What are the Canadian Symbols? - Representation & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Canada, like all nations, recognizes a few important symbols to represent itself. In this lesson, we'll check out some of those symbols and see what they mean to Canadians today.

Getting to Know Canada

Imagine checking out someone's online dating profile. The information and pictures they choose say a lot about who they are, and what they want other people to think of them. Nations don't have dating profiles, but they do have their own ways of representing themselves. So when we want to get to know the North American nation of Canada a little better, there's no finer place to start than with their official symbols. It's like a profile for the nation.

Imperial-Based Symbols

Not only was Canada founded by the French and British Empires, but it's actually still technically part of the British Commonwealth. Therefore, many Canadian symbols were strongly influenced by British imperial practices and standards.

Let's start with the coat of arms. In 1921, King George V proclaimed that Canada should get its own coat of arms, and set forth its description. On the shield are the emblems of England, Scotland, Ireland, and France (considered the four founding nations of Canada), as well as the three floral symbols of each (the rose, thistle, shamrock, and fleur-de-lis). Of course, Canada also got its own floral emblem; a branch with three maple leaves, symbolizing the growth of new people planted in a new land.

The shield on the Canadian coat of arms

The maple tree is a symbol of Canada that merits a moment of attention. There are 13 species of maple trees found in North America, ten of which grow in Canada. Every Canadian province is naturally home to at least one. For a long time, the maple tree has been the ubiquitous symbol of Canada, representing the extremely important role of both lumber and maple sugar/syrup production in the development of the first Canadian economies.

The maple leaf continued to serve as a source of inspiration in Canadian symbols. As a member of the British Commonwealth, Canada also has an official tartan, which is essentially their formal kilt pattern. The Maple Leaf Tartan is made with the colors green, red, gold, and brown, the four colors of the maple leaf throughout the four seasons.

Another symbol of participation in the commonwealth is the official national horse. Canada's official horse is the Canadian horse, a breed developed from the mixture of French and British royal breeds in the 17th and 18th centuries, and therefore a fitting symbol of Canada's mixed imperial heritage.

Finally, we have to talk about Canada's colors. The official colors of Canada are red and white, formally established by the same proclamation that created the coat of arms in 1921. So why red and white? Again, it's a nod to Canada's mixed heritage. Throughout the medieval Crusades, France and England used banners with white or red crosses to identify each other. Therefore, the white and red together symbolize a time of French and English cooperation and unity. That's a pretty fitting way to honor the legacies of both French and British heritage in Canada.

National Symbols

While all of Canada's imperial symbols are also national symbols, Canada also has other symbols without as direct a connection to the Commonwealth or the British Empire. Let's start with the most obvious symbol of Canada as its own nation: it's flag. The Canadian flag is red and white (the national colors), set with a single, red maple leaf. While Canada's official flag became the British Union Jack in 1867, the first unofficial Canadian flag to feature maple leaves actually dates back to 1870, but it was never formally recognized by Britain and the maple leaves were gold. The need for a new national flag was formally announced in 1946. A fierce political battle ensued, known in Canadian history as the Flag Debate, with the red maple leaf version emerging victorious in 1964.

The national flag of Canada

Along with the national flag, Canada needed its own national anthem. In 1980, a 19th-century song entitled ''Oh, Canada'' was formally proclaimed as the new national anthem. Originally written in French and later translated into English, it too was a fitting tribute to the nation's history.

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