Blog #345: For Canada Day

John Cline

A few years ago, our denomination (The Canadian Baptists of Western Canada) published an article on the two Scripture passages that played such a huge, influential role in the thinking in 1867 of our country’s “Fathers of Conferation” they were immortalized on the entrances to the Parliament buildings as well as on our national crest or Coat of Arms. Here, in part, is the article:

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

Father of Confederation Samuel Leonard Tilley suggested that Canada be officially designated a “dominion” in the British North America Act of 1867 (Sir John A. Macdonald preferred “kingdom”). Tilley’s inspiration was the King James rendering of Psalm 72:8: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” Canada was the first of Britain’s colonies to claim the title of “dominion.” 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.

  1. 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 various Christians’ nationalistic sermons and confederation efforts, John 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.” 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.

So, as we come to Canada Day, July 1st, 2023 (a day which used to be called “Confederation Day”) how do we respond to those two significant biblical verses which frame our nation’s history? Frankly, much of Canada has given those verses short-shift or discarded them entirely from their way of thinking. For we who are Christians, though, it feels that it is time to humbly reflect on them and to hope and pray that our modern-day Canada turns back to God. Next time you sing the line in our national anthem that says, “God keep our land, glorious and free”, please pray that it is not too late and that we will turn back to God fully. Only then can we expectantly believe that He will bless our land and keep it glorious and free.

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