The Mottoes of Canada
in Latin, French, English, and Aboriginal Languages
O Latin is a dead tongue,
As dead as it can be.
It killed the ancient Romans
And now it's killing me!
Old rhyme of British public school boys
To get me out of the doggerel house, let me begin with a motto in Latin which the English essayist William Hazlitt found on a sundial near Venice:
horas non numero nisi serenas
‘I count only the happy hours.’
I am fond of that sunny boast. Canadian mottoes are made of sterner stuff, as we discover while examining provincial, local and institutional mottoes affixed to coats-of-arms and sundry heraldic bric-a-brac.
A MARI USQUE AD MARE
The motto of Canada, official since 1921, was suggested as early as 1866 by Sir Samuel Tilley, New Brunswick politico, and a father of Confederation. He drew it from the Old Testament, Psalm 72. In St. Jerome’s Latin version of Holy Writ, called the Vulgate, the passage reads “et dominabitur a mari usque ad mare.” The King James translation is “and he shall have dominion also from sea to sea.”
As nitpickers, we may note Elizabethan scholars mistranslation of the Latin adverb usque as ‘also.’ It is a particle placed before the preposition ad to give a kind of poetic emphasis to the meaning of the preposition. This results in the more appropriate rendering into English of ‘from sea yea onto sea’ or ‘from one sea all the way through to another sea.’ Not better English but a better sense of the Latin.
Based on the same Biblical passage, Tilley said the new country should be not the kingdom of Canada, but rather the Dominion of Canada. And so it became in the text of the British North America Act.
Provincial & Territorial Mottoes
NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR
QUAERITE PRIME REGNUM DEI
The pious motto of Newfoundland is found in the Vulgate, St. Jerome’s Latin version of the New Testament, in Matthew 6:33. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Matthew quotes Christ as saying near the end of the sermon on the mount, “and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” These things are bodily necessities like food and clothing.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
PARVA SUB INGENTI
Modest of motto is the province of Prince Edward Island whose heraldic slogan means in Latin ‘a small place next to a vast place,’ but the motto is also sometimes translated as ‘the small under the protection of the great.’ A somewhat Uriah Heepish maxim, it nevertheless has the virtues of clarity and plain speaking.
MUNIT HAEC ET ALTERA VINCIT
‘One defends and the other conquers’ states the rather Delphic phrase that often bestraddles the escutcheon of Nova Scotia. And if you’ve ever had your escutcheon bestraddled, you will know how painful it can be, especially if the Latin is vague.
Does the motto mean that native peoples defend their land but the French and English conquer it?
The motto refers to the two interlocked hands above the armorial shield, one in chain mail and the other bare. The Latin word manus ‘hand’ has been omitted by the nincompoop herald. That, you see, would have made the meaning of the motto clear, and we mustn’t have clarity, my children, because then no one would telephone the herald to ask what the hell the obfuscatory mottto means.
New Brunswick’s motto means ‘She restored hope.’ She is England, presumably performing this upbeat restoration job when the British defeated the French, officially recognized in the 1763 treaty ending the Seven Years’ War. The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Canadian Global Almanac of 1992 state incorrectly that the motto means ‘hope was restored’. Why do reference book editors permit writers ignorant of Latin to translate it? Ah well, habent sua fata libelli. ‘Even books have their fate.’
JE ME SOUVIENS
Naturally Québec’s provincial motto is not Latin but French, chosen by Eugène Taché, the Québécois architect who designed the provincial coat of arms in 1883. Officially what is being remembered are cozy habitant customs of yore, the French language, and the Roman Catholic religion. But in street conversations ordinary Quebeckers tell the enquiring visitor that ‘I remember’ is a shortened form of ‘I remember all the wrongs done to me.’ It is thus a most appropriate catchphrase for the beginning of the 21th century which has dawned to a mighty choral hymn of whining, victimhood, and cry-baby recrimination whose plaintive strains seem set to echo through the entire millennium.
UT INCEPIT FIDELIS
‘As she began loyal, thus she remains’ coos the ingratiating motto of Ontario, as it crawls up to you and nuzzles into your mackinaw jacket like some abandoned puppy. The loyalty is that of the United Empire Loyalists who helped settle early Ontario, after fleeing the American War of Independence. Their plight may be summed up tersely: Stay in America, fight for King George, try to establish independence from these British tax bullies. You will probably get shot in the head. Or there is free land in the Ottawa Valley and elsewhere.
