdiction and started recording people's coats of arms.

Heraldry in the European tradition came to Canada with the voyages of the French and English explorers in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. At first, much heraldry in Canada was borrowed, the colonies using heraldic devices created by the heraldic authorities of the European powers identifying sovereign states, corporations or individuals. Early in the 17th century, the first devices created specifically for the colonies came into being when the Lord Lyon of Scotland granted arms to Nova Scotia in 1625 and the College of Arms in London granted arms to Newfoundland in 1638. Later in the same century, the heralds of France granted the first arms to individuals resident in New France for service to Louis XIV in the new colony. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Canada and each of the provinces were granted coats of arms through the British heraldic authorities.

Military heraldry also came to Canada in this period. The flags, uniforms and other colourful insignia of the French and British regiments and naval forces serving in the colonies became an important part of our heritage.

Since the 18th century, more heraldry has been created for, and used by, Canadians. The popularity of heraldry accelerated during the 20th century. Thus, for two centuries, Canadian communities, corporations, associations, societies and individuals have sought and obtained grants of arms to symbolize their authority, history and identity.

Today, coats of arms continue to honour people and groups who have contributed to Canada. They reflect our country's rich history and geography, as well as the character and aspirations of Canadians.

Aboriginal Symbolism

Canada is fortunate in possessing two great symbolic traditions, those of its native peoples and those brought by immigrants from all over the world.

The precise origin of the ancient clan emblems of Canada's native peoples will probably never be known; it is clear, however, that they have been in use for thousands of years. They represent, very distinctively, important elements in the social structure and beliefs of their owners.

Heraldry in Canada also includes symbols of Aboriginal peoples. Native images or artistic depictions of animals are shown in coats of arms to honour their traditions and contributions. As well, a number of Aboriginal groups have asked the Authority to record their symbols, which recognizes the value of such symbols and protects them against commercial misuse.

ImageThe coat of arms of the Honourable Peter Irniq, Commisionner of Nunavut, shows how heraldry adapts to the Canadian experience.

The shield is circular indicating the circle of life and the head of a drum. The central figure is an inukshuk with a long horizontal stone, which refers to moving forward or the way ahead. In the upper left corner is a drum with the beater laid across the drum handle. The act of drumming indicates joy and happiness. Instead of the traditional steel helmet of European style heraldry, the base of the crest is a man's parka hood. Above this is the upper part of a man drumming, which refers to the grantee's own spirit, and an important part of Inuit culture, while repeating the theme of joy and happiness. The supporters are a creature from the land, the musk ox, and one from the sea, a ringed seal, both in their natural colours and environment. The motto was suggested by His Honour, and it is stated in Innuiaktun and Innuktitut.

The components of a coat of arms

A coat of arms is centred on a shield and may be displayed with a helmet, mantling, a crest and a motto. A grant of supporters is limited to corporate bodies and to some individuals in specific categories.

Many grants also include a flag or a badge. A badge is a heraldic emblem distinct from the arms.


Coat of Arms of The Winnipeg Foundation

Updated: 2019-03-29
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