Symbols of Canada

Every country has its national and cultural symbols that people around the world, whether they be expats and emigres from that country or foreigners, are able to recognize and identify. The USA has been marketing its brand for nearly a century, so that the stars and stripes, the Statue of Liberty, the American dollar, etc are instantly recognized as being American. Britain has the Union Jack and Big Ben (among others), etc etc.

Canada also has its share of symbols, and while some are recognized by foreign nationals, all of them are immediately identified with by Canadians. Seeing a loonie or Le Bonhomme Du Neige, for instance, immediately tells a Canadian that a fellow countryman has been here!

Below are some of the more prevalent symbols of Canadian political and cultural life.


The Maple Leaf is the most easily recognizable symbol of Canada. As a flag it represents every aspect of Canadian society, from its liberal democratic political systems to its bustling economy to its unparalleled scenic beauty. It also speaks of equality and freedom. Such a benign symbol as a maple leaf instantly conveys nature and peace and liberty, and while many in the world think “What a wimpy flag” Canadians think “What a peaceful flag.” Diplomacy and understanding and peace, even at the expense of looking weak, are more important to Canadians than strength of arms and military-political aggression.

The Maple Leaf flag wasn’t always the flag of Canada. It came into being in 1965; before that Canada had a red flag with the royal coat of arms in the centre and the Union Jack in the upper-left corner. Prime-Minister Lester Pearson asked Parliament to authorize a new flag to represent Canada’s new, post-war standing in the world, and a nation-wide competition was started. Schools, artists, labour unions…everyone submitted their idea of what Canada’s flag should look like. The Maple Leaf flag, originally the flag of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, was submitted by George Stanley and John Matheson. The red bars flanking the leaf represent the blood shed by Canadians in past wars (the Boer War, World War 1, World War 2, Korea) while the white center represents the hopes for peace in the future. The maple leaf represents, of course, Canada.


What is the first thing that comes to mind when anyone in the world thinks of Canada? Hockey, of course!

Hockey is not Canada’s “official” national sport; lacrosse is. However, very few Canadians have ever played lacrosse, while EVERYONE has played hockey in their life. Hockey is a national craze, a religion, even. Canadians are insane when it comes to hockey. In this “good ‘ol game”, as a popular Canadian country song from the 1950s calls it, Canadians see perfection in life. Teamwork and individual skill working together to complete goals (literally), long periods of hard work paying off by spectacular success, chivalry amongst warriors with the occasional outbreak of violent retribution for wrongs committed (we see justice being done in most hockey fights, despite being a peaceful people…Canadians follow the personal rivalries between players the way wrestling fans follow the WWE), and, because of the constant regional rivalries between provinces and cities in Canada, we love watching “our” team pummel an opponent. Finally, we love watching ANY Canadian team take down the richer but more hockey-culture ignorant US teams.

While every Canadian would instantly recognize Quebec’s fleur-de-lis flag and symbols, few outside of Canada would associate this as being Canadian. Despite what Quebecois nationalists would say, Quebec is one of the founding provinces of Canada, has shaped and defined Canadian society and culture, and continues to play a lead role in Canadian politics, economics and culture. It is not a far stretch to say that Quebec, seperatists and all, defines one half of Canada. Hence, this Quebecois flag IS a symbol of Canada instantly recognized by all Canadians at home or abroad.

The “Loonie”. Canada’s ubiquitous $1 coin (now worth nearly $1 US! Tomorrow maybe more!), is recognized by all Canadians and even many Americans and Brits. Officially the loonie is called a “one-dollar Canadian coin” but Canadians won’t settle for any type of bureaucratic double-speak (George Orwell scared the shit out of Canadians in the fourties and we still haven’t recovered) and we have a habit of renaming everything the government issues with a cute moniker ending in -ie.

Introduced in 1987 by Parliament to replace a quickly devaluing paper dollar, the loonie has exactly $1 worth of gold (on the common market) in it so its value is always guaranteed. While the introduction of the loonie immediately bouyed the economy during the recession of the ’80s, people didn’t take to it too much, calling it “funny money” (before the Americans started calling it the same and thinking they were so witty). The term “loonie” caught on almost immediately and the first person who came up with it should be made a Canadian icon for all eternity. Unfortunately, we will never know who this brilliant genius that shaped Canadian culture, and the free market, forever more was.

When it comes to wildlife Canada has, according to National Geographic, Environment Canada, the US Geological Survey and the United Nations, the most wildlife per square kilometre of territory in the world. Because of this we have many animal symbols, one of which is the orca, or killer, whale.

The north-east Pacific is the natural playground of orcas in the spring and summer months, and thousands off them circumnavigate the globe in to play around in the waters off the coast of British Columbia. The native Indians believed that they were gods of the water and thus totem poles featuring orcas can be found all up and down the west coast of Canada. This symbology has been carried over to modern times and while people from other countries may also associate the orca with their homeland (or with an aquarium), Canadians immediately feel a touch of home when they see a picture of an orca whale.

There is nothing more Canadian than bitching about politicians. To be a politician in Canada, you must have a hide as thick as steel armour because no media outlet in the country is going to go easy on you. Unlike the partisan split of Americans, with a hard core of fanatical supporters and a few large media outlets to support everything they do, Canada hates ALL of its political leaders, regardless of stripes or deeds, and newspapers and TV broadcasters that can slander the politicians the most make the most money. It is a beautifully free media that lets no political leader get away with anything, from squandering millions of tax-payers dollars in badly-run sponsorship schemes or simply stealing a pen from Parliament.

With such passion devoted to denouncing anyone who is involved in politics, it is no small wonder that the federal Parliament building in Ottawa is a nationally-recognized symbol of Canada. The beautiful gothic architecture of the building was designed to dominate the Ottawa skyline, which was a mosquito-infested swamp at the time (chosen for defensive purposes and not political…the Americans had recently tried to invade in 1812). The world-famous Peace Tower is not an imitation of Big Ben in London…it is quite taller and bigger than that puny little clock in England.

Peace Tower paraphenelia, from postcards to t-shirts, can be found everywhere in Canada and even in Bangkok and Tokyo!

Sweet, thick, delicious, all-natural maple syrup. Mmmmmmmm. What is else is more Canadian than sticking a bathroom faucet into a perfectly good tree, seeing what drips out of it, adding some sugar and then eating it? To be fair, it was the french settlers who first thought of the idea….

The Rocky Mountains. Long believed by the slightly-more ignorant Americans to the south as being theirs, represents Canada. The Rocky Mountains, as they travel through British Columbia and Alberta, are actually bigger and denser then the ones the Americans have. This has nothing to do with nationality but is a simple geographical fact. Billions of years of tectonic pressure and 10,000 years of ice age produced an incredibly massive mountain range that just happens to lie north of the 60th parallel. Any Canadian will associate the Rockies with Canada, while the Americans who live near the Rockies (Washingtonians, Coloradians, Oregonians, etc) can, simply by proximity and similar geographical lifestyles, be considered honourary Canadians. But lose the guns, first. And the crack. And go to school.

The CN Tower (Canadian National Tower) in Toronto, Ontario, is a definitive symbol of Canada. Built in 1975 as a communications tower, it was the tallest free-standing structure on earth for 31 years until it was surpassed by the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai in 2007. The CN Tower attracts more than 2 million visitors a year and includes a luxury rotating restaurant at the top as well as mobile phone and sattelite receiver equipment.

Animals make up a large part of Canadian symbology, and what is more Canadian than the beaver? Industrious, intelligent, loyal and stubborn, the beaver has been Canada’s “official” animal since 1804 (around the time that the lucrative beaver trade began to die out as a result of the near-extinction of the animals). It was because of cod fish and beavers that people even bothered to settle Canada. Today there are rigid protection laws in place against trapping and/or harming beavers and their population is no longer in danger. As a result, many see the beaver as a pest. Their damns clog up rivers and flood farm land and roads and accidentally hitting a beaver with your car could result in fines. Nevertheless, this strong little critter remains a standing symbol of what it is to be Canadian.

Aside from the beaver, is there anything more Canadian than the Canadian Goose? Just look at the name: Canadian goose. Canada is their natural home during the spring and summer months, but in the fall millions of them cloud the skies on their long migration south to the warmer US. I’m not sure why they are called Canadian geese, but I do know that every Canadian, past, present and future, identifies this honking, pooping and admittedly delicious bird with Canada.

The Bluenose, a fast schooner built in Nova Scotia in 1921, is a proud part of Canada’s heritage and is nicely commemorated on the Canadian dime (10 cent coin). This boat participated in many sailing races in the US, the UK, France and Canada during the 1920s and won them all. Its sleek lines and its ability to rise up over its own wake, the only sailing boat in history to do so, made it uncatchable to any sea-going vessel of its day. As a result, when prohibition was introduced in the USA, the Bluenose was quickly converted to a bootlegger vessel and transported thousands of gallons of Canadian Club and Crown Royal whiskey to thirsty American markets. The US coastguard, in their antiquated sail boats and slow steam ships, were completely unable to catch the Bluenose whenever it was sighted off the eastern seaboard of the US, and Americans from New England to Miami would gather and cheer when this sleek schooner pulled into port, knowing that there was nothing the authorities could do to stop her.

Although the Canadian government claimed no responsibility for the Bluenose’s illegal smuggling operations, there is some evidence that government policy allowed the wholesale transportation and trade of Canadian whiskey, without tariffs, to the American markets, and that the Bluenose represented a great form of government income. This makes it completely fitting that this symbol of Canada is included on our money!