The overnight loyalty to His Britannic Majesty was touching in its breadth and ubiquity.
GLORIOSUS ET LIBER
"Glorious and free" says the Latin under the coat-of-arms of Manitoba, possibly an echo of words from our national anthem, "O Canada."
MULTIS E GENTIBUS VIRES
"From many peoples comes our strength" is a good translation of the Latin motto of Saskatchewan. The right supporter of the shield is a Saskatchewan native animal, the white-tailed deer. The base or "compartment" is a group of Western red lilies.
FORTIS ET LIBER
‘Strong and free’ expresses the optimistic candour of Albertans.
SPLENDOR SINE OCCASU
British Columbia’s motto beats not about the bush. ‘Unfailing shining glory’ is an appropriate translation. Or one may choose the official translation ‘Splendor Undiminished.’ In both cases, the motto celebrates the natural beauty of the sea and the mountains and the valleys of the west coast.
Nunavut Sanginivut, written on the crest in Inuktitut syllabary means "Our land is our strength." The coat of arms of the territory of Nunavut was granted in 1999, one day before the territory of Nunavut, Canada was created.
Below is an official description of this unique coat-of-arms: "The shield, presented on a roundel rather than the more usual escutcheon shape, is blue and gold, symbolizing the riches of the land. In chief is a representation of the midnight sun and of the North Star, or Niqirtsuituk. Below are a qulliq, a stone lamp representing the warmth of home and community, and an inukshuk, a stone monument serving as a guidepost and a symbol of the territory.
"The crest, an igloo, represents traditional life, survival, and the Nunavut government assembled in the legislature. It is ensigned with a crown representing royal sovereignty.
"The supporters, a caribou and narwhal, represent sustenance and natural resources of the land and sea. They stand on a compartment with Arctic poppies, dwarf fireweed, and Arctic heather, alongside an iceberg at sea."
THE NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
"The Coat of Arms (or Armorial Bearings) of the NWT was approved by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on February 7, 1957.
"The coat of arms consists of two gold narwhals guarding a compass rose, symbolic of the magnetic North Pole. The white upper third of the crest represents the polar ice pack and is crossed by a wavy blue line symbolizing the Northwest Passage. The diagonal line separating the red and green segments of the lower portion of the shield reflects the treeline. The green symbolizes the forested areas south of the treeline, while the red represents the tundra to the north. Minerals and fur, the important bases of the northern wealth, are represented by gold billets in the green portion and the mask of the white fox in the red." There is no official motto of the NWT.
quoted from the NWT government website
The Yukon has a splendidly Canadian coat-of-arms but there is no motto.
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A Miscellany of Mottoes
HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY
The Hudson's Bay crest and motto painted on an elk hide
PRO PELLE CUTEM
Chartered in 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company selected its official motto shortly thereafter. The 17th century writer of this motto was actually acquainted with literature in Latin, and so the motto reverberates with a satisfying Latinity not found in recently fabricated Latin mottoes.
Pro pelle cutem echoes a phrase from the Book of Job in the Vulgate, pellem pro pelle. In Job 2:4 God and Satan chat about how best to tempt the piety of the ever-faithful, never-blaspheming Job. God proclaims Job an upright man. But Satan chuckles, adding “Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life.” This is truly an outrageous source for the self-serving motto of a fur company!
Another possible influence on the writer of the Hudson’s Bay Company motto was the Roman satirist Juvenal who in his Satires 10.192 has pro cute pellem ‘a hide in place of a skin’. But this citation seems a mere coincidence of similar words being used. Although most reference texts say the HBC motto means ‘a skin for a skin,’ a better translation takes into account the generality being expressed, where—as in many languages of the world, so in Latin—the singular may suggest general plurality. The obvious meaning intended by the writer of the Latin was ‘hides for fur.’ Latin admits of this meaning. Why Canadian reference texts do not says more about their lack of Latin than the original motto writer’s skill. Sometimes an ironic translation is offered, viz. ‘animal skins at the cost of human skins.’ While that may have historical validity, it is nonsense as a rendering of the Latin. Now, while this cauldron of controversy seethes, let us tiptoe quietly from the room in search of a hot toddy and some less controversial mottoes below.
