Beaver be dammed -

Beaver be dammed

A proposal to replace the beaver with the polar bear as our national emblem causes fur to fly

Beaver be dammed

Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Stephen Gregory

Sen. Nicole Eaton had no idea when she stood up in the Red Chamber last week to propose the polar bear replace the beaver as Canada’s national emblem that she was about to mine a national nerve.

And what a geyser she hit. Within hours of her statement, inflamed blog posts and “shocked and appalled” letters to the editor were flowing from the inhabitants of a nation built on lust for the once-fashionable, highly lucrative beaver pelts, one so great the Hudson’s Bay Company adorned its coat of arms with four of the rodents in 1678.

Since then, Castor canadensis has become enmeshed in the mercantile fabric of the country, as apparent in the swift reaction from Michael Budman and Don Green, co-founders of clothing company Roots, which has had a beaver on its logo since 1973, two years before the animal received official emblem status from the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau. They immediately launched a “Save the Beaver” petition online, collecting more than 6,000 signatures by early this week. The senator’s remarks also triggered response from foes of the aquatic rodent, rallying a group of 100 Ottawa-area farmers who’ve seen trees destroyed and land flooded by a surging beaver population.

Sen. Eaton, who was appointed by the Conservative government in 2008, has seen her own flood—of emails, she tells Maclean’s in an interview from her Ottawa office. “I thought a few thoughtful people would come up and say ‘Oh Nicky, you should put in a private member’s bill,’ ” she says with a laugh. “I did not expect the reaction.” She likens the kerfuffle to the outrage generated by the new Canadian flag design introduced in 1964. “People were going to throw themselves in front of a car if the Union Jack was replaced. Look at it today.” Most of the reaction has been negative, concedes Eaton, a member of the family that once owned Hudson’s Bay Co. rival Eaton’s: “They say that I’m a crackpot, or publicity seeking or ‘How dare she!’ ”

Roots’s Budman, for one, is bewildered that anyone would want to tamper with the beaver. “As Joe expressed so memorably in Molson’s ‘I Am Canadian’ rant in 2000, ‘The beaver is a truly proud and noble animal,’ ” he says, noting children love clothing with the animal on it. It’s a huge seller in Asia, he says: “Asians love Canada, the idea of Canada, and the beaver because it’s an industrious, hard-working animal.” Budman is perplexed anyone would want to “negate” the beaver. “It seems incredible to us. Doesn’t she have enough to do?” he asks of Sen. Eaton.

Historians, too, express surprise that anyone would want to muck with the symbol. “If you wanted an animal on your great seal, the beaver makes a lot of sense—a lot more sense than the polar bear,” says Alan Axelrod, whose upcoming book A Savage Empire: Trappers, Traders, Tribes, and the Wars that Made America provides an examination of the rodent’s pivotal role as a trade commodity that created the unique North American civilization historians call “the middle ground.”

“It’s not an animal that is casually associated with Canada,” says Axelrod, an American based in Atlanta, Ga. “There are real historical connections—cultural connections, very positive connections. This animal was the reason for native Americans and Euro-Americans to have anything to do with one another. If anybody in the 16th, 17th or 18th century ran into a polar bear, they’d run the other way; they’re not going to build an industry on it.” But, as Axelrod writes, some associations were negative: beaver pelts may have “launched a civilization,” but also summoned “the dark side of that civilization in the multifarious guises of greed, cruelty, ecological devastation and revolutionary warfare.”

And it’s precisely that colonial past Eaton wants to shed, she says, observing that because beaver pelts were exported to France and England without any value added, “They were the ones that made the money, not us. It’s a typical 19th-century story.”

The industrious, monogamous beaver, or “dentally defective rat,” as Eaton prefers to call the mammal, is yesterday’s rodent, she claims: “They’re part of our colonial past, just as ‘je me souviens’ is part of our colonial past,” she says, referring to Quebec’s motto, whose definition was actually recast in the late 1970s. Sen. Eaton admits “toothy tyrants” are part of her present, too: they’re a nuisance at her Georgian Bay cottage, where a beaver and his family take up residence under the main dock every summer. She says: “We clean it out every year and every year we clean it out again.”

