Canada’s Scriptures for Canada’s Day

Dear friends,

I’ve asked my colleague Mark Tubbs to pursue some of the Scripture passages that are significant to our country. So just a little past Canada Day, I wanted to share with you two such examples that I’ve looked at and that he’s done more research on. I’m very grateful for it.

A Mari Usque Ad Mare – “He shall have dominion from sea to sea” (Psalm 72:8)

Two contrasting accounts of the original use of the term “dominion” to represent the Canadian nation vie for supremacy. Both are plausible, and both are reproduced in paraphrase here for your benefit.

In his book True Patriot Love, erstwhile Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff suggests that his great-grandfather George Monro Grant, a Nova Scotian Presbyterian preacher and ardent Canadian nationalist who also served as Sir Sanford Fleming’s secretary, used the term in reference to Canada in multiple sermons during the push to complete the Canadian National Railway. Grant drew biblical inspiration from Psalm 72:8, “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.”

The other tale recounts Father of Confederation Samuel Leonard Tilley’s suggestion that Canada be officially designated a “dominion” in the British North America Act of 1867 (Sir John A. Macdonald preferred “kingdom”). Like Grant, Tilley’s inspiration was the King James rendering of Psalm 72:8. Canada was the first of Britain’s colonies to claim the title of “dominion,” although New England had earlier been unofficially referred to as a dominion of the British crown.

Whether the term as applied to Canada originated with Grant or with Tilley, the suggestion was a prophetic one, full of faith that Canada would one day stretch from sea to sea – which it did not in 1867. The 1871 Constitution Act was the first to employ the term as a reality, with British Columbia joining Confederation. Only thenceforth did the waves of the Pacific lap the shores of the new dominion. The first recorded official use of the Psalm 72:8 phrase as a Canadian motto was in 1906, when it was engraved on the mace of the Legislative Assembly of the new province of Saskatchewan.

But the story of the motto, with its millennia-old biblical reference, continues to be written in the 21st century. In 2007, the premiers of the three Canadian territories campaigned for the motto to include the third sea to the north – the Arctic Ocean – alongside the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Such an amendment would serve to acknowledge Canada’s vast geography, and more importantly, to entrench an inclusiveness toward northern and primarily aboriginal residents in Canada’s official motto. On a hermeneutical note, the addition of another “sea” to the motto would not wrest the verse from its original biblical context to any greater degree than the original motto already has.

Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam – “They desire a better country” (Hebrews 11:16)

One of the earliest suggestions for the Order of Canada’s motto, courtesy of the first Canadian-born Governor General, Vincent Massey, was Psalm 72:8. Other tepid proposals included “A Productive Maple” and “Our Achievement Is the Nation’s Achievement” – neither of which struck a chord with Canadian uber-patriot and politician John Matheson, who spearheaded the development of the structure of the Order in the Lester Pearson government. Almost a century after Grant’s nationalistic sermons and Tilley’s confederation efforts, Matheson heard a sermon whose text inspired him to propose a fragment of Hebrews 11:16 as the motto for Canada’s new order of merit. Prime Minister Pearson and his Cabinet accepted the proposal immediately, agreeing with Matheson that the non-posturing yet hopeful phrase recalled most Canadians’ immigrant origins. In the words of that academic and enigmatic Canadian scholar Northrop Frye, “It seems to me very characteristic of Canada that its highest Order should have for its motto: ‘Looking for a better country.’ The quotation is from the New Testament, where the better country really is the City of God, but the feeling it expresses has more mundane contexts.” Not nearly so mundane was the clerical error that led to the Prime Minister’s Office issuing a press release on the day the Order’s motto was announced in Parliament, which mistakenly publicized Hebrews 12:16 as the new motto: “Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.” If you’ll pardon the pun, the press and the opposition politicians took their pound of flesh at the Prime Minister’s expense, whose office quickly apologized for the error and rectified its mistake. The correct verse, Hebrews 11:16, is now a prominent and inalienable piece of Canada’s most prestigious order of merit.

A comprehensive account of the development of the Order of Canada is Christopher P. McCreery’s The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History, and Developments (University of Toronto Press, 2005).

JB: I find it an irony that the Governor General’s website, whose proprietor is a practicing and devout Anglican (like Baptists, those two words describe different activities), should obscure a lovely simple verse like Hebrews 11:16 by translating the Latin yet omitting the biblical attribution as if it were sourced from Shakespeare – or even worse, from Helen Steiner Rice. Or to paraphrase Robert Newton, the dissolute English actor who, while playing Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, admonished his scruffy crew that “you lot need every scrap of scripture you can get.” It is a testimony to the secularization of the Canadian civil service even back in the 1960s. By the way, scholar Mark Noll, author of What Happened to Christian Canada?, which is in such need of updating that it needs a complete rewrite, would probably agree with that eminent and echinated Western Baptist politician, John Diefenbaker, that “they can’t even quote Scripture correctly.”

Let me wish you all a blessed and happy belated Canada Day, my friends and compatriots.


In Christ,

Jeremy Bell