Heraldry began as an emblematic form of individual identification, first appearing in 12th-century Europe when knights began painting their shields to identify themselves while wearing full armour. These early coats of arms, while generally very simple, clearly showed the person's identity.
Gradually, monarchs took control of the official granting and use of coats of arms, which allowed them to honour people and groups. Coats of arms thus developed as grants of honour received from a sovereign exercising his or her personal prerogative. Heralds — court officials who also acted as diplomats — were responsible for keeping track of heraldry within a monarch's jurisdiction and started recording people's coats of arms.
Heraldry in the European tradition came to Canada with the voyages of the French and English explorers in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Canada is also fortunate in possessing two great symbolic traditions, those of its native peoples and those brought by immigrants from all over the world.
Until heraldry was patriated to Canada, Canadians who wished to acquire arms from a lawfully established authority under the Crown were obliged to apply to one of Her Majesty's two heraldic offices in the United Kingdom: the College of Arms in London or the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh.
In 1947, the Letters Patent defining the authority of the Governor General expressly authorized the Governor General to exercise all the prerogatives, powers and authorities that His Majesty George VI held as King of Canada.
Clearly, it was time to create an indigenous Canadian mechanism for granting arms to Canadians and for promoting Canadian heraldic symbols. On June 4, 1988, then Governor General Jeanne Sauvé authorized the creation of the Canadian Heraldic Authority. This was made possible by new Letters Patent, signed by Her Majesty on the advice of Her Canadian Privy Council, which authorized and empowered "the Governor General of Canada to exercise or provide for the exercise of all powers and authorities lawfully belonging to Us as Queen of Canada in respect of the granting of armorial bearings in Canada". With these brief historic notes, Canada became the first Commonwealth country to patriate the practice of this ancient authority.