ABEUNT STUDIA IN MORES
One abiding fallacy of liberal humanism puts on the toga here, in the motto of what was Victoria College at the University of Toronto. The Latin means ‘studies pass into character.’
CHRISTUS VERA VITIS
The arms of Christ Church Cathedral in Montréal carry this priestly rewrite of a noted biblical passage from John 15:1 in which Jesus consoles his disciples with the parable of the vine, saying, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” The Latin means ‘Christ is the true vine.’
E SILVA SURREXI
This stirring Latin is the municipal motto of Grand Falls, Newfoundland, whose pulp and paper industry render it an apt slogan indeed, meaning ‘I arose from the forest.’
EGO PORTA MUNDI
Moi, je suis la porte du monde. ‘I am the door of the world.’ So sing the docks and piers in this motto of the port of Dorval, where the St. Lawrence brings the world’s ships to Montréal.
FELIX QUI POTUIT RERUM COGNOSCERE CAUSAS
The crest of Sutton District High School in Sutton West says, “Fortunate is the person who can know the reasons for things.”
IN MEDIA SILVA MANEO
Bishop’s Falls in Québec presents this proud motto on its coat-of-arms, ‘In the centre of the forest I stand.’
INITIUM SAPIENTIAE TIMOR
Concordia College in Edmonton, Alberta, sets Christian hearts athump with the severe Old Testament thought that ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ St. Hilda’s College at the University of Toronto echoes this in its timor Dei principium sapientiae ‘fear of God is the foundation of wisdom.’
The motto of Labrador City is not Latin, but I include it here because I am fond of the phrase in the Montagnais language of the Naskapi which may be translated as ‘land of hardworking people.’
Hellenic spice adds zest to the crest of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, whose Greek motto means ‘after the struggle, the victor’s crown.’
(met' agona stephanos)
QUAECUMQUE VERA DOCE ME
Saint Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta puts into its coat-of-arms the words of the eternal student, ‘Teach me whatsoever things are true.’ No mean feat of pedagogy, that.
QUARE VERUM ET VIRTUTEM
Okanagan College in Kelowna, British Columbia directs its students to ‘seek truth and excellence.’
RECTI CULTUS PECTORA ROBORANT
Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Québec, thunders in thong-consonanted Latin that ‘learning what is right makes the character strong as oak.’ Now this is stout Latin that Cicero, the Roman orator, might stoop to copy.
The town of Wabush in Labrador West District, Newfoundland, has this Latin motto which means ‘by the earth we prosper.’ Wabush is Naskapi for ‘rabbit place.’
VELUT ARBOR AEVO
The University of Toronto’s motto means literally ‘as a tree with age,’ but in translation the English must be plumped up to a more pleasing amplitude, something like ‘just as a tree branches as it grows, so does the university expand, its leaves of wisdom ever burgeoning in the sunlight of knowledge.’ Though perhaps a tad overdone, that is the general import of this good terse Latinity.
But trust the wits who attend U. of T. to not accept the university's motto without a more trenchant translation, namely “like a tree I grow — with living cells on the outside and dead wood all the way to the centre."
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Reconstruction of a Greek trireme.
Tri = three + remus = oar, bank of oars.
The trireme had three rows of oarsmen to increase its speed.
This ship is of Greek design, but our English word for it is of Roman origin.
Now let's take a moment to look more closely at one individual motto, remis velisque, that is used all over the world on coats-of-arms and heraldic devices.
Remis velisque was already a proverb in Classical Latin. Its literal meaning is: by means of oars (remus, Latin, oar) and sails (velum, Latin, sail). The enclitic -que is a fancy method of joining two words in Latin. It is a poetic substitute for the far more frequent et 'and.' One could write remis et velis and that too would be perfectly sound Latin.
Its implied meanings are: full speed ahead, with all your might, as fast as possible. Other ideas in this maritime proverb are: row hard but use the wind too. Use what you have been given but work hard also.