Now she’d like a national image renovation for the 21st century, which she says belongs to the polygamous, isolated polar bear: “It’s the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore and Canada’s most majestic and splendid mammal, holding reign over the Arctic for thousands of years.” Her respect for the creature was stoked during her visit to the Arctic two years ago, she says. “I thought, what a mighty mammal—how adaptable they’ve been to the climate, to making the most of it. They dominate our northern landscape of cold and ice.”

Though the animal is represented in Canadian iconography on the side of the two-dollar coin, and in the Northwest Territories government flag and on licence plates, Eaton wants to see it gain greater prominence, in tandem with the Harper government’s emphasis on northern sovereignty: “The focus is going to be more and more on the North if the Northwest Passage opens,” she says.

She’s less interested in the animal’s growing fashionability as a symbol of global warming, one that stems from the threat of possible extinction within the next century. Coca-Cola has used animated polar bears in its advertising since 1993; last month the furry white creatures were named “one of the greatest advertising mascots” of all time. The company just tag teamed with the World Wildlife Foundation to promote climate change and polar bear conservation awareness. It’s not alone: the Tuscon, Ariz.-based Center of Biological Diversity announced its “eco-friendly” condom packaging featuring polar bears—along with five other endangered species.

Such concerns are “for the Al Gores of the world,” Eaton says, preferring to speak of Canada’s record of polar bear management using quotas and tags: “Some of those bear populations are growing and we’re managing very well,” she says, adding: “Perhaps it would bring attention to the bear if it became one of the animals on our shield or the animal on our shield.” She even gives a shout-out to Roots: “They should put a polar bear on one of their sweatshirts.”

The animal is a far more stately symbol than the beaver, Eaton says, one that sends a message that we will defend the true North strong and free: “If you think of the Prime Minister, there’s a strong image he makes of the polar bear being a strong navigator.”

Some scientists and public-policy analysts, however, view the beaver as the better navigational model. William Shotyk, a geochemist and professor at the University of Alberta, has endured pesky beaver encroachment on a project replanting thousands of trees in Ontario over the years. But it hasn’t diminished his respect for the herbivores, which he praises as intelligent, sensitive, resourceful and industrious. “The whole discussion isn’t about a hairy little animal versus a big bear in the Arctic,” Shotyk says. “It’s much more than that; it’s what the beaver represents. And it’s the only animal that completely modifies its environment for its own purposes. When beavers build a dam they’re accessing food supply so they don’t have to get out of the water. And they don’t hurt other animals.”

That makes them a perfect symbol for a progressive nation, he contends. “In many ways, they’re what I like to think Canadians are like.” He calls the animal, which faced extinction in the 19th century, “our best environmental good-news story. You give nature a chance and it will come back, provided you don’t destroy it.” In this regard, Grey Owl, the First Nation identity taken on by British author and wilderness authority Archibald Belaney, who wrote passionately about the beaver, is a must-read for every Canadian, he says.

Paul Kershaw, a public policy professor at the University of British Columbia, welcomes the beaver-polar bear debate. He sees carefully engineered beaver dams, which provide security from predators like bears, as models for human community-building, so much so he recently began using the directive “Think like a beaver” in his writing. “What happens when a leak springs [in a dam]?” he asks. “Individual beavers come and fix the leak because they know that as a community they all depend on it for their standard of living.”

“And that is such a wonderful representation of what Canada has had such a long history of doing—at least until the 1970s,” Kershaw says, noting the major “policy beavers” in the nation’s history are parents of baby boomers who saw the advent of old age security, the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Medical Care Act in the 1950s.

The nation has continued to focus on making sure markets expand through free trade and that our banks are secure, he says, but has done very little new building or adapting on the social policy side: “That means that those who have come of age after the 1970s are struggling because we haven’t put in place new supports for the different reality.”

