Provider of fur, food and floods, the beaver is a Canadian symbol
It's on our money and our store logos, and it has successfully invaded South America
As many Canadians take to beaches and cottages for an August long weekend, let's take a moment to consider one of our national symbols that lives out there year-round.
The beaver is an emblem we're reminded of every time we fish a nickel out of our pockets, walk past a Roots Canada store, stop to look at the Hudson's Bay Company or Bank of Montreal coat of arms and sign up our young kids to be Beaver Scouts.
Wikipedia defines the toothy tyrant as "a primarily nocturnal, large, semiaquatic rodent." But to Canadians this furry, flat-tailed friend is much, much more.
Here are some highlights of the beaver's (mostly) illustrious history:
1500s –1800s: The fur trade
Would Canada be the same without the fur trade?
Shortly after Jacques Cartier arrived in Canada in 1534, the fur trade — which relied heavily on beaver pelts — established itself as a main economic motivator for keeping Europeans on the continent.
Coureurs de bois — independent entrepreneurial woodsmen whose fur-trading activities soon became outlawed through a licensing system that gave birth to voyageurs — canoed and portaged their way further inland, seeking new Indigenous groups to trade with.
The Hudson's Bay Company — which features four beavers on the shield of its coat of arms — was established in 1670 by French coureurs Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers.
Angry, Radisson and des Groseilliers went to Boston in the early 1660s and struck up a relationship with a group of businessmen. Working in co-operation with Britain, they travelled to Hudson Bay to find a treasure trove of beavers.
The investors were granted a royal charter on May 2, 1670, giving them — under the name Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay — the exclusive trading rights in Hudson Bay.
According to the Canadian government, the beaver nearly became extinct as a consequence of the fur trade: "There were an estimated six million beavers in Canada before the start of the fur trade. During its peak, 100,000 pelts were being shipped to Europe each year; the Canadian beaver was in danger of being wiped out. Luckily, [in the mid-19th century], Europeans took a liking to silk hats and the demand for beaver pelts all but disappeared."
17th century: Vatican OK's beaver as Lent food
When the Europeans landed in North America, they brought Catholicism with them, converting some Indigenous people and forcing others to obey the church.
When Lent rolled around, though, the people in the New World had a problem. The Indigenous peoples were accustomed to eating beaver meat and wondered whether they'd be able to continue doing so during Lent, when meat is typically disallowed.
"So in the 17th century," wrote Scientific American in 2013, "the Bishop of Quebec approached his superiors in the church and asked whether his flock would be permitted to eat beaver meat on Fridays during Lent, despite the fact that meat-eating was forbidden. Since the semi-aquatic rodent was a skilled swimmer, the church declared that the beaver was a fish."
However, Frances Backhouse, who wrote 2015's Once They Were Hats: In Search Of the Mighty Beaver, says the church technically only allowed for the tail — which was scaly, like a fish — to be eaten. "The body flesh, however, was still considered mammal meat and therefore forbidden," Backhouse wrote.
1851: The first postage stamp
The beaver made its appearance as a Canadian symbol in 1851, on the United Province of Canada's first postage stamp.
Mail services in Canada were established in 1755, when Benjamin Franklin, then British North America's deputy postmaster general, opened the colony's first post office in Halifax. In 1851, responsibility for Canada's postal services was transferred to the colony, necessitating a new stamp.
According to Canada Post: "The original Three Pence Beaver was based on a sketch by Sir Sandford Fleming. While featuring a beaver on Canada's first postage stamp seems natural and apt, it was a significant departure from contemporary designs which featured the reigning monarch, a statesman, geometric design or coat of arms. As postal historian Thomas A. Hillman notes, the Three Pence Beaver is one of the world's earliest examples of a pictorial stamp, and until 1939, the only one featuring a rodent."
1921: Not good enough for the coat of arms...
Between the time of the Three Pence Beaver to the creation of the Canadian coat of arms in 1921, the beaver fell out of favour in Canada.