Cicero, the great, Republic-defending windbag of ancient Roman letters, the prattling lawyer and busybody statesman, quotes this phrase as a proverb in his Tusculanae Disputationes or Tusculan Arguments. Towards the end of his full life Cicero wrote some philosophical pieces on nature and ethics, largely borrowing ideas from the Greek Stoics. He named this collection of essays after his slave-operated country estate at Tusculanum, a pretty, vine-wreathed villa complex on a hill near the modern Italian town of Frascati, then as now renowned for a pleasant but by no means exceptional white wine.
Cicero invented and wielded a complex periodical Latin sentence, an endlessly unrolling bolt of rhetorical fustian that served him well in Roman courts where customarily he defended reactionary bigots and political criminals, anyone with a new idea that might jeopardize the old Republican prejudices that he, a rich lawyer, held so dear to his greedy heart. He tried to alter Latin from a simple, direct language into one capable of—as he thought—more subtle expression like the Greek language that he had learned as a boy, studied, and loved all his life.
Whether or not Ciceronian orotundity and sentences one thousand words long contributed to the clarity or to the clotted obfuscation of later Latin is a decision left to the student who reads Cicero in Latin and then follows Ciceronian influence on legal writing in the Romance languages descended from Latin.
The most enthusiastic advocate of Cicero's style that I ever met was a flannel-mouthed Baptist lawyer from Georgia who had built a career spewing polysyllabic twaddle, racist piffle, and pious flummery in southern courthouses in front of trailer-trash juries consisting of toothless Georgians with white hair and pink eyes who thought modern dentures were for "Commie faggots." This pudgy, glutinous old sinner loved to quote Plato's approval of slavery. Doctor Felonious T. Nitkin, as I shall call him, worshipped Cicero as a god and, after he fled to Canada, possibly chased out of Georgia by persons he had bilked, I had the bad fortune to be Nitkin's student briefly. Cicero was the perfect deity for Nitkin, a gate-mouthed blabber-god of bibble-babble and garbage verbiage. Nitkin was the fattest laughing hypocrite who ever followed an African-American cripple to a jail cell, all the while yammering about the benefits of incarceration, as "quotated in the ancient writin's uh Cicero." All the time I knew him, Nitkin was under the impression that "quotate" was an English verb. Of course, it was merely a half-heard fragment of Nitkin's boyhood ignorance, one he had never corrected.
A far more apt memento of Cicero than any sculpted bust
For me, Cicero’s importance was to pass on styles and felicities of ancient Greek writing forms. Is there much original thought in Cicero’s vast opera? No. Cicero is a fluent parrot, squawking back what he has learned of Greek ideas. This talent and being born poor made him the most successful trial lawyer of ancient Rome. He performed a valuable act of transmission in bequeathing Greek forms and literary tropes to the western European tradition. That was no bad thing. But it does not earn Cicero the rank of Socrates and Aristotle, which, sometimes in European classical studies, he is granted.
And so, speaking of Ciceronian blatmouths, I shall terminate my rant and finish up our wee motto trot.
Here are some of the entities whose motto is remis velisque.
The United Church College of St. John’s, Newfoundland, rings the nautical bell with a phrase any ancient mariner would find yare. ‘By oars and sails’ reads the motto, while on the coat-of-arms a double-masted galley flies a pennant from her foremast emblazoned with the words Floreat Nova ‘May the New Land Flourish!’
Prince of Wales Collegiate in St. John's, Newfoundland also uses this motto.
So does Newcastle High School in Hamilton, New South Wales, Australia.
Turner Fenton Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, uses it as a motto.
Waratah Campus of Callaghan College in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, has remis velique as its motto as well.
The Scottish town of Eyemouth uses it.
Now, before we get blotto on this motto, let us conclude our "mottology" with this final emblem.
Saba, an island of the Netherland Antilles in the Caribbean, carries on its coat-of-arms the same motto.
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provincial crests of Canada
motto of Canada
motto of Canadian provincers explained
British columbia motto
Latin mottoes of Canada
Nova Scotia motto
Prince edward Island motto
Newfoundland and Labrador motto
Northwest Territories motto
coats-of-arms of Canada and the prvinces
coat of arms of Canada
Canadian coats of arms
Canadian mottoes translated from Latin
Latin and Greek mottoes used in Canada