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?
See our gallery of other contenders for Canada's national symbol below..
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.
“We still think of Canada in terms of wilderness,” says Huskins. “Whether that's accurate or not, we still think of the Group of Seven paintings and the lakes of British Columbia and the wide open Prairies, so when you think about the beaver, it's certainly situated in the landscape.”
But she also notes that there has been debate over the beaver's merits as a symbol. In 1921, the editor of the magazine 'Rod and Gun' objected to the omission of the beaver from Canada’s arms, but Under-Secretary of State Thomas Mulvey pointed out that the Canadian Merchant Marines had used the beaver in their logo, but they had to stop because people started to call it, “The Rat Line.”
And depending on where you're from in Canada, Huskins says, the beaver might not make sense at all.
“If you look at it in terms of the perspective of Atlantic Canada instead of Central Canada, you might choose the codfish. And there are some aboriginals who might argue it's a negative symbol,” she says. “It's a debated question – some historians argue now that aboriginals were very astute traders and they got good deals for just a few beaver pelts, and others argue in the long term they certainly suffered for becoming involved so deeply in the beaver trade and hunting the beaver almost to extinction.”
David Morrison, director of archeology and history at the Musee de Civilisation Canadiens in Hull, Que., feels the image of the beaver reflects the character of the Canadian people.
“I'm a big fan of the symbol of the beaver because I feel a country gets the animal it deserves,” he says. “A beaver is an unaggressive, hard-working, waterproof, unassuming, wonderful animal and I think it speaks well of Canadians that we chose it,” he says. “And even if the fur trade is long dead and in the ground, I think it still works.”
Morrison points out that most other nations are represented by showy, aggressive and usually predatory animals.
“England has the lion, Russia has the bear, France has the rooster,” he says. “Whereas our humble beaver is much more egalitarian — they build real houses, they store up food for the winter. It often looks like a hairy amoeba, but that's a good thing too.”
“We're not grand. We're the hard-working good guys.”
But when it comes to being a brand for Canada, Steven Wright of tourism marketing company Brand Arcade isn't convinced the beaver is doing a particularly good job.
“Historically, the beaver has a lot of connections with Canada, but unfortunately the rest of the world doesn't know about the history,” says Wright. “And even if they did know, the beaver's history was to be stripped bare and sold to foreigners, which you could argue from an economic standpoint is not an entirely inaccurate depiction of Canadian history.”
“I guess you could argue the beaver is industrious — busy as a beaver is the phrase — but is that accurate to describe Canadians as busy people? I don't really think it fits.”
Wright has thought a lot about Canadian symbols — his company recently developed “Brand Canada” for the Canadian Tourism Commission. And although he admits most of the world thinks of “mountains, moose and mounties” when they think of Canada, he says the beaver is one stereotypical symbol that just doesn't work.
“Depending on the depiction of the beaver, it's either a buck-toothed rat or it's a cuddly, cartoonish character. But I don't know if either of those is doing much for us,” says Wright. “If you look at the notion of country branding, it's got all sort of facets — it's economic, it's investment, it's tourism, it's culture, and I don't know if the image of a beaver stretches as far as we'd like across that whole spectrum.”
“And along the way, if I can put this delicately, pop culture has given a different definition to the word,” he adds.
Indeed, one of the most notable film quotes involving the furry rodent is between beloved Canadian comedian Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley in 'The Naked Gun': “Nice beaver,” says Nielson as Frank Drebin. “Thanks, I've just had it stuffed,” replies Presley as she comes down a ladder, the taxidermied animal in her hands. The euphemism caused “The Beaver,” Canada's second-oldest magazine, to change its name to “Canada's History” in 2010 because its name was confusing visitors to its website and newsletters were getting caught in Internet filters.
But Robert Kozinets, an associate professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business, says he doesn't necessarily see this connotation as a negative.
“I think it's a mixed blessing in a way. It imbues it with a certain appeal it didn't have before, so it allows for all sorts of opportunity in terms of double entendre and innuendo and memorability,” says Kozinets. “I think it works for us probably more than it works against us. And we're known for very good-looking women, which is not a bad thing to be known for.”
Kozinets also adds that the beaver has been extremely successful as an image for at least one Canadian company.
“Roots, the Canadian clothing brand, has really leveraged the beaver logo very successfully,” he says. “It says outdoors, it says woods, it says camps, it says nature, and they've done it well. It has been used successfully as a brand and there is potential to use the symbol further.”
Though he acknowledges that it's not entirely a modern image for Canada, he says that a symbol of the country should be about heritage rather than attempting to make it hip.
“What are we going to symbolize ourselves with? The BlackBerry tablet? The tar sands? Do we really want the CN Tower as our national logo? No, I don't think so,” he says. “The beaver is a family animal, it's protective, there's a lot of positive aspects. And if we're stuck with the beaver, we might as well make the best of it.”
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But are there other options that might be more interesting than a smallish, brown, dam-building creature?
Rapper Kardinal Offishall, a “proud Canadian” and unofficial ambassador for Canada who's travelled the world while on tour, says he wouldn't abandon Canadian stereotypes in favour of a new, more modern symbol.
“I would rather embrace (a stereotype) and make it cool, to show our strength in what some may characterize as silly or dated,” he says. “A Mountie hat with colour camouflage to represent the different cultures and races would be my symbol. Mind you, it would have to be tastefully designed (ahem), but that's my choice.”
Iconic Canadian artist Charles Pachter chose another particularly Canadian animal, the moose, a subject he's featured frequently in his artwork.
“Why the moose? It's awkward, majestic, a survivor in the cold,” says Pachter, “The beaver is a rodent!”
George Stromboulopoulos, Canadian media darling and CBC kingpin, suggests a “fighting moose,” a logo he's actually worked on himself. It's a moose on his hind legs with his front hooves in a boxing position.
“What I love about Canadians, the inner core of us is very strong like a moose,” he says. “We can tackle anything but you don't really see us, and we don't really talk about who we are. We're sort of out there doing our own thing like a moose and then when you travel around the world and someone meets you they're like, 'Oh, you're Canadian!' Like you're this rare thing.”
“But if you run into us, watch out,” he says. “That's what happens when people mess with Canadians, for example, hockey.”
Steven Wright of Brand Arcade favours that most recognizable of Canadian symbols, the maple leaf (“it's recognized around the world, you have scores of people travelling putting the maples leaf on their backpacks because they know they'll be well received”) but says if we do need to choose a national animal, he too would lean towards the moose.
“The antlers of a moose are as individual as a fingerprint,” he says, “And I think that accommodating the individual and accepting the individual is as much a part of Canadian history and the fabric of the country as beaver pelts have ever been.”