Federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says he backs the idea of changing Canada's official motto to "From Sea to Sea to Sea" -- a symbolic step to recognize the country is bounded not just by the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but also by the Arctic Ocean along an increasingly important northern frontier.
Responding to a request from Canwest News Service following his recent confirmation as Liberal leader, Ignatieff indicated via e-mail that he "would support the idea of the three-seas motto" -- no trivial promise from a prospective prime minister and the great-grandson of George Monro Grant, the driving force behind Canada's adoption of its current two-ocean motto in the early 1900s.
The nation's existing heraldic slogan -- "From Sea to Sea" or "A Mari Usque Ad Mare" in Latin -- appears on a scroll at the base of Canada's coat of arms and can be found on all paper currency, passports and government proclamations, as well as on various military badges and federal buildings.
The equivalent wording in French is "D'un ocean a l'autre."
The motto is drawn from a verse in the Bible that also gave Canada the word "dominion," chosen by the Fathers of Confederation in 1867 as the formal designation of their newly united country.
The entry of British Columbia into the union in 1871 came with a pledge of a trans-Canada railway, stoking excitement about a vast country stretching between Atlantic and Pacific shores -- from sea to sea.
But like "dominion," which has disappeared almost entirely from official usage, Canada's original ceremonial catchphrase is rarely heard today. The expanded, informal version of the motto -- "From Sea to Sea to Sea" -- is now routinely used in speeches and writings about Canada, a gesture of geographic and cultural inclusiveness toward northern residents but also a sign of the growing significance of the Arctic in the country's political and economic future.
In 2006, Canwest News Service published a series of articles exploring the idea of changing the motto to reflect popular use of the tri-oceanic phrasing in Canadian culture. Latin experts suggested the change to "From Sea to Sea to Sea" could be elegantly reflected on the country's coat of arms by pluralizing the existing motto -- "A Mari Usque Ad Maria" -- while a similar slight adjustment to the French version would result in "D'un ocean aux autres."
At the time, the proposed rewriting of the motto -- while prompting some concerns about tinkering with tradition -- garnered high-profile and widespread support.
All three territorial premiers in 2006 pushed for the change, arguing that a three-seas motto would more fully acknowledge Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon as equal partners in Confederation.
Polar scientists and Inuit leaders, including environmental icon Sheila Watt-Cloutier and Canada's then-ambassador for the Arctic, Jack Anawak, embraced the idea.
Manitoba Premier Gary Doer, whose province has a lengthy Arctic Ocean seacoast along Hudson Bay, also urged a northern extension of the motto, as did former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Ed Schreyer.
Federal heritage officials who probed the potential cost of the change found it would be negligible.
In the House of Commons, opposition MPs representing Arctic ridings voiced support for the change, with the NDP's Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington introducing a private member's bill on the matter.
And a Canwest-commissioned poll of more than 1,000 Canadians showed there was solid support across the country for amending the motto, with proponents outnumbering opponents by three to one and the remaining one-third of the Canadian population content either way.
The Conservative government remained silent on the issue in 2006. But the Liberal party, then under the interim leadership of Bill Graham, promised to initiate a national debate about revamping the motto.
"We are not a party that is stuck in the past," Graham said at the time. "Our party launched the debate on Canada's flag to find a symbol that better represented all Canadians, and we are open to having a debate to see if our motto needs to be adapted so that all Canadians, and especially northerners, see their own reality reflected in our national motto."
Ignatieff's support for an Arctic Ocean addendum promises to rekindle the motto question. And if a federal Liberal government under Ignatieff followed through by rewriting the motto, for him it would also amount to refurbishing a cherished family heirloom.
Grant, a Presbyterian minister from Nova Scotia who went on to great renown as the principal of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. served in 1872 as secretary to railway engineer Sandford Fleming on a pioneering, Halifax-to-Vancouver surveying expedition to chart the future route of the CPR.
Grant's published account of the journey -- titled "Ocean to Ocean" -- effusively promoted Canada's destiny as a transcontinental nation. He is also credited with originating the idea of adopting "From Sea to Sea" as the country's motto, a popular suggestion that was used informally as early as 1906 and made official on Canada's new coat of arms in 1921.
Ignatieff recalled his great-grandfather's nation-building efforts in the recently published book True Patriot Love, the Liberal leader's semi-autobiographical reflection on Canadian identity and his family's relationship with the country through four generations.
Ignatieff refers in the book to how Canada's two-ocean motto "encapsulates the national vision of the railway age. Our ancestors would be asking us: What is the national vision of our age?
"The opening up of the Northwest Passage, once our frozen inland waterway," Ignatieff continues, "is an opportunity for Canada to develop a new frontier."