In 1949 the United Nations was a young and shaky organization. Roosevelt’s Wilsonian-like dream of a “community of nations” that could sort out their problems diplomatically seemed an exercise in futility as the two great superpowers of the post-war era, the USA and USSR, were locked in a deadly cold war. The world’s problems were not being sorted out and it seemed that regional, post-colonial conflicts were breaking out everywhere while the Third World War loomed on the horizon.

Then came a little-known leader, Lester B. Pearson, Prime-Minister of Canada, with a crazy idea to the UN Security Council. Why doesn’t the United Nations stick soldiers in bright blue helmets between two warring sides to stop them from fighting?

The UK and France immediately saw the value in the idea while the US simply laughed at Pearson. Because the US opposed the idea, the USSR was ideologically bound to support it. With the bulk of the permanent members of the Security Council in favour, the US signed on and UN Peacekeeping was formed.

There have been 63 peacekeeping missions since then, and Canada is the only country in the world to have been involved in all of them. More Canadian soldiers have served, and more have died, in UN peacekeeping missions than any other country’s young men. The blue helmet or beret did, at one point in the cold war, act as a symbol of Canada and the UN always called on Canada’s armed forces first to serve as peacekeepers. In fact, Canada’s armed forces were completely reorganized for peacekeeping missions, so that every soldier, airman and sailor was a peacekeeping expert. British Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher once called the Canadian military the “world’s peacekeeping professionals”. As a result, peacekeeping came to be identified around the world as a Canadian thing, which gave rise to the myth of Canada being a peaceful, compassionate and generous country, especially when Canadian soldiers were filmed and photographed in 1991 helping save children and mothers from the genocidal slaughter of Rwanda, one of the only countries to keep its troops stationed there once the chaos began.

Today Canada has scaled down its peacekeeping efforts and has even defaulted on its payments to the UN in past years, resulting in a loss of prestige and international symbolism. Nevertheless, for Canadians, peacekeeping will always represent the height of what our country is capable of when it comes to doing good in the world. It doesn’t hurt that Prime-Minister Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize as a result of his initiative.

British Columbia native rock art has always been a symbol of Canada to Canadians, but after 2010 it started to be recognized globally due the Vancouver Olympics and the fact that rock art was the 2010 Olympic logo. Many of these man-like piles of rock can be found around Canada’s west coast, and some of them date back to the stone-age (and include rocks weighing over a tonne which leads to the question: how the hell did they put them there?).

Le Bonhomme de Neige, a symbol of everything French-Canadian, together with David Suzuki, an internationally-recognized Canadian environmentalist. What else do I need to say?

The royal coat of arms of Canada has tried to include the twin-heritages of British imperialism and French mercantilism, with a strong British lion and a gay-looking French unicorn. The Latin at the bottom reads “From Sea to Sea” or some such nonsense. Nevertheless, it is a Canadian symbol that every Canadian can recognize.

There is nothing more Canadian than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) or, as Canadians mutate all officialese, the “Mounties”. The Mounties are a unique organization in the world as they constitute a national, provincial and municipal policing body, as well as a counter-terrorism and counter-espionage force and a civil defence force.

Originally instituted in 1873 to help settle and police the wild western territories and, more importantly, keep American settlers south of the 60th parallel (American Manifest Destiny terrified British and Canadian officials and every step was taken to ensure that the northern part of North America didn’t fall to US hegemony).

The Mounties were famous for being stalwart and stoic, almost heroic, figures of the settlement of the west. Stories sprung up of Mounties, showing no fear in the face of danger, saving women from wild Indians or firmly talking an American cowboy into handing over his guns. The Dudley Do-Right image has lasted for nearly 200 years!

Today the Mounties have traded in their signature red uniforms and wide-brimmed hats for black kevlar vests and fast police chase cars, but in the summer they still wear their traditional garb for the tourists, especially when they perform their incredibly impressive Musical Horse Ride shows. The guards of honour at Parliament also wear their traditional garb.

Florida may be an American state, but at the height of the bitter winter in Canada more Canadians can be found in the sunshine state than, perhaps (I’m making this up), even in Canada! Canadians have been flocking to Florida since the 1920s (bootleggers aside) and Americans gave rise to the popular term “Snow Birds”. Canadian tourism makes up more than 60% of Florida’s tourism economy, according the Florida Tourism Commission, and outnumber even the European tourists. While internationally Florida remains a symbol of the tropical beauty of part of the US, in Canada people generally associate the word “Florida” with the words “elderly Canadian snow birds”.

Finally, here is the single most Canadian symbol that all Canadians love and admire: Oh Canada, our national anthem. Originally written in 1880 for Quebec’s St. Jean Baptiste Day (a provincial holiday of drinking and fireworks in Quebec), it was translated into English in 1906. It didn’t replace “The Maple Leaf Forever”, Canada’s original anthem, until 1980 although almost all schools and sporting events had been singing Oh Canada since the early 20th Century. This is, again, another example of Canadians flipping off the government and doing their own thing.

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