Canadian symbols: OUR MOTTO

Canadian symbols: OUR MOTTO © David Watts, 13 May 2003


Canada’s motto “From sea to sea”, along with our national anthem, are two of our symbols that are inner and auditory rather than outward and visual.

Stop and think about that for a minute. You may think the words “From sea to sea” are a visual symbol, because when you hear them, you see something.

But that “seeing” is something you do. The motto itself is purely sound—or words.

Therein lies its power. We form the images, the pictures, and the meaning interactively in our minds as we hear the words, giving them an energy and flexibility that static pictures do not have.

At first hearing, Canada’s national motto is simply and straight forward.

Actually it is much more subtle and complex.

The words “From sea to sea” evoke at least three levels of meaning:

The first and most evident is territory. When the Fathers of Confederation adopted these words in the name of the new country they were bringing together, they represented four colonies in the northwest quadrant of North America.

They intended to acquire more land—the dream of a railway to the Pacific with sea links to the far east was actually older than the idea of Confederation itself—so for them “sea to sea” meant from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a parallel extension to that of their neighbour state to the south.

To reach the Pacific they had to acquire the central plains—Rupert’s Land, draining into Hudson Bay. This turned them northward to the Northwest Territories.

Alexander Mackenzie actually reached the Arctic Ocean before he reached the west coast. Since his goal had had been the western sea, he named the river that took him north “Disappointment”.

Seventy-seven years—in 1870—Canada acquired the mainland Northwest Territories, including Mackenzie’s River. Ten years later the Arctic Islands, and the magnetic North Pole, were added.

“Sea to sea” was achieved northward to the Arctic Ocean before the Dominion of Canada reached the Pacific. One year later British Columbia entered Confederation.

Canada now spanned three oceans, far beyond the expectations of the Fathers of Confederation Yet for almost three quarters of a century we were slow to appreciate our northern dimension.

From 1940-42 the RCMP schooner St. Roch, spending winters in the ice, became the first vessel to transit the Northwest Passage from west to east. Two years later it became the first ship to make the passage in both directions.

Twenty years later the Territories were linked to the rest of North America by the Great Slave Lake Railway to Hay River, part of the Northern Dream of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

Taking the summer waterway from the railhead, we can now achieve Franklin’s dream, reaching for the Beaufort Sea, “from Canada by land—and Mackenzie’s River

At the end of the twentieth century, the polar islands Canada claimed in 1880 became part of a new Territory that reflects the original inhabitants. This jewel of the Canadian crown is called simply “The Land”.

So when we say Canada from sea to sea, we’re talking first about the land our country comprises.

These additions to our territory and how they’ve been added were more than amassing real estate.

In one situation where our Government tried to treat it that way—in the acquisition of Rupert’s Land, without regard to the peoples who lived there—it almost lost the West in an uprising.

To redress that situation the Government was forced to recognize a new province—Manitoba, rather than simply annexing a huge hinterland.

Then it entered into treaties with first nations in the west rather than simply coming in by force.

Our first nations—who’d lived here before the Europeans—had a different sense of land holding.

Though they had tribal boundaries within which they fished, hunted and over which they traded and went to war, they did not pretend to own the land on which they lived.

Instead, they believed they held it as stewards of the Creator. It was not a resource to be exploited but a trust to be respected and tended, with its own natural rhythms and cycles.

This sense of trust is the second meaning of our motto “Dominion from sea to sea.” It is a point made in the Old Testament in a statement the Hebrews attributed to Yahweh: “The land is mine.”

Land held in trust is to be treated differently than land obtained by commercial or military means.

Ironically it is our first nations, who developed outside the biblical tradition, who had a clearer sense of that truth. Later arrivals to Canada have learned from them and now it resonates for us.

It is a pillar of our system where sovereignty is shared between two levels of government.

It was evident in the last minute change of mind by Sir John A. Macdonald, when he called his new expeditionary force the North West Mounted Police, rather than the Mounted Rifles.

Policing involves overseeing a trust. This is not the same as occupation. Canada’s tradition of peaceful policing has become respected around the world: an unexpected fulfillment of the verse our motto comes from: “Dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.”

The worldwide aspect of dominion is not to be confused with economic or political domination.

This new order is not a system but a spirit where people come to realize their common source. This leads to the third meaning of our motto.

To acknowledge our Source is to invoke a transcendent. We may call this by different names: First Cause, God, Allah, Brahma, Manitou, Great I AM. Or we may leave it unnamed.

To invoke a Transcendent is not to lock oneself into any particular structure or belief system. It is to acknowledge there is “something” beyond our grasp, control, and perhaps our comprehension.

A sense of being part of a larger whole has been in the Canadian experience from the beginning: in stories of our first peoples, hopes of later settlers, and visions of a world at peace.

So “Dominion from sea to sea” is infinitely larger than it may at first appear.

It refers to our expanse of territory: the north half of the northern continent of the western hemisphere, “the true north strong and free”

It points to the way our land is held in trust: a portion of Planet Earth settled by first peoples joined by later settlers, where sovereignty is apportioned between central and regional authorities.

And it invokes a transcendent: a spirit which connects, sustains, empowers and enlivens us, together with all Earth’s creatures, in a multi-dimensional universe.

May Canada be true to this her Motto and Mission Statement!