Canada

Canada's chief herald finds the right fit

Coats of arms are becoming hot items

Jennifer Hunter January 24 2000
Canada

Canada's chief herald finds the right fit

Coats of arms are becoming hot items

Jennifer Hunter January 24 2000

Canada's chief herald finds the right fit

Canada

Coats of arms are becoming hot items

Jennifer Hunter

When he is not in attendance on Her Excellency at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s chief herald lives, with little fanfare, in a modest bungalow in North Vancouver. This morning, he answers the door wearing a dark pin-striped suit and tie and looking very official. But any hint of pretention is belied by the sheepskin slippers on his feet and the lively racket of his teenage children as they head off for an afternoon of snowboarding. The herald recognizes the dignity of the heraldic tradition—one dating back to the Middle Ages—but like most Vancouverites he doesn’t take formality too seriously. Robert Watt, 54, concedes with a good-natured shrug that few Canadians even know the chief herald exists or have a clue about what he does. “Most people think of knights and flags when they think of a herald,” he explains. Shining armour is what comes to mind, not fluffy slippers.

But Watt’s quiet influence is felt from British Columbia to Newfoundland, in City Halls, aboriginal longhouses, hospitals, churches, synagogues, charitable organizations, boardrooms of major corporations, golf and country clubs, and the homes of private citizens. As chief herald, Watt creates coats of arms and he has been doing it since 1988—aided by artists, Latin scholars and heraldic experts in communities across the country. “I can’t draw, I can’t paint,” Watt says. “Happily, we have wonderful artists. But most of the concepts are created by me.” Since the job was first established by the government of Brian Mulroney and placed under the aegis of the governor general, hundreds of institutions and individuals have received coats of arms, including Ed Mirvish, Corel Corp., the Canadian Space Agency, Ontario Solicitor General David Tsubouchi,

Orthodox synagogue Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, the Shushwap Nation of Kamloops, B.C., and the new territory of Nunavut.

A coat of arms is supposed to reveal something of a person’s or institution’s character and history. Mirvish’s, for example, includes a medieval jester and the motto “Honestas,” reflecting his life in Toronto as Honest Ed, merry purveyor of basement bargains and entertainment. The motto on Corel’s coat of arms, “Succeed while having fun,” reflects flamboyant company founder Michael Cowpland’s penchant for the good life. The space agency’s Latin motto, Ad finem ultimum, is borrowed from Star Trek: “Towards the final frontier.” Six copies were taken into space by astronaut Roberta Bondar on her 1992 voyage. Machzikei Hadas is the first synagogue in the Commonwealth to have a coat of arms. On it is a tree of life with maple leaves and stars of David entwined. “In any other country, a synagogue receiving a coat of arms would be unimaginable,” says Rabbi Reuven Bulka.

Any Canadian can apply for a coat of arms, as long as he or she has made some contribution to the community. The cost is between $1,500 and $3,000. Two years ago, wellknown B.C. magazine publisher Peter Legge received a coat of arms, with roses and maple leaves to reflect his British and Canadian heritage. “It is something I can pass down to my family and future generations,” he says. Legge sees his coat of arms as an original piece of art and has it mounted in his home den; he wears a pinkie ring imprinted with it, and it also adorns his letterhead. “I’m still dreaming and scheming of other ways I can use it,” he says.

Some Canadian coats of arms even have an impressive literary provenance. Sonja Bata asked Watt to help her create a coat of arms for the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, but she was stuck coming up with a motto. During a meet-

ing with Watt at the exclusive York Club to thrash out ideas, she spied novelist Robertson Davies and called him over. “Robertson,” she said, “I need your help.” In less than a minute, he had a motto for her: “One step at a time.” Former prime ministers have their own coats of arms. Kim Campbell’s shield is decorated in pink and gold and displays the universal symbol for justice: a woman holding scales. John Turner’s has canoes, reflecting his love of the North. Joe Clark has a picture of a printing press in his, celebrating his father’s occupation as a publisher. Mulroney’s has a fortress wall representing

his wife Mila’s Serbian roots. Pierre Trudeau’s shows two figures, a voyageur and a woman in 17th-century Scottish dress, alluding to his parental ancestry. Three wheat sheaves are metaphors for his three sons.

Watt says heraldry, which must follow strict form, has a certain magic about it. “Even though the number of colours that can be used are limited, and the number of elements are limited, they can be put together in infinitely inventive ways,” he explains. Being a chief herald may sound like a snooty job, but the office was created by a very unaffected man, David Crombie, former

cabinet minister in the Mulroney government and the former “tiny, perfect” mayor of Toronto.

Crombie, as secretary of state, first met Watt in 1986 when the latter was director of the Vancouver Museum. As Watt took Crombie on a tour of his institution to view aboriginal art, he began to talk with passion about his hobby heraldry. He noted that native peoples have long been using their own form of heraldry—depicting stories through representations of ravens, wolves, stars and other natural elements. Crombie, who says he bores his family and neighbours with “my fascination with history,” became intrigued by Watt’s suggestion that Canada have its own herald.

At that time, anyone who wanted a real, registered coat of arms had to apply to Scotland’s Lord Lyon or the Garter King of Arms in England. “It seemed to me that Canadians had their own stories to tell,” Crombie says. He believes having a coat of arms is much like having your own Web home page. “Web sites are simply heraldry in motion,” he says. “A Web page says, ‘Here’s who I am, here’s what I’ve done.’ A coat of arms says the same thing in an iconic way.”

So when Watt was offered the job by then-Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé, he accepted with alacrity. He understood the history of heraldry, one that started when 12th-century knights identified themselves by painting their shields. Later, monarchs began to take on the official role of granting coats of arms to honour subjects, and appointed heralds to register them.

Word has spread about Watt’s work, and lately requests for coats of arms have been flying in—32 from early November to early January alone. “We can barely keep up with it,” says Watt, who earns a salary of $70,000 a year and keeps an office in Vancouver and at Rideau Hall. This week, he will be in Ottawa, to where he commutes twice a month. But despite the dislocation from his family, Watt embraces his official role with tremendous passion. “I’ve always been fascinated about how this very old art form can serve Canadians so wonderfully,” he says. The job may speak of antiquity, but there is nothing old-fashioned about this herald as he ushers his historic traditions into the new millennium.