It was cast aside as an option for Canada's coat of arms. Thomas Mulvey, Canada's undersecretary of state and a member of the coat-of-arms design committee, said, "It was decided that as a member of the rat family, a beaver was not appropriate."
1937: …But good enough for a coin
The beaver graced its first nickel in 1937 and has remained there more or less steadfastly. It was replaced from 1943 to 1945 with a Second World War victory emblem, and has been swapped out for special-edition coins now and then.
The side bearing the beaver — the tail of the coin — was designed by British coinage artist George Kruger Gray, while the side featuring King George VI — the head — was designed by fellow Brit Thomas Humphrey Paget.
The Canadian Mint writes: "The beaver has a long history in Canada as both commodity and cultural icon. The Hurons honoured the beaver hundreds of years ago as the totem of their tribe. Native peoples used the beaver emblem to sign treaties with the first colonists. Since then the beaver has appeared in the heraldic bearings of Quebec City and Montreal and even marked Canada's first postage stamp."
1975: The year of the beaver
The beaver was made an official national symbol on March 24, 1975 by a private member's bill introduced in the House of Commons by Sean O'Sullivan and seconded by Joe Clark.
"The purpose of this bill is to recognize the beaver as one of the symbols of Canada's sovereignty. The importance of the beaver to the discoveries, explorations and settlements first made in Canada is, of course, basic to our history," they argued.
Rumour has it the bill was hastily introduced after word got out that New York state was about to make the beaver its state animal. (It did so in August 1975.)
"The only reason the beaver eventually gained official standing as Canada's national animal may have been that Americans were threatening to usurp the emblem," wrote Frances Backhouse in 2015's Once They Were Hats: In Search Of the Mighty Beaver.
"Apparently no Canadians had noticed when Oregon, long known as the Beaver State because of its fur-trade history, adopted the beaver as a state mascot in 1969. When New York announced plans to do the same a few years later, Canada finally asserted its own claim."
Biggest beaver dam
A massive beaver dam — thought to have been under construction since the 1970s — was discovered in Alberta's Wood Buffalo National Park in 2007. "Spotted by a researcher looking at satellite images for beaver dams, this structure existed in the park without anyone's knowledge for many years," Parks Canada writes on its website.
In 1946, 25 beaver pairs were exported to Tierra del Fuego, in the Patagonian region shared by Chile and Argentina, to help create a fur-trading industry.
Since then, they've been exceptionally busy: There are now said to be between 150,000 and 200,000 beavers — all descendants from the first 25 pairs — living in Tierra del Fuego. They outnumber the people who live in this southernmost province of South America.
With no natural predators and no humans hunting them, these bucktoothed creatures have been gnawing their way through massive swaths of forested areas, causing flooding, killing thousands of trees and destroying the habitats of other Patagonian species. Some media have reported that they're moving north, having swum across the Strait of Magellan and entered new forested areas.
The Argentine and Chilean governments are working on a beaver eradication program, meaning the days of the castor canadensis may be numbered — at least in South America.
Beaver or bear?
In 2011, Senator Nicole Eaton launched an unsuccessful campaign to change Canada's national animal from the beaver to the polar bear.
She called the animal a "dentally defective rat," a "toothy tyrant" that does nothing but destroy the environment — and the dock at her summer cottage.
The government said it had no plans to change Canada's national animal.
Other beaver appearances
- On the Canadian Pacific Railway marketing logo from 1886–1929 and from 1946–1968.
- On Montreal's first coat of arms, designed by mayor Jacques Viger, in 1833 (it survived the 1938 coat of arms redesign, though it changed its position).
- On 1690's Kebeca Liberata medal made to celebrate France's defeat of England in the Battle of Quebec.
- In the Earl of Stirling's Nova Scotian coat of arms from 1621.
- On Canadian propaganda posters in 1918 advertising First World War victory bonds.
- On Parks Canada's logo
- As Amik, the mascot of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics.