The motto that graces our national coat of arms is well known to Canadians but what is less well known is just how succinctly it encapsulates the economic vision of nineteenth Canadian business elites and the Fathers of Confederation, as well as summarizes the subsequent economic development of Canada in the half-century after Confederation.
The national motto – A Mari Usque ad Mare – comes from a biblical passage – Psalm 72:8. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia,in the King James version, the verse in Latin reads as: "Et dominabitur a mari usque ad mare, et a flumine usque ad terminos terrae." This translates into “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth." Of course, this passage refers to seas in the vicinity of the middle east and the river is probably the Tigris-Euphrates system or perhaps the Nile. Yet, in these few words - nineteen words in English to be precise - can be seen an entire economic vision inspired by the word of God that helped motivate and inspire Canada's political leadership in the nineteenth century. That the inspiration came from the Bible is not surprising as in the more religious nineteenth century the bible served as a common and familiar reference point for Canadian society and a source of quotes that often framed public discourse. Biblical figures and passages were an important source of inspiration in the absence of the entertainers, athletes and media stars of today.
The first contribution of this passage is the actual term used designating the new country – a Dominion. Not a kingdom, not a republic, not an autonomous syndicalist commune (I could not resist a Monty Pythonesque quote), but a Dominion. It can be interpreted as a reference to the vast natural expanse that was "God's dominion" or perhaps a dominion a part of the British empire but the term was useful in establishing a compromise term that would describe the new nation and not perturb either the republic to the south or monarchist Britain. The term Dominion was innovative enough that it was adoped by other commonwealth countries as they carved out their independence from Britain.
Second, from sea-to-sea represented the future hope and vision of a country that, while in 1867 was confined to four provinces in the east, would eventually stretch to fill in the vast tract of land from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, by 1871 it did, with the entry of British Columbia into the federation. Indeed, the only limitation of the expression is that ultimately, the country would reach a third "sea", the Arctic.
Third, from the river to the ends of the earth can be interpreted as the vision of an east-west economy. The river in the Canadian case was the entire Great-Lakes St. Lawrence water system. The west was to be settled with farmers and the produce of those farmers would flow eastward along the river and be shipped to markets around the world and to the ends of the earth. This was not fully realized until the wheat boom era after the 1890s when the west was settled and grain began to flow eastwards along the national water artery. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway was instrumental in establishing this transport corridor that would provide the economic infrastructure driving the Canadian economy. Of course, so was the National Policy tariff which allowed central Canada to produce many of the goods western farmers bought with their income.
Psalm 72:8 provides what I think is probably one of the most important statements in Canadian political and economic history given that its sparse few words provide a summary interpretation of what was to be Canada’s economic development strategy for the first fifty years after Confederation. It was used to frame and justify what is referred to in the economic history of Canada provided in the Rowell-Sirois report as a vision of transcontinental expansion.
It is probably the most cost-effective vision statement ever devised given it was borrowed from a well established source. Indeed it came to be an underlying vision statement for the country during an era devoid of modern marketing, strategic planning and visioning exercises, diverse communities, multiple interest groups and spin-doctors. Things are not so simple today. Can you come up with a poetic and inspiring twenty word phrase that would provide an economic vision for Canada's next fifty years?