The Story of the Snowflake

The now familiar snowflake design of the Order of Canada insignia has come to gain a certain patina and character with the passage of nearly 50 years. Over this time its nature as a pre-eminent symbol of outstanding achievement has only been enhanced by the more than 7 000 Canadians appointed to the Order since 1967.

How a snowflake came to be adopted as the overall symbol of the Order has much to do with our northern climate and the unique characteristics of frozen precipitation. Early on in the project to establish the Order of Canada, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (C.C., 1968) enlisted the assistance of his Parliamentary secretary, John R. Matheson (O.C., 1993). A keen student of heraldry, Matheson had played a central role in the adoption of a new national flag in 1965. Along with former Governor General Vincent Massey (C.C., 1967), Esmond Butler (O.C., 1986) and Michael Pitfield (O.C., 2012), Matheson worked on the mechanics of establishing a national honour. For design advice, Pearson secretly enlisted the artistic skills of Bruce Beatty (C.M., 1990), a graphic designer and RCAF flight sergeant.

The idea for a snowflake came almost simultaneously from two separate sources. On November 25, 1966, while walking down Elgin Street in Ottawa on a snowy afternoon, Beatty was struck by the idea of a snowflake as the shape the insignia should take. Matheson, too, had been working on the symbolism of the soon-to-be-created honour. He was chatting with External Affairs diplomat John Halstead (C.M., 1996), who suggested a snowflake in place of the northern star Matheson was keen on using. Matheson was immediately enthralled with the concept and turned to the Library of Parliament for assistance. Researchers obtained a copy of Ukichiro Nakaya’s Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial, which contains an extensive study of all snow crystals. From this catalogue of snowflakes, diagram P1B was chosen as the shape of the insignia. Beatty then set to work transforming a photo taken through a microscope into a formal design.

The symbolism of the snowflake was ideal. It represented the Canadian climate and strength as a nation. Furthermore, like every snowflake, each recipient of the Order was considered unique. Prior to Christmas 1966, Beatty submitted three separate designs to Pearson for consideration. Governor General Georges Vanier was also consulted and, on March 21, 1967, Her Majesty The Queen approved the design.

The symbolism of the snowflake was ideal. It represented the Canadian climate and strength as a nation. Furthermore, like every snowflake, each recipient of the Order was considered unique.

Like all other national honours established since 1967, the Order’s insignia includes two other familiar elements: the Royal Crown, symbolizing the Queen of Canada as the fount of all honours, and the Maple Leaf, a universally recognized symbol of Canada since before Confederation.

While there was much discussion about what shape the Order should take, one design element which elicited precious little debate was the ribbon. Pearson directed that its colours and proportions be taken from the Maple Leaf flag. The motto of the Order, DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM, (“They desire a better country”) was chosen by Matheson, following a speech on international affairs given by the Reverend Herbert O’Driscoll. The phrase, taken from the Old Testament’s Hebrews 11:16, coupled with the other symbolic elements, have come to embody a truly iconic symbol of Canada’s identity and the exemplary achievements of its people.

Originally the insignia were made by the Crown Jewellers Garrard & Co., in London. Around the same time that the Constitution was patriated in1982, it was decided to have the insignia of the Order crafted in Canada. Over the following three decades a variety of Canadian firms produced the insignia. Following a painstaking development process, the Royal Canadian Mint commenced production on the honour, blending the latest in technological advances with craftsmanship of the highest order.

Dr. Christopher McCreery, M.V.O.
from: The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History
and Development
(University of Toronto Press)