Kershaw likens the Canadian social safety net to a national beaver dam. “Rather than get rid of the beaver as our national symbol, we have to reclaim ‘our beaver logic,’ ” he says. “We have to think like a beaver again; that’s what’s going to make it work for all generations, not just those who came of age in the 1970s, benefiting from all that had been built up before.” For her part, Eaton says she’s done with the beaver debate: “I’m going on to my next obsession, which is U.S. charities coming up here and involving themselves in Canadian policy.”


Beaver be dammed

  1. Isn’t the polar bear the national emblem of Greenland? A country we squabble with over little arctic islands?

    • I’d heard it was Russia.

  2. The Bear is Russia’s symbol, regardless of colour. They will sue us for design patent infringement.

  3. OK. Greenland will sue us then.

  4. Polar Bears are definitely more aggressive than beavers, and perhaps that makes them a poor choice as a Canadian symbol. After all, we are perceived as easy-going by other nations is that really a bad thing?

    • Yes, it is a bad thing.

      •  Easy-going yes, but we’re also characterized as people you don’t wanna mess with, like the mighty beaver.  I for instance, am pretty easy-going, but there’s no way I’m gonna let it slide that you think Canada being relaxed yet industrious is bad for our image.  Besides polar bears are goin extinct, I’m not sure that’s what we’re looking for in branding for Canada.

        I am beaver.

        • Maybe we should stick a Senator up as a national symbol.  (I’m kidding … )  You know, Thomas, I bet almost no one would worry if THEY went extinct.

          But then we’d be stuck with a Harper oligarchy … and the soul of Canada would be destroyed.

  5. Surely we have more pressing matters to deal with than a make work project that will have zero effect on the countries economy, security or government excesses. What a colossal waste of time.
    BJ in Port Moody

  6. Hudson’s Bay most-likely paid …oops, ‘lobbied’ the beaver as the national animal.  Perhaps Coca Cola is now paying… bah ‘lobbying’ the government just in time for their new can to hit fridges and shops across the country.  Just pick a damned Canadian Goose since I think Canada is the only country to have geese and not eat them.  Or would that be a conflict of interest with the “Northern Reflections” clothing chain.  Heck, are they still in business anyways?  Cheers,  Go geese!

  7. Sounds like she just doesn’t like beavers since they disrupt her precious dock. Who was there first -her or the beavers? She’s encroaching on their territory.

    • Yep.. and she’s probably  tired of the same old beaver/dock jokes being told around the campfires all summer long. So not cool for her to use public time and energy in an effort to make her summer social scene less tedious. Long live the Beaver!! 

  8. If I were to draw a caricature of a beaver I would use the Senator’s face…it does resemble the Canada beaver.

  9. ‘The animal is a far more stately symbol than the beaver, Eaton says, one that sends a message that we will defend the true North strong and free: “If you think of the Prime Minister, there’s a strong image he makes of the polar bear being a strong navigator.”’
    Wait, what? Stephen Harper reminds her of a polar bear, therefore we should make the polar bear our national symbol? Am I reading that right? If so… Conservative ‘PMSH worship’ has reached a creepy new level. Somebody, please tell me I’m reading that wrong.

    • I weep for the slow demise of polar bears. I won’t being doing the same for Our Glorious Leader when his time comes.

      • And neither will he for you.

        • Good. I don’t really care.

        • Steve doesn’t know who you or I are, Klem.  And given his track record, I don’t think he cares.  Unless one of us is a large-time Conservative bag-filler .,. THEN he’d care … right to the edge of his wallet.

  10. Hmm.  At first I thought she was an isolated crackpot.  After reading her statements, it feels more like a Harper trial balloon.  I knew he hated Trudeau, but this obsession of his to destroy everything Trudeau ever did is getting silly.

