I’m not sure whether the first white immigrants to arrive in what we now call Canada were having fun when they designed a proud coat of arms or coined neat mottos to confirm their arbitrary new ownership of already occupied land, or whether overcome with royal recognition vanity, they didn’t pay attention to details.
It was all a little confusing from the get-go when Italian-Venetian navigator-explorer Giovanni Cabot (Zuan Chabotto – Venetian) was quickly anglicized to John Cabot by English King Henry VII, and in 1497 sailed from Bristol in search of beyond-horizon lands to add to those discovered by Columbus – another Italian – who had “discovered America” five years earlier.
Cabot’s ship Matthew was small. Little was known about its actual size until 1950 when a letter written in 1497 by a Bristol merchant was discovered stating that when Matthew sailed, she was “one ship of 50 ‘toneles’” (tonnes), with enough food for seven or eight months for 20 men.
Maritime historians confirm there were “about” 20 on board, including a Genoese barber who, traditionally, was also the ship’s surgeon, plus two Bristol merchants and a crew of already well-known Bristol-based sailors.
Henry VII, delighted with Cabot’s discoveries, pronounced it “New Found Launde” and 140 years later in 1637, King Charles I granted Newfoundland a coat of arms. Among its adornments stand “two aboriginal men in war-like clothing representing original inhabitants” supporting the shield. It would be nice to believe the two first citizens were included as early recognition of their ancestral rights, but I fear that was not the original intent – or today’s.
Along with the coat of arms came the inevitable motto designed as a clarion call for a colony, province, country or community to chant when in need of strength in adversity. (In today’s Canada, only Yukon and Northwest Territories have declined Latin mottos to go with their coat of arms.)
Newfoundland, didn’t officially hitch itself to Canada’s rising star until 1949 when a narrowly won referendum a year earlier voted to seek membership in the nation it had been watching grow for more than 300 years.
It brought its 1637 charter with it when it joined Canada along with its evangelical motto Quaerite primum regnum dei – “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” – which to this day must remain a mystery advisory to investors seeking investment opportunities.
As a final note on Newfoundland-Labrador’s ancient coat of arms, it is noted an Elk is high stepping atop a four-paneled shield. Every comment I’ve been able to find refers to the Elk with polite notations that there are no Elk in Newfoundland – but lots of Caribou.
Designers in England in 1637 can be forgiven for not knowing the difference and Newfoundland–Labrador residents can be praised for leaving their Elk where it’s always been and naming the Newfoundland pony its “heritage animal,” with Caribou a second choice.
They were not the first easterners to get royal recognition via coats and arms and a motto. That prize goes to neighbouring Nova Scotia with a name leaving no doubt as to its New Scotland foundations. It was granted its coat of arms in 1625 by King Charles I. Nova Scotians welcomed the honour, considering the magnanimous gesture a Royal favour. But history tells us Nova Scotia’s joy for the once royal blessing faded over the years, possibly because its benefactor, King Charles I, was beheaded in January 1649 after being charged with treason by Parliament.
With Oliver Cromwell in charge in England, it was not a good time for colonies to boast of friendship with an executed King.
In 1867 the colony of Nova Scotia joined with New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec to create a new country called Canada and Nova Scotia was given what one critic described as a new but “undistinguished new arms.” There were protests. On its 300th anniversary, the original royal charter was restored with its motto Munit haec et altera vincit – “One defends and the other conquers” intact. Debate on the meaning continues, but there is a favourite interpretation.
Across the top of the shield bearing the cross of St. Andrew two hands are clasped. One hand is bare, the other wears a mailed glove. Supporters say this means one hand is at the ready to fight for individual and provincial rights, the other is ready to do manual work to keep the province prosperous.
As a proud British Columbian, the ancestry of my older Canadian brothers back east leaves me humbled.
It is true that Drake was around our part of the world in the late 1500s and once labelled all Pacific Coast land north of Mexico New Albion – Albion being a second name for England. But Drake was a sailor, explorer and Crown-authorized pirate, not a settler.
It would be another 200 years before Captain Cook took another British look around. A decade or so later one of his former officers, Captain George Vancouver,followed Cook into Vancouver Island waters to negotiate and sign with Spain’s Bodega y Quadra the Nootka Treaty of 1790 to end Spanish dominance in the Pacific Northwest and open the gates for English settlers.
Three years later on a west coast rock, another great explorer painted: “Alexander Mackenzie from Canada, by land, the 22nd of July, one thousand, seven hundred and ninety three.” He and his intrepid band had crossed the country on foot and by canoe.
Hard on his heels came Hudson Bay traders in what is now northern BC and then, in 1843, the first white settlers arrived in Fort Victoria, close to 250 years after Nova Scotia got its royal coat of arms.
And as they’ll tell you in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland-Labrador, we dwellers in Lotus Land are still trying to catch up. They could be right