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The Coat of Arms of British Columbia: A Brief History
- By
Robert D. Watt, fellow of the Heraldry Society of Canada for the official granting of the Coat of Arms of British Columbia, October 15, 1987.

Today’s ceremony brings to completion a lively and intriguing story that stretches back over a century. Our Coat of Arms is a symbol of sovereignty as these are the arms of Her Majesty in right of British Columbia and a symbol of our co-sovereign status as a province of the Canadian federation.

Through the beauty of heraldry, an ancient and honourable form of identification, important elements in the character of our province are revealed: our heritage as a constitutional monarchy; our historic position in the Empire and now, the Commonwealth, and the riches of our natural environment.

Royal Crest - Click for larger versionSomewhat surprisingly, the evolution of the Coat of Arms has taken over ninety years and has at times provoked some rather heated debate. When British Columbia joined Canada in 1871 it had no official heraldry although in the colonial period the Royal Arms, including the Royal Crest of the crowned lion standing on the imperial crown, was widely used on official documents. This was general practice throughout the Empire. However, in this province, from the 1870s the Royal Crest flanked by the initials "B.C." began to be used as a type of provincial insignia.

While this use of the Royal Crest was undertaken without any authorisation by the Sovereign, it was undoubtedly meant to express the strong tie British Columbians felt to Britain and particularly to Queen Victoria, who had taken a special interest in the creation of the colony of British Columbia.

Coat of Arms - 1895In the early 1890s the need to review the Great Seal of the Province seems to have provided an opportunity for the Province’s first heraldic enthusiast, Canon Arthur Beanlands of Victoria, to encourage the government of the day to adopt a more elaborate device. In 1895 he designed a Coat of Arms for the Province which was adopted by Order-in-Council on July 19th that year and which Cabinet directed be used as the Great Seal of the Province. This armorial device, shown opposite, is quite similar to the completed arms being assigned by Royal Warrant today.

The symbolism of Beanlands’ design reflects sentiments and beliefs widely held in turn-of-the-century British Columbia. The Union Jack, then the national emblem, was placed in the lower part of the shield to represent unity with the British nation by descent and government. The wavy blue bars and the setting sun symbolized the sea and the assured permanence and glory of the Province, the latter point reinforced by the motto which freely rendered means "brilliance without setting". The two supporters, the wapiti stag of Vancouver Island and the big horn sheep of the Mainland represented the Union of the two colonies in 1866. Above the shield was the Royal Crest, used, in Beanlands’ opinion, as an expression of loyalty to the Crown.

Beanlands had a good grasp of heraldic design but less understanding of the legal principles involved. The dependence of provincial officials on his views led to a prolonged and sometimes acrimonious battle with officials in London when the Province attempted, as it did in 1897, to register the arms at the College of Arms, the part of the Royal Household which administered the Sovereign’s armorial prerogative in England and the colonies. At the heart of the dispute which then unfolded lay misunderstanding about the difference between devices appearing on a Great Seal and Coat of Arms.

The designs appearing on the Great Seal were fully within provincial control under the terms of a federal statute of 1877. However, Coats of Arms were grants of honour from the Crown created via an exercise of the Royal Prerogative. For the government of a British territory arms had to come into being via a Royal Warrant drawn up on the advice of the Crown’s armorial officers, that is the Heralds at the College of Arms.

Unfortunately, apart form misunderstandings about these matters of principle, there were some problems with Beanlands’ design. The heralds pointed out that the Union Jack was in an inferior position on the shield. As well, the Royal Crest could not be granted to the Province as this would infringe the Sovereign’s exclusive right to the symbol and violate an essential element of heraldic practice, that no arms or parts of an armorial achievement could be borne by another.

Furthermore, at that time, the Heralds felt that a grant of the honourable distinction of supporters to British Columbia was premature since no other province had yet received them. Resolution of the various issues took several years and letters flowed steadily between Victoria and London from 1904 to 1906. Joseph Pope, Undersecretary of State for Canada, was a deeply interested bystander since he hoped for agreement so that official arms for the province could be included in the Canadian Coat of Arms.

Finally in 1906, the Province received arms by Royal Warrant of Edward VII on March 31st. Interestingly, only the shield and motto were granted. Beanlands’ concept survived but with the sun and Union Jack reversed to conform to proper heraldic practice and with a golden antique crown in the centre point of the Union Jack. For the time being the Province decided not to seek a grant of the crest and supporters which had also been adopted in 1895, although they continued to be used and in fact have been used down to the present day. 1906 Coat of Arms - click for larger version

Since its adoption in flag form in 1960, the shield has become the most widely recognized provincial symbol. For over 70 years the full arms, with official shield and motto and unofficial crest and supporters have been the principal device to identify British Columbia’s government and its services. As such it is a most important element in our visual heritage appearing on countless documents, proclamations and as a decoration on public buildings.

Despite several attempts to regularize the situation, the difficulty posed by the use of the Royal Crest seemed insurmountable. Happily, as today’s events prove, a beautiful and historic solution has been found and in the process, the Province has been uniquely honoured by the Sovereign. With Her Majesty’s agreement, the Royal Crest is for the first time in history being granted, with an appropriate differencing mark, to another sovereign entity. Henceforth the lion will bear a garland of dogwoods, the Province’s official flower.

Coat of Arms as of 1987 - click for larger versionThree other changes are being made. The golden helmet of sovereignty is placed between the shield and the crest as a mark of British Columbia’s CO-sovereign status in Confederation, an appropriate signal of the completion of the patriation process.

Above the helmet are the traditional heraldic elements of a wreath and mantling. These are red and white, Canada’s national colours as established in the Canadian Coat of Arms granted in 1921. The provincial flower is featured a second time by entwining dogwoods around the motto scroll.

The evolution of the arms of British Columbia is now complete. It is fitting that this has taken place in the same year that the Canadian government has hosted the first national forum on Canadian heraldry in recognition of the ongoing importance of heraldry in this country. It marks the granting of the Province’s augmented Coat of Arms as a unique occasion in Canadian history. This is the first time that the Sovereign and Her representative in a province, the Lieutenant-Governor, one of Her Majesty’s Officers of Arms, a Premier and his Ministers, and the Secretary of State have all been present to witness the signing of a Royal Warrant.

These completed arms are both beautiful and historic. They symbolize important traditions and the bounty of a magnificent land. May they continue to serve and to inspire us in the future as they have in the past.



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