The Dumbing-Down of Public Symbols

When I was a younger man, back when Lester Pearson was Prime Minister and Pluto was still a planet, I attended the University of Saskatchewan. It had a very simple coat of arms: three wheat sheaves and an open book whose pages displayed the motto “Deo et Patriae”  — “For God and Country”.

Years later, I taught History at the University of Regina which had an equally noble motto: “As One Who Serves”, words Jesus Christ used to describe himself in the Book of Luke. Still later, I taught at the University of Manitoba whose arms were jam-packed with religious imagery: St John the Evangelist and his eagle, St George’s cross, and a book with a quote in Latin from the Old Testament: “To these children God gave knowledge”.

The universities of western Canada abound in coats of arms with Christian messages. The University of Alberta’s motto is “Quaecumque Vera”, referencing St Paul’s advice to the church at Philippi: “Whatsoever things are true…” Calgary’s crest bears the message, in Gaelic, “I will lift up mine eyes” which any fan of the Book of Psalms could continue — “unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.” God’s first words in the Bible, “Let there be light”, is the motto, in Hebrew, of the University of Victoria.

Readers may be surprised to learn of this flourish of Christianity in the halls of higher education, but that is because today’s universities usually present only watered-down versions of their crest, denuded of Latin (too elitist) and of religion (too exclusive). The U of A’s web site, for example, shows only a shield and a stylized landscape. UVic presents three birds above an empty book, while Manitoba’s largest university gives us a buffalo, a crown, a maple leaf and another book – empty, of course. Under the shield, where a motto should be, is a banner with the inspiring phrase: “Est. 1877”. Truly, words to live by.

And what of my University of Saskatchewan? Well, the wheat sheaves are still there, as is the book. But now the pages are blank. God and country have disappeared.

All of this is the result of deliberate policy to strip religion from the public square in the name of “diversity”. We can see this most clearly in the University of Alberta’s retreat. Before 1999 graduates receiving their diplomas were told to use their degrees “for the glory of God and the honour of their country.” Even as late as 2009 the university admitted students to their degree with the charge “for all who believe to serve your God.” The latest version tells students to “serve our community for the public good”.

These changes came at the behest of Chancellor Doug Stollery, a corporate lawyer, who wished to spare the feelings of those in the audience who profess no religion. He also removed the notion of conveying a blessing on students and the university in his opening remarks. When a student on the General Faculty Council noted that this would make a statement that as an institution the university was not comfortable acknowledging faith, Mr. Stollery, whom no one can accuse of being a terribly deep thinker, was unmoved. He said that one could, after all, join a religious group on campus or attend a class on religion. What was important was “inclusivity” — and apparently one achieves this goal by excluding any reference to faith or a deity.

Mr. Stollery’s views are not unique. All across the country, old values such as God, honour, tradition, or patriotism, are being excised from public ceremony or symbology as being aggressive or divisive. A nation with no common values except the determination that we will not have common values cannot long survive.


One of the my favourite poets is C.P. Cavafy, a gay Greek-Egyptian civil servant of the early 20th century. In this poem he honours the Spartan infantry who in 480 BC made a stand against an overwhelmingly superior Persian invasion force, before a treacherous local guide, Ephialtis, showed the enemy a way to attack the defenders from behind. Cavafy uses that example to praise all those who, in different ways, imitate the Spartans in their daily lives.

Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.
And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.

And I don’t even have a bow tie

My father gave me three excellent pieces of advice: 1. Never trust a man in a ready-made bow tie. A man who cannot concentrate long enough to fasten a bow tie is never going to be a well of nuanced or intriguing conversation. 2. One Vodka Martini is not enough, two is plenty and three is too many. 3. Live your life with passion, or there is no point. You might as well drink three Vodka Martinis with a man sporting clip-on neckwear.

— Sandi Toksvig