If you’ve ever passed by the Mayor’s office on the second floor of City Hall, you may have noticed an official coat of arms emblazoned on the wall. Since it is rarely used, primarily only for ceremonial applications and official stationary, many may not even know it exists, being only familiar with our modern but uninspired city flag. By a vote of 32 to 17 in 1988, City Council chose Chief Herald of Canada Robert Watt to design our post-amalgamation coat of arms.
Torontoist thinks heraldry is pretty classy and wishes the City would utilize our Hogtown Arms more often, so in celebration of the ancient art of heraldry, read-on to see what our official symbols mean.
1. The Eagle
The eagle is meant to represent Toronto’s Native background; particularly the Mississauga First Nations. Ubiquitous in Native Canadian art and folklore, the sacred eagle is the master of the sky, carrying prayers to the Creator. The eagle symbolizes wisdom, courage, bravery and strength. In the original pre-granted design, the animal was a Bald Eagle but was deemed too American-looking.
2. The City Wall
The fortress wall is an ancient heraldic symbol with obvious allusions to shelter and protection for the people within.
3. York Rose
Toronto’s Coat of Arms features two white York roses (named for the City of York in the U.K.), each with five green thorns. The flower was the symbol of the former City of York and is also depicted on the escutcheon of York University.
4. Alder Leaf
The leaf of the deciduous alder tree was the symbol of the former City of Etobicoke (the word “Etobicoke” actually means “place where alder grows”). Alder trees grow quickly and are usually located close to water. They are the only deciduous tree to have cones which bear their seeds.
5. The Beaver
A national symbol of Canada, the beaver is a symbol of industry and perserverence. Historically, the trading of beaver pelts played a crucial part in our city’s early history. The pendant on the beaver’s collar featuring the alder leaf is hexagonal, referring to a honeycomb—also a symbol of industry.
Early Europeans of the late 1600s and early 1700s depended greatly on Canada’s massive beaver population for fashion and trade. Beaver fur hats were immensely popular and trading in North American beaver pelts was intense, often selling in Europe for twenty times their wholesale price and almost wiping out the beaver population. The beaver symbol is also on the arms of the Hudson’s Bay Company and first came to prominence in Québec.
6. Green Grass
Toronto bills itself as the “City Within A Park,” and the swaths of park space are represented in our coat of arms. The City of Toronto offers 54,000 recreation programs involving 1.2 million participants, 200,000 volunteers and 6,000 community groups! Our city’s 1,500 parks cover 8,000 hectares.
7. Maple Leaves
The maple leaves (we have a hard time not spelling it “leafs” through force of habit) are an allusion to our city’s importance, respect and allegiance to our country. The leaves are sometimes omitted from the design and are not officially part of the Grant of Arms.
The maple leaf started to become associated with Canada in the 19h century and was worn during a Royal visit in 1860 by the Prince of Wales. Maple sap was a diet staple of Canada’s aboriginal peoples and Canada now produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup. Our national confederation song, “The Maple Leaf Forever,” was written in 1868 by Toronto school teacher Alexander Muir. Since World War I, the maple leaf has been incorporated into the badges of Canada’s military regiments.
The heart represents the former city of North York, which was known for the slogan “The City With A Heart,” championed by former North York and Toronto mayor Mel Lastman. In heraldic tradition, the heart also symbolizes charity and sincerity. In the 1997 election campaign, Lastman notoriously proclaimed his City With a Heart to be devoid of homeless people and was embarrassed days later when a homeless woman in North York froze to death.
9. The Intertwining Collar
The twisted silken scarf wreath at the base of the fortress wall represents the city motto “Diversity Our Strength.” Woven like a rope, the collar symbolizes the added strength that comes by working together.
10. Columbine Flower
The unique, five-spurred columbine flower was the symbol of the former City of Scarborough. Note that the alder leaf on the beaver’s collar hangs to the west, while the columbine pendant on the bear is placed to the east.
11. The Bear
The bear, also located in Ontario’s coat of arms, is a classic heraldic symbol symbolizing determination, strength, and ferocity in the protection of its offspring. In traditional heraldry, the two figures flanking the crest are known as “supporters” and are usually rendered in a ferocious manner. In a proposed crest for Toronto’s amalgamation, the supporters were a lion-ocelot cross and a tiger-dragon hybrid in a poor attempt to represent diversity. At the time our arms were to be redesigned, some councilors preferred a racoon and a skunk as figure options.
12. The Shield
Forming a blue “T” shape, the gold sections represent the two towers of City Hall, while the azure tincture represents the sky between. A shield is the base of a traditional coat of arms, representing the monarch in battle and pride in defense. Toronto’s shield is reminiscent of medieval “t-maps,” where the ocean separated the three rectangular landmasses of Asia (top), Europa (left) and Africa (right) with Jerusalem demarcating the centre of the known world.
13. The Three Rivers
Below the shield, the three major rivers of Toronto—Humber, Don and Rouge—are pictured flowing into Lake Ontario at the bottom. The lake is important because of its significance to Toronto’s history as an industrial port city.
14. “Diversity Our Strength”
Though this can also be understood to represent the cultural diversity Toronto is known for, the slogan was intended to refer to the seven former municipalities that now form the megacity. The current coat of arms was instated on October 30, 1998 and incorporated some of the 1,100 suggestions from a public internet survey that was posted in July of that year.
The Pre-Amalgamation Coat of Arms
Rendered in the Commonwealth colours of red, white and blue, the former escutcheon was flanked by two human supporters: a First Nations warrior to the left and Brittania to the right. The official arms both featured and was crested by a beaver, and the shield was draped with the motto Industry Intelligence Integrity. The quarters of the shield were charged with three passant guardant lions in reference to our English heritage, a white rose symbolizing Toronto’s former name of York, a cog wheel symbolizing industry, and a river steamer representing our port.
The female figure of Brittania is usually depicted with a Corinthian helmet and holding the three-pronged trident of Poseidon—representing Britain’s naval power—and a Greek hoplon shield emblazoned with the Union Jack. In pre-Victorian times, she was bare-breasted.
Early renderings of the Native figure featured a stereotypical feathered headdress, which was an inaccurate representation of the Great Lakes tribes. The original, unofficial arms featured a wheat sheaf symbolizing agriculture instead of the cog wheel.
Imagery of the current coat of arms courtesy of the City of Toronto Protocol Office.