Symbols of Authority | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Symbols of Authority

One of the earliest signs of authority (the right to enforce obedience) was probably a wooden club, in which symbolism grew directly out of practical application: the humble club became both an instrument by which power was exercised and (consequently) a symbol of authority.

Symbols of Authority

One of the earliest signs of authority (the right to enforce obedience) was probably a wooden club, in which symbolism grew directly out of practical application: the humble club became both an instrument by which power was exercised and (consequently) a symbol of authority. Today, long dignified by the name "mace," the caveman's club, which evolved into the steely weapon of medieval knightly combat and then into a symbol of kingly power, still serves as the symbol of authority in Canada's Parliament and in the provincial legislative assemblies. It is part of Canada's British heritage. Until the mace has been placed on the table before the Speaker's chair, the legislators have no authority under which to make or repeal laws. They are, in effect, without power, for they have no authority to wield it: although Parliament has the power to govern, it has that power only under the authority of the CROWN.

Within the COMMONWEALTH, the Crown is the supreme symbol of unity and authority; and all laws are enacted and carried out in the name of the Crown. Its supremacy in Canada is evident from the representation of this symbol of authority at the upper end of the mace, substituting for the deadly bulge of the caveman's club and the spiked ball of the medieval warrior's mace. Here is evidence of the fine line that developed between authority and power. Centuries ago the Crown appeared in small replica, capping what was then the handle of the king's mace. Grasped by the hand of authority, the power was in the hitting end. But the need for brute force receded and the royal mace ceased to be an instrument for exercising power directly on the battlefield. It became a symbol of authority under which legislation could take place. Today the configuration of the mace is reversed, a large crown, the symbol of authority, now dominating the mace's onetime hitting end.

The Crown, an ancient symbol of monarchy, is easily recognized, appearing as it does ensigning the coat of arms of Canada (see EMBLEMS OF CANADA) and displayed in many other ways to indicate governmental, judicial and military authority. We also speak of the Crown as the prosecutor in courts of law, as the possessor of government-owned lands, and with respect to governmental agencies such as crown assets and various CROWN CORPORATIONS. In fact, "Crown" is used as the general term expressing the legal personality of the executive of government. Executive power, originally in the monarch's own hands, has come, through constitutional evolution, to be entrusted to bodies of legislators - who still exercise it in the sovereign's name. One place where the authority of the Crown is still in evidence is the giving of royal assent. No bill can become law until it has been read the appropriate number of times and passed in both Houses of Parliament. This having been done, it automatically receives royal assent, the symbolic agreement of the supreme authority, and becomes law.

The symbolism of the Crown is deeply entrenched in the entire process of British democracy, to which Canada has fallen heir. Authority is vested in the Crown, but in practice the Crown acts only on the advice of those members of the PRIVY COUNCIL who make up the Cabinet of the day. Since Cabinet ministers are also members of Parliament, they are, as members, responsible to the electorate, so that the people are in fact sovereign. The Crown therefore becomes the symbol of the sovereignty (or authority) of the people. The Crown is also a symbol of political unity, for the government and Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition are still united under the Crown for the betterment of the country, although pursuing different policies in an effort to achieve that betterment.

Coats of arms were developed during the Crusades as aids to the identification of warriors on the battlefield. These soon became symbols of authority when the designs on the warriors' surcoats, banners and shields were transferred to the wax seals which served as signatures in those days, when even the most authoritative in the land was likely to be illiterate. The first recorded use of a coat of arms to proclaim supreme authority in Canada was on 24 July 1534, when French explorer Jacques CARTIER erected a cross at the entrance to the Baie de Gaspé. "Under the crosspiece we put a coat of arms with 3 fleurs de lys in relief and over this was a wooden placard engraved with large letters that read Vive Le Roi de France." Three conventionalized golden lilies on a blue shield were the armorial bearings of François Ier; his arms, raised by Cartier, identified him as the possessor of the new land and were the symbol of his authority over it.

Since armorial bearings are found not only upon shields but also upon banners, it is not surprising that the symbol of authority which John CABOT set up on Newfoundland soil in 1497, when he claimed that territory for Henry VII of England, was "the royal banner." A banner is either a square or an oblong flag. In the age of imperialism no greater symbol of authority existed than the flag of any nation establishing or claiming authority over some distant undeveloped territory. Numerous imperial flags - notably British, French and Spanish - have flown over what is now Canadian soil. In addition, flags such as those of the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY and the NORTH WEST COMPANY have been used to indicate claims of territory by corporate interests.

Authority, no matter what its source, becomes embodied in either a person or an office. In Canada each of these embodiments has its own seal, by means of which every conferment of authority is marked. The Great Seal of Canada is the official seal. It gives formal expression to the traditional and legal authority of the state to make provisions for the well-being of the nation. The seal depicts Elizabeth II on the Coronation throne, wearing St Edward's Crown and holding other symbols of royal authority in her hands. Before the queen are the armorial bearings of Canada. This seal is used to sanction the commissions issued to persons appointed to the most important offices of state. It is also used to confer approval upon various kinds of documents, such as letters patent constituting the office of governor general, proclamations, land grants by the Crown and election writs.

The Governor General's Privy Seal, which is a personal seal, depicts the personal arms of the incumbent. Among the commissions issued under the Privy Seal are those of the officers of the ARMED FORCES, of which the governor general is commander in chief. This particular application of the Privy Seal testifies to an important feature of our Constitution: that the legal use of military force in Canada is ultimately dependent on the personal authority of the monarch's representative. It is not dependent on the power of the leader of the government, even though, since the beginning of RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT, he has had access to the official seal.

When a party leader takes the oath of office and receives the commission as PRIME MINISTER, power, coming from the people, and authority, coming from the Crown, are joined. Thus the party leader who forms the government becomes, while in office, the most powerful person in the country. Yet no one, according to the German sociologist Max Weber, has greater authority than the monarch, for his or her authority rests on all 3 of the bases of authority that we have accepted as legitimate: charisma, tradition and law.

Not only nations, but religious communities, public and secret societies and countless other organizations around the world possess symbols of authority under which their citizens, adherents or members respond to the laws and regulations that govern and sustain them. Symbols of authority come in many forms. Crowns, maces, coats of arms, seals, flags - even the "tin star" worn by gun-slinging US lawmen of fact and fiction - are symbols of authority under which people are governed. In Canada's history perhaps no symbol of authority has been more quickly and universally recognized than the scarlet jacket of the NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE and their successors, the ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE.

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