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How Canada's railway left the Arctic out in the cold
"He shall have dominion also from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the Earth." -- Psalm 72:8
Canada can thank King David -- slayer of Goliath and ruler of ancient Israel -- for the line that would become this country's motto.
Part of a prayer composed for Solomon, David's son and successor, "from sea to sea," referred literally to the land between the Mediterranean and Red seas, but also suggested the timeless authority of God over an earthly empire bound by a metaphorical multitude of oceans.
"A mari usque ad mare" may have deep cultural roots and universal connotations, but its use as our national catchphrase is geographically specific and distinctly Victorian, a quaint relic of the late-19th-century push to build a country stretching from Atlantic to Pacific -- Nova Scotia to British Columbia, to be precise -- and tied together by steel rails.
In short, Canada's motto sports a top hat and mutton-chop sideburns, and carries a sledgehammer for pounding iron spikes.
By the time the original "national dream" was realized with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, the country's leaders had developed -- quite understandably for the time -- a two-coast fixation that mythologized the uniting of East and West, and all but ignored the vast northern frontier that Canada had fully inherited from Britain five years earlier, in 1880.
The Arctic Ocean was still akin to the moon's Sea of Tranquillity for those constructing the institutions, ideas and railway trestles required to give Canadian identity a solid footing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Only gradually -- and not yet completely -- has a three-ocean conception of Canada as a nation surrounded by Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic waters taken shape in the national consciousness.
Excerpted from the same biblical verse that gave Canada its early identity as a "dominion" -- another anachronism long since dropped from official usage -- "from sea to sea" found its way onto the coat of arms and into the Canadian psyche thanks to a host of history's notables: Sir John A. Macdonald and a fellow Father of Confederation, Sir Leonard Tilley, turn-of-the-century scholar George Monro Grant, pioneering public servant Sir Joseph Pope and, oddly, Winston Churchill.
It was Tilley who first called attention to the Old Testament prayer for Solomon as a ready source of symbolism for the sprawling new nation.
Just as the verse inspired the official "Dominion of Canada" styling of the new country, "sea to sea" became a natural mantra for railway and nation builders alike.
Grant, a Presbyterian minister who would go on to become principal of Queen's University, is credited with promoting a sea-to-sea motto for Canada as early as the 1870s, after serving as secretary of the cross-continent surveying expedition led by the CPR's chief engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming.
Grant's published account of the experience, Ocean to Ocean, trumpeted the marvels of his "journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific" in support of Canada's seminal nation-building project.
There were occasional vague references to the Arctic in Grant's narrative, but the region was essentially off the map in his mind at the time.
In 1906, Grant's push for the adoption of "from sea to sea" as an inspirational axiom was finally embraced by -- of all places -- landlocked Saskatchewan. A mari usque ad mare was engraved on the gilded mace used to open sessions of the provincial legislature, and the phrase eventually came to the attention of -- and deeply impressed -- Sir Joseph Pope.
Pope had been Macdonald's principal secretary and biographer, a man justifiably inspired by Sir John A.'s nation-building achievements. And Pope was still one of the country's top public servants in 1919 when he joined a federal committee mandated to create a coat of arms for use as the main symbol of federal authority in Canada.
It took two years to complete the task, and before King George V finally gave regal approval to the arms and its motto in 1921, Churchill -- then colonial secretary in the British cabinet -- had been forced to intervene directly to get the Canadian creation past fussy, foot-dragging heraldic officials in the U.K.
There had been some debate, too, between Pope and his fellow committee members over the composition of symbols on the shield and the words on the motto scroll.
But Pope eventually won out, recording in his diary in September 1921: "Our arms are very handsome, loyal, British, monarchical with due recognition of Canada, in fact everything that can be desired. The motto, ‘A mari usque ad mare,' which is an original suggestion of my own, I regard as very appropriate."
And "from sea to sea" was a popular refrain throughout the 20th century. Echoes of King David's original phrase could even be found in Gordon Lightfoot's classic Canadian Railroad Trilogy, in which the songwriting icon recounted the quest to construct "an iron road running from the sea to the sea ..."
But the railway roots of Canada's geographic self-image were always viewed as a frustration by those focused on the Arctic. In a 1966 essay, pioneer ice scientist Moira Dunbar observed that "the average Canadian still has only a very vague idea of what the northern part of this country is really like," and attributed the national blind spot to "the strongly east-west development and settlement in Canada along the transcontinental railway lines."
Today, in both official parlance and common usage, "from sea to sea" is routinely expanded by an ocean to reflect the growing awareness of the North in the Canadian imagination. However, the use of the original expression in Canada's motto was never seriously challenged before the northern premiers' recent call for an Arctic Ocean addendum: "From Sea to Sea to Sea."