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The Senate’s sculptural tribute to Canada’s provinces and territories
September 20, 2019
HOW & WHY

In February 2019, the Senate moved to the Senate of Canada Building, a former train station built in 1912. The Senate is expected to occupy its temporary location for at least 10 years while Parliament’s Centre Block — the Senate’s permanent home — is rehabilitated. 

Although Centre Block is shuttered for rehabilitation work, Canadians can still experience its art and architecture through the Senate’s immersive virtual tour.


“Incredible! It turned out even better than I’d imagined.”

Dominion Sculptor Phil White, Parliament’s official carver and custodian of its 150-year-old sculptural program, couldn’t help but admire the new Senate Chamber after 15 of his carvings representing a year-and-a-half’s work had just been mounted on its walnut-panelled walls.

British Columbia’s provincial shield features the Union Flag and a crown above a depiction of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.

The Rocky Mountains form a backdrop to wheat fields on the Alberta provincial shield.

The provincial shield of Saskatchewan features a lion, symbolizing English royalty, above a field with  three sheaves of wheat.

Manitoba’s shield features a bison and the Cross of St. George, the flag of England.

Three maple leaves and the Cross of St. George decorate Ontario’s shield.

Mr. White’s depictions of the provincial and territorial shields marry traditional design with cutting-edge production methods. He carved the shields partly by hand, partly with the aid of robotics, working with high-density polyurethane foam board instead of wood.

“It’s more practical and cost-effective now to carve in this synthetic material,” Mr. White said. “It’s similar to wood but weathers better and doesn’t shrink or crack or change shape.”

 Once prototypes had been carved roughly a six-month job digitization specialists from Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism helped Mr. White build photogrammetric 3D models of the carvings. Guided by this digital blueprint, a robotic milling machine roughed out duplicate copies. Mr. White and two assistants then refined details and textures by hand.

The final step was the finish. Mr. White gilded each carving by hand, a painstaking process of gluing squares of metallic leaf in place, brushing them smooth then sealing the entire piece in a translucent glaze that gives it a rich aged patina.

The tissue-thin veneer makes the carvings look like they were cast in metal.

“The leaf comes in sheets that are about three millionths of an inch thick,” Mr. White said.

Senator Scott Tannas, Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on the Long Term Vision and Plan, which oversaw the Senate’s move to the old Government Conference Centre, said the final result is remarkable. 

“These heraldic designs are striking, refined and cost-effective at the same time. That’s in the spirit of the original 1912 building and in the spirit of the Senate’s move from Centre Block, he said.

The space’s showstopper is a metre-high gilded sculpture of the Arms of Canada suspended over the dais occupied by the royal thrones and Speaker’s chair.

“There’s absolutely no machine work there,” Mr. White said. “That is 100% hand work – six months of it.”

This is the first official sculptural representation of the new Arms of Canada.

 “All the 3D versions of the Arms of Canada on the Hill depict either the 1921 or 1957 version,” Mr. White said. “This is the current one, approved by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994.”

Mr. White hopes his carvings will become part of the permanent fabric of the building and feature in the chamber when the building reverts to its previous role as host to international conferences and first ministers’ meetings.

“These pieces are surprisingly robust. I don’t see why they couldn’t last hundreds of years.”

 

An earlier version of this article was published on October 30, 2018.

This article is part of a series about the Senate of Canada’s move.

Dominion Sculptor Phil White’s metre-high carving of the current version of the Arms of Canada, approved by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994, includes a circlet bearing the motto of the Order of Canada.

Fleurs-de-lys on Quebec’s shield evoke the province’s beginnings as a French royal colony. An English lion and Canadian maple leaves represent Quebec’s more recent history.

The shield of New Brunswick features an English lion above a galleon that evokes the province’s historic connection to the sea.

Prince Edward Island’s shield features an oak tree and three saplings, representing the province’s three counties, below an English lion.

Nova Scotia’s coat of arms, granted in 1625, is Canada’s oldest. The shield features the Cross of St. Andrew and, at its centre, the shield of the Royal Arms of Scotland.

English lions, Scottish unicorns and the Cross of St. George form the elements of the shield of Newfoundland and Labrador.

 

The lower part of Yukon’s shield represents the territory’s mountains. Gold disks evoke its mineral wealth and its founding during the Klondike Gold Rush. The medallion at the top contains a heraldic pattern called a vair that represents the fur trade’s importance to the territory’s economy.

The shield of the Northwest Territories features a wavy diagonal line representing the tree line, a horizontal one representing the Northwest Passage and a white fox and gold bars symbolizing the North’s fur and mineral wealth respectively.

The shield of Nunavut depicts the midnight sun and the North Star above a qulliq, a traditional Inuit oil lamp, and an inuksuk, a stone navigational marker.