Why is the beaver Canada's national symbol? Canadian historian Bonnie Huskins answers

Historians in the News

An industrious, semi-aquatic mammal with excellent engineering skills. A furry, monogamous creature that smacks its tail on the water when frightened. A buck-toothed rodent whose anal sacs contain castoreum, a substance used to make perfume.

And an enduring symbol of our nation?

The lowly beaver is an official symbol of the sovereignty of Canada, having received royal assent in 1975. But its presence on our communal cultural radar is spotty at best, limited to currency (the nickel), camping ailments (beaver fever) and sugary fried bread snacks in the nation's capitol (beaver tails).

So is the beaver still a potent image of what it means to be Canadian? Or are we clearly due for a new and improved national symbol?

Historically, castor canadensis was central to our country's beginnings. Beavers became the wildlife most wanted in the1600s and early 1700s when fur hats became exceedingly au courant in the world of European fashion. Because North America had a massive beaver population to exploit, soon both English and French traders were selling pelts at 20 times their original purchase price from North American aboriginals. This lucrative fur trade was the basis of the North American colonies, and accordingly, the image of the beaver popped up frequently over the years: on the Hudson's Bay Company's coat of arms in 1678, on the armourial bearings of Quebec City and Montreal (in 1678 and 1833 respectively) and on Canada's first stamp in 1851.

Bonnie Huskins, a professor of history at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., gives lectures on the beaver.

“I quite often get my students at the beginning of the course to throw out a few ideas of what they think of when they think Canada, and very few people ever mention the beaver,” she says. “But I try to convince them that we still should think of it as part of the Canadian experience, that it's very important.”

Huskins says that one of the reasons the beaver remains an important Canadian symbol is its link to Canada's natural bounty....

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