proposed the 1994 change to the Royal Arms of Canada, which added the motto of
the Order of Canada around the shield. The former Editor-in-Chief of the
Financial Post Directory of Government, Mr. Hicks heads Hicks Media, a
parliamentary news company that feeds United Press International (UPI) and
smaller media outlets.
Canada is one of the few developed democratic countries that uses
the same symbol for its executive, legislative and judicial branches of
government. The symbol is the Royal Arms of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, as
Queen of Canada. This article argues that Parliament should have its own
It may surprise many, including
members of the Canadian Parliament, to learn that the symbol which appears on
the top of every piece of letterhead and on the spine of every binder on
Parliament Hill is not a symbol of Parliament. It is the Coat of Arms of
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
It is not wrong that these arms
are used everywhere in Parliament. It is, after all, under the authority
of the British monarch that Parliament was first assembled. However, it
is at the very least confusing and, given Canada’s written Constitution, I
would argue, somewhat inappropriate that this is the only symbol for
When Parliament was created
centuries ago, the representatives were sent there to represent the “people” to
the King - first the nobility and then the common folk (through an
ever-increasing franchise). Members of a parliament were brought together
and asked to consider legislation and taxation proposed by the King. They
had the right to refuse or amend anything put before them - and they won that
right over centuries of challenge and confrontation, and even civil war against
Therefore, to use the arms of
the King to represent every aspect of Parliament - the House of Commons, the
Senate, the precincts, the members, the agencies, and even the staff - seems at
odds with Parliament’s history and role.
Even in England, where the
monarchy is part of every day life, they long ago ceased using the King’s arms
on all but ‘Acts of Parliament assembled’. After all, to conduct all
parliamentary business under the King’s arms was to deny the independence and
equality of each of the three distinct parts.
Unfortunately for England,
English heraldic law did not permit Parliament to obtain its own grant of arms.
Parliament is not a body corporate (not even the ‘Supreme Court’,
as constituted by the Judicature Acts of 1873-75 and consisting of the High
Court and the Court of Appeal, is a corporate entity).
The solution in England was to
adopt a Royal badge for day-to-day use. While arms and crests were
personal to their bearers, others could use their badges (this is still true
today). The badge Parliament chose, the portcullis, was one of the most
cherished badges of the House of Tudor. (Henry VII adopted it to honour
his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, to whose family it belonged.)
Today, legislation passed by
Parliament still has at its head the Queen’s Arms. After all, as in
Canada, it is passed under the authority of the Crown, and begins with the
“BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s
most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords
Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and
by the authority of the same, as follows: -...”
However, during consideration of
that legislation, all documents relating to the work of each of the Houses of
Parliament, and to the work of its members, use the portcullis badge.
Nowhere are the branches of
government more distinct than in the United States. After all,
jurisdictional overlap was one of the flaws the American founders saw in the
British system of government. And nowhere are the symbols of government
more recognisable than south of the border.
The founders of the United
States were concerned that the executive branch (i.e. the Crown) had too much
control or influence over the legislative branch (i.e. Parliament). That
is why the legislature is mentioned first in their Constitution (the executive
branch is mentioned first in ours) and why members of Cabinet, including the
President, do not serve in their legislature.
Much thought went into the
symbols of office for the branches of the U.S. government. All are rooted
in the Great Seal of the United States, but each has specific differences.
Most notably, each uses the 13 stars of the original flag or the 50 stars
of the current flag in a unique format.
Because of these differences,
which reflect the different roles of each institution, they are easily
recognisable by the American people. Even outside the United States,
thanks to Hollywood, there are many people who can immediately recognise these
These symbols permit Americans
to instantly recognise the public office a person holds, even if they do not
recognise the person. And from the public office holder’s perspective,
those same symbols of office give his or her message instant impact.
For example, when a U.S. Senator
calls a press conference to criticise or commend something a department of the
government has done, there is no confusion that he or she is speaking as a
legislator. The press room for the Senate (and the second press room for
the House of Representatives) has a seal of office on the podium and on a flag
behind the podium.
While few Americans will be able
to name that Senator, when they see the clip of that press conference on the
six o’clock news, they instantly recognise by the podium and flag that he or
she is a senator. What is more, they understand that he or she is
representing his or her constituents’ interests and expressing partisan
political opinion, not speaking on behalf of the government (since the
government uses different and equally recognisable symbols).
In a modern media-based
democracy, communications is everything. If a public office holder cannot
get his or her message out, then he or she will not be able to influence public
policy and, perhaps more importantly (at least to the office holder), will not
France takes a similar approach
though it may be a better parallel for Canada. France began as a monarchy and
while it broke with that past through revolution, the roots of its symbols can
be seen in its history.
The French use a common symbol
throughout the executive, legislative and judiciary to represent government as
a whole. They use “Marianne” much in the same way as we use the Royal
Arms. And Marianne is the personification of the republic, in a similar
way as the Queen represents Canadian sovereignty.
At the same time, each
institution in France has also adopted its own symbol. Because the current
republic is only 40 years old, the symbols used by its institutions are very
modern. They have their roots in the Tri-colour Flag, which in the 1958
Constitution became the national emblem of France.
Whether the country is a constitutional
monarchy, like England, or a republic, like the United States and France, most
countries have recognised the need to identify their national institutions.
That need is no less true for Canada.
Nevertheless, in Canada, the
Supreme Court, the Federal Court, the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, the
Auditor General, the information and privacy commissioners, the Commissioner of
Official Languages, the Tax Court, MPs, Senators and every Royal commission and
public inquiry all use the same symbol.
How often do we hear that the
Canadian people feel there are no checks and balances in our system? Or
how the public is questioning the independence of its institutions, in general,
and of its legislators, in particular?
It would be naïve to suggest that
symbols alone would restore public confidence in the political system for
everyone. Some of the doubts the Canadian people have are well founded.
But there is no reason to exacerbate those doubts by blurring the visual
lines between the few checks and balances that exist in the Canadian
There does seem to be an
acknowledgement of the need for symbols to identify national institutions here
in Canada. Both Parliament and the Treasury Board (a Committee of
Cabinet) have established elaborate rules concerning how the Royal Arms may be
displayed. For example, the Royal Arms of Canada are to be printed in
silver or gold on ministerial letterhead and in green on MPs’ letterhead. (A
few Ministers have had to resign after choosing the wrong colour letterhead
when writing on behalf of a constituent!)
While this is an acknowledgement
of the need to identify the separate branches of government and to keep them
separate, it does not go far enough. People can hardly be expected to understand
the subtle difference in colour.
One simple solution would be to
follow the British example and have Parliament use the portcullis. The
House of Commons and Senate were given, in the Constitution Act, 1867,
the right to all the “privileges, immunities and powers” “held, enjoyed and
exercised by the Commons House of Parliament of the United Kingdom and Great
Britain and Ireland, and by the members thereof”. A case can easily be
made for the use of the portcullis here in Canada, and since a coronet forms
part of the Royal portcullis badge, the Canadian version would be different
from the British version. Another solution would be to adopt a corporate
“logo”. Several provincial legislatures have followed this route. However, a
more logical and appropriate step would be for Parliament to have its own full
achievement of arms, complete with badges and flags for MPs and Senators.
Unlike Britain, where Parliament
evolved out of the Royal prerogative and historic practice, in Canada,
Parliament was specifically created by the Constitution Act, 1867.
It is defined as the “Queen, and Upper House styled the Senate, and the
House of Commons” and both the House of Commons and Senate exist as bodies
corporate (the House of Commons and Senate are specifically listed as
departments in Section 2 of the Financial Administration Act).
The two houses have the full right to bear arms.
So why has it not been done? One
reason was process. Historically, British heralds (in either England or
Scotland) were the only persons who could grant arms. No country,
especially the bilingual multi-cultural country of Canada, would want to go
‘cap in hand’ to a foreign government and ask it to design a symbol for its
Another reason was political
will. It is said that a camel is a horse built by a committee. For
Parliament to create its own symbol would require committee, if not all-party
Both these impediments were
removed on June 4, 1988, when Queen Elizabeth, by Royal Letters Patent, turned
over her Royal prerogative over heraldry to the Canadian Governor General.
There now exists within Rideau Hall a group of officers who have the
expertise and the authority to create symbols for Canadian persons and
The Speaker of the House of Commons (and the Speaker of the
Senate, for the upper chamber) simply has to write to the Governor General
informing her of the House of Commons’ (or the Senate’s) desire to have a grant
While input and consultation
with elected members of the House of Commons would probably be solicited by the
heraldic officers during their deliberations, it is up to the Governor General
and her heralds (and solely within their authority and purview) to create and
Parliament would not be the
first legislature in Canada to have its own grant of arms. On September
15, 1992, the Speaker of the Ontario Legislature, David Warner, applied for a
grant of arms on behalf of that institution. Earlier, in 1990, the
Ontario Court of Justice had also applied to have arms.
Both the House of Commons and the
Senate could, by a simple letter from their respective Speakers, follow
Ontario’s lead. These would be ‘made in Canada’ coats of arms, granted by
Canadian heraldic officers using symbolism rich in Canadian history. At the end
of the day our national institutions, like those in Ontario, would be clearly
identified by their distinct and separate symbols.