In medieval times, Europe’s warrior knights wore heraldic coats of arms as a means of identifying who was under all that heavy armor. Since then, the art of heraldry has shifted away from the utilitarian to its present-day function: allowing corporations, municipalities —even yuppies—to join the search for designer roots. Until now, Canadians who wanted a coat of arms had to pay between $800 and $5,000 and send away to stuffy heraldic offices in Britain for what would often end up as a den decoration. But that changed last week when Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth Il’s youngest son, handed Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé the letters patent that empowered her to create a Canadian Heraldic Authority. Sauvé in turn appointed Vancouver historian Robert Watt Canada’s first chief herald. Said Watt: “Why should Canadians have to go overseas to do this?”
Watt, 42, director of the Vancouver Museum and past president of the Heraldry Society of Canada, has studied the arcane heraldic tradition. On Aug. 1, he will officially take charge of a five-person office in Ottawa, the Commonwealth’s first heraldic authority outside either London or Edinburgh.
According to Watt, about 50 Canadian institutions, municipalities and families apply each year for a coat of arms. He says that Canadian control over heraldry will create more interest. Said the chief herald: “We in Canada have a unique opportunity to take a fresh look at this art form and possibly develop something wholly new.” That opportunity has been a long time coming. Since 1971, the Heraldry Society of Canada has been advocating such a move. The initiative was given a major boost when former federal cabinet minister David Crombie took an interest in the subject and hosted a National Forum on Heraldry in 1987. That led to the Canadian government’s petitioning the Queen to transfer her heraldic authority to Canada.
For many people, personal coats of arms are the rec-room equivalent of pink flamingos: an artistic eyesore. For others, however, they are a touchstone of tradition which, like the Canadian Constitution, has finally been patriated.
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