Animals have long been utilized as cultural symbols by people to represent countries and their citizens. (A very long time indeed! The Lion has been England’s national animal since the 12th century. Warriors who served under Richard I or ‘Richard the Lionheart’ were nicknamed lions). These symbols are intended to bring about a sense of national community, which can inspire feelings of unity and patriotism. Due to nationalistic undertones, generally the animals chosen are often majestic, sometimes even mythical, which is why our buck-toothed, semi-aquatic rodent raises questions every now and then. So why exactly did Canada pick the beaver as its national symbol?
Because of the fur trade.
Okay, not really. (Me? Write a short post? Ha!)
But the fur trade was definitely a significant factor in the selection of the beaver as an official emblem of Canada. Without the beaver, Canada as we know it, would not exist. Everything changed the moment when early French explorers realized, “Well, they don’t have any gold, but damn! Those rodents would make good looking hats.” Beginning in the 16th century, the fur trade was the backbone of the colonial economy and a major international industry for roughly 300 years. The fur trade was instrumental in the development of the country that would become Canada. Those involved, be it explorers, voyageurs, or coureur des bois, pushed further and further into the North American interior to expand the trade—as well as France’s (and eventually Britain’s) claim over the land. At the heart of the fur trade was the beaver, whose pelts were used to make everything from wool felt hats to robes to winter coats. The use of the beaver as a symbol stems back to the main players of the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company, who put the animal on their coat of arms in 1621.
A fur trader in Fort Chipewyan, Northwest Territories (c. 1890s).
Source: Library and Archives Canada.
Overtime, the image of the beaver was used in other coat of arms (ex: Montreal), by other companies (ex: Canadian Pacific Railway Company), and it appeared on the first Canadian postage stamp, the “Three Penny Beaver” of 1851.
Given the history of companies and governments using the image of the beaver for representative and monetary purposes, as well as the fact that the beaver actually lives in every province, it is not hard to see why the beaver was given royal assent on March 24, 1975—thereby making them Canada’s official national animal. However, every now and then the debate over whether or not Canada needs a new animal gets renewed.
Most recently in 2011, Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton proposed that the polar bear should become Canada’s new national animal because the beaver is a “19th century has-been,” a “dentally defective rat,” and “toothy tyrant” that wreaks havoc on the environment.
Yes, this was an actual discussion in the Canadian Senate.
Turns out Eaton’s personal hatred of beavers is due to the fact that despite being evicted many times Georgian Bay beavers still think that the main dock near her cottage is a swell place to live. Various farming groups agreed with her sentiments given that sometimes beaver dams can result in the flooding of farmlands. However, the Canadian public overwhelmingly rejected her proposal.
You mad, bro?
Now, I have nothing against polar bears and agree with Eaton’s statements about them being “majestic and splendid,” it’s just that someone else got to them first. Also whenever people make fun of the Canadian beaver, I always think the same thing…
When was the last time you built a 6ft house with your teeth?
Beavers are bad ass.
Fun Facts about the Beaver
Although the beavers we are used to are called the North American beaver, their scientific name is Castor Canadensis.
The only reason the beaver is still around today is because of an extensive conservation effort over the course of the 20th century. By the time the fur trade industry collapsed in the middle of the 19th century, the beaver was close to becoming extinct.
Their front teeth stick out in front of their lips so that they can cut and chew wood underwater without getting water in their mouth.
A beaver’s teeth never stop growing and chewing on trees helps to keep the teeth from getting too long.
The beaver’s tail functions like a boat rudder as it helps them steer as they move logs to their dam. Their tails also help with balancing on land when carrying heavy branches.
What do you think should be Canada’s national animal?
“Animal Facts, Beaver,” Canadian Geographic. Accessed from: http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/kids/animal-facts/beaver.asp
Blackhouse, Frances, “Rethinking the Beaver,” Canadian Geographic. Accessed from: http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/dec12/beaver.asp
Garai, Jana. The Book of Symbols. New York: Simon & Schuster, (1973).
“Nicole Eaton, Canadian Senator, New National Symbol Should Be A Polar Bear,” The Canadian Press, Huffington Post Canada, Oct 27, 2011. Accessed from: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/10/27/nicole-eaton-senator-national-symbol_n_1062637.html
“The beaver – Official Symbols of Canada” Canadian Heritage, Government of Canada. (Modified 2016). Accessed from: http://canada.pch.gc.ca/eng/1444070816842