  11. The BEAVER is alive and well in every Province in Canada.
    It promotes nationalism, toughness, persistence and accommodation with other animals.
    It has always been ideal as a symbol of Canada. Leave it alone. She is one of these people like the National Anthem revisionists who cant stand tradition and history, something that all Canadians are proud of. Go back to sleep in the Senate.
    Why not deal with real issues like the horrendous situations on Native Reserves in Canada, water and housing   troubles, financial mismanagement, obscene salaries for some chiefs while the others starve, deaths by gunfire to both adults and kids like the Manitoba story today. Reserves are a disgrace and shame to Canada. People live in third world conditions and nobody cares.
    These are REAL issues that the Senate should focus on if they had any intelligence.

    • umm theses natives choose to live there we didn`t force them to, they can go get REAL jobs like the rest of us and pay taxes like the hole entire world and live fine lives or better, The garbage about them being here first is getting old, Europe had land taken and lost since be for written history no one cries over there, and then theres the french in Canada what they shoudn`t pay taxes ither and get special privilges?? come on man grow up life is hard for every one you have to help your self not count on public hand outs and “THE EASY WAY“
      The key point of this is these people choose to live this way there is no law saying the can`t get a better job or cant move out of there crappy reserve that they choose to live in again they choose, no one put a gun to them and said you stay here and live in SHIT, DONT get a job and suffer,… please maybe im wrong but i invite you to point it out… if you can

  12. That’s it. Let’s dump the beaver and adopt an animal that will be extinct in the near future. Is this saying something about the future of Canada too?

    • Huh? Polar bears will be extinct in the near future? Surely you don’t really believe that, that’s pure David Suzuki pessimism.

  13. JMHO but I think it is great how people rally when someone suggests tinkering with our traditions.
    Beavers are not exactly a push-over, lol!!
    Beaver attack!
    Broadcast Date: Dec. 5, 1997
    Penn Powell has lived all his life in the woods, and has been attacked by “pretty near every animal in the bush” … but when Canada’s national symbol rounds on him on a dark and stormy night, the result is both hilarious and painful.

  14. In the words of the Arrogant Worms: “The Beaver is the only animal that gives a dam”

    “a rodent who’s sole redeeming quality is that it will occaisionally stop to smack its tail to warn its friends before it runs away.”  I believe that is from an Eric Nicol miniplay.

    Don’t mess with our rodent Senator! He’s a rodent but he is OUR rodent!

    • Lol!!!   Thanks for that – saw them this summer at the Vancouver Canada Day celebrations.
      The US is the eagle, Russia is the bear,
      Australia is the kangaroo, cause they’re kind of weird down there.
      Yeah, India is the tiger, that stands so proud and tall,
      But Canada is the greatest of them all.

      We are the beaver, we’re furry and we’re free
      Yeah, we are the beaver, we got two big front teeth
      Yeah, we are the beaver, we can chew right through small trees
      We are the beaver, we are the beaver, we are the beaver.

      You might think a rodent is a pretty lame choice
      For a national animal, but don’t you listen to that voice.
      No, cause all them birds and preditors, just take from the land
      But the beaver, always gives a dam.

  15. Since the untimely death of poor Timothy, the Eaton family track-record has been a total disaster for both their investors and Canadians in general. I understand why.

  16. I like to mock my Conservative voting friend by saying the only reason he wants the Polar bear as our national mascot is because he wants an animal in his own image; white, hairy, and overweight.

    Kidding aside, another reason the beaver represents us better, if we really need another reason, when beavers build a dam, wildlife from all classes gather around to drink and live in the pond. It may be said that beavers build dams for their own safety and food supply, but it invariably becomes an essentially ecological infrastructure.

  17. “If you think of the Prime Minister, there’s a strong image he makes of the polar bear…”
    Don’t male polar bears eat their young when stressed… has someone told Jason Kenney?

  18. Ok just so i can make it clear Polar Bear is the emblem of Antarctica and penguin for Greenland

    • You’re joking, right?

  19. Lets just kick the Queen off our coins and put the Polar Bear on.  The beaver on one side and the Polar bear on the other.  The beaver will be tales (for obvious reasons) and the polar bear heads.  Flip the coin and call it a day.

  20. changing it to polar bear is just one of the dumbest things I’ve heard. I mean I like polar bears too, but c’mon, Canada=the beaver. Beavers are awesome!

  21. The only senators that are worse than the absentee ones are the ones that come up with useless diversions like this. They are worse because this junk is not only useless, but also distracting. Senator Eaton should have just stayed home.

  22. We have more important issues to deal with right now and always will.

  23. The statments the Senator makes are crazy. Does she not know that her family made their money in retail? What is she talking about exporting the benefits to europe her family made billions on selling stuff retail? Furthermore, what does she think our natural resource business is all about? Get with it. we have been exporting our raw materials for centuries and its been feeding families!

  24. I can’t see the Polar Bear as it only represents about 10 % of Canada. The Beaver is ubiquitis

  25. How does the Polar Bear represent P.E.I. or any populace southern area?

    • Good point. Polar Bear is Greenland’s National Symbol, it (probably) covers the whole range of Greenland, and it’s unCanadian to steal other peoples’ emblems.

      China has the Dragon, Russia the Bear, Greeland the Polar Bear, The U.S. the Bald Eagle, England the Lion (or is it the Bulldog? I don’t imagine England ever had a surplus of lions).

      Long live the humble, industrious Beaver. It suits us.

      • Maybe we should have the crow? :)

  26. Polar Bears make GREAT cottage rugs …

    Given the frantic wish to take control of the Senate of Canada by the Harperites, do they really have so little to do as this issue shows?

    Here we have unemployment problems, regional challenges, climate changes, economic woes and the Senator comes up with this nonsense as the best her Conservative high dome can wrestle with?  Oy!

    With a focus like this, no wonder Eatons went bust.

  27. The polar bear will not survive climate change….compliments at least in part to Harper.  The beaver will survive. 

  28. I have just one comment that every canadian should go to UTUBE and view “We are the Beaver” or “Canada’s Really Big” by the Arragant Worms.  

  29. the beaver is a worker / engineer and  a architected, the bear well it eats sleeps and poops thats  all Beaver alot smarter then a dumb bear

  30. “When beavers build a dam they’re accessing food supply so they don’t have to get out of the water. And they don’t hurt other animals.”

    I saw a very sad picture in a National Geographic profile on polar bears. Apparently, male bears commonly prey on polar bear cubs, stalking them and eating them, if they can get past the mothers.

    Now, I know you can’t blame them, animals being animals, but since we’re talking symbols here, I don’t think of a polar bear as “Canada’s most majestic and splendid mammal” anymore–I see it with a bloody head stuck in the entrails of a baby bear. I’d rather have the beaver.

  31. Years ago in Edmonton, the Mayor removed the Beaver pelt from the city coat of arms and re-named Aldermen, Councillors. The world did not changed. How about the Norway rat, I’m sure the Norwegians wouldn’t mind and it is more prevelant than the Beaver, although not present in Alberta. 

  32. I have no problem with the bear as symbol but I find it of the highest irony that Canada does absolutely nothing to fight global warming and actually contributes more than it’s fair share to global warming via the Tar Sands and via its indifference to the level of its CO2 emissions and yet wants to make the animal that will become extinct because of global warming its national symbol.  Should the Polar Bear become our national symbol will we fight global warming to try and save the bear?  I’m not going to hold my breath.

  33. the polar bear is not on the NWT flag! – nice researching, Anne Kingston!

    go Beaver go

  34. So some writer says “The beaver reflects ‘the dark side of civilization-greed, cruelty and revolutionary war’.” and I am such an idiot that I would just believe this imposition of said writer’s determination re the beaver and say to myself, “That dang Beaver!!!! Let’s sink him!!!”
    I am so old now. So tired of other people’s drivel.

  35. The article mentions that the beaver was passed as our national symbol during the Trudeau years but it is interesting to note that it was passed by a private member’s bill sponsored by Sean O’Sullivan, a Conservative MP from Stoney Creek, Ontario and a protege of Diefenbaker. At that time, he was Canada’s youngest ever elected MP.