On July 1, 2017, Canada turned 150 years old. As our country hit the big one-five-oh, the celebrations exceeded anything we've witnessed since our centennial back in 1967.

A century and a half would be a terrific old age for any individual, virtually unattainable. But for a nation, it barely marks young adulthood. Our neighbours to the south, after all, are pushing 250, while other cultures measure their history in multiple centuries, if not millennia.

If we were to survey the factors that shaped and defined our formative 150 years of statehood, it’s likely that our Latin national motto wouldn’t be the first thing that came to mind.

A mari usque ad mare

As many (especially older) Canadians know, it means “from sea to sea.” It’s taken from Psalm 72:8 in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, which in the King James Version reads, “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.”

The phrase first came into public use in the late nineteenth century, in the years after Confederation. It reflected Canada’s new status as a dominion of the British Empire and also expressed the national dream of building a railway to connect our country from coast to coast. In time it was adopted as our national motto, appearing on Canada’s coat of arms as well as on our currency, passports and other official documents.

Outside the motto’s political allusions, however, its spiritual intent would not have been lost on the leaders who originally advocated its adoption, many of whom were professing Christians. One early proponent, George Monro Grant, was secretary to Sandford Fleming, who was in charge of surveying the Pacific railway project. Grant was also a Presbyterian minister who apparently preached a number of sermons in various places, using Psalm 72:8 as his text, promoting national unity under the slogan, “from sea to sea.”

Psalm 72

Psalm 72 is one of the so-called royal psalms that extol the virtues of the king of Israel, usually David or Solomon, and predict the success and blessedness of his reign. Beyond the immediate context, these psalms also point prophetically to the glory and majesty of the King of kings, Jesus Christ. He is the One who has ultimate sovereign dominion “from sea to sea . . . unto the ends of the earth.” That sovereignty encompasses all nations of all times, including our own.

From a strictly political standpoint, Canada’s status as a dominion was historically tied to our place in the British Empire. As we gained greater autonomy from the United Kingdom, the term “Dominion of Canada” gradually fell out of use, culminating in 1982 when our country’s name was officially declared to be simply Canada, and our national holiday renamed from Dominion Day to Canada Day.

Notwithstanding, the Latin phrase a mari usque ad mare, although enjoying a considerably lower profile than in decades past, remains our national motto. It’s a wonder that it hasn’t been challenged by secularists, but that’s probably due to the fact that “He shall have dominion” isn’t explicitly stated, only implied for those who know the motto’s source.

The idea of dominion has been freighted with a fair amount of baggage in recent times. It has come to be associated with imperialism and the patriarchal attitudes of earlier generations. As such, it is often viewed with suspicion, if not outright distaste, by modern people.

Be that as it may, dominion is a thoroughly Biblical concept. It accurately portrays God’s absolute rule over His creation, as well as the delegated authority He has given His human image-bearers in their appropriate spheres of influence.

As we look ahead to 150 and beyond, whatever our country’s official name or motto, whatever the cultural and ethical challenges we face, we can take great encouragement from this: Canada, like all nations, is indeed a dominion, not ultimately of a human sovereign, but of a Divine One.

“The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15, KJV)

Sources and further reading

Canadian Heritage, “Official symbols of Canada,” Government of Canada, updated on January 12, 2016.

W. Kaye Lamb, “A mari usque ad mare,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, updated on April 14, 2016.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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