I am here to talk about our national symbols, a little about what national symbols actually are, and to discover why we use the ones we have. I started this journey with a desire (borne out of amusement) to root out the reasons that one of our symbols, the beaver, had become slang. Google beaver and you will see what I am talking about. It reminded me of the time I Googled fudge, looking for a recipe. But after a little research on Canada’s symbols, I found that the stories of what they are, and their creation is actually way more interesting than the simple story of the beaver’s unfortunate appropriation. I was also surprised at how little I knew about these important national fixtures; like why countries use them, what they actually symbolize, and how these things, created as a unifying force, managed to ignore first nations, skip the French and new immigrants, and ultimately only represent a white colonial force. I want to talk about what these symbols are, and hopefully provoke discussion about their usefulness in this global age.

What are national symbols? Typically they represent a national community, and are designed to unite a population who possess similar views, outlooks and goals. They are the symbols that tell the story of a nation, its people, environment and history. Every country has its own unique series of symbols, created to set them apart from all other nations in the world. Some nations present themselves as tough, like the talon-armed American eagle. Some are full of personality, like the French cocky rooster, or the British and their punch-faced bulldog (Although British dental records may show that this is one of the most accurate of icons). Symbols, regardless of place, at best should express what and who we are. What are Canada’s symbols, and where did they originate? Our symbols do tell part of the Canadian story. Some inspired by nature, with others acting as landmarks to the breaking of our country. I felt that the gaps in the story meant that we could reimagine new symbols, and stronger ways to communicate ourselves to the world, but we will get to that. Let’s run through the main ones and see where we end up.

This symbol has been rammed into our collective memory bank, appearing endlessly, from the backs of our pennies to souvenir maple syrup bottles. To see a maple leaf is to think of Canada, it’s lovely that we associate ourselves with a tree leaf. It reminds me of the 60’s appreciation with flowers, but without all the flakiness. I feel that this natural symbol, connected to the earth, is one our genuinely great ones. From American backpacks to sports fans face-paint and more, the Canadian flag is by far the most applied, and useful of our symbols. The design is exceptionally modern and clear, recognizable when used as small as a postal stamp, flapping on a windy flagpole, or draped over a casket. I was completely floored to discover that it only became our official mark forty-five years ago. A further illustration that this country is like a teenager. Young, pimply and awkward, and still trying to figure out what it wants to do.

This is the classic British looking shield with all the regal trappings in full effect, including a lion, a motto, and a unicorn. This symbol seems to be, by far our most foreign: a motto in Latin, a unicorn…Really? I guess this foreignness makes sense, the COA is seen on all things federal, like courthouses, currency, and passports, and is a clear statement for the official presence of the Crown in Canada. The future is not bright for this symbol. It has the same shelf life as the Queen herself. When she passes on to the next life, this mark may lose it usefulness, as Canada evolves beyond the monarchy.

Like most Canadians, I first saw this logo on the outstretched Canada Arm in the early ‘80’s. This is the federal government’s word mark, and at one time it was the most visible brand in the universe. Responding to a global rush for branding, our government was convinced by marketers that we needed a recognizable logo to compete in the landscape of Coke, The Gap and Starbucks. Even though born from the oddball parents of branding and public opinion, it is truly a little masterpiece. Artfully designed by Jim Donahue, the C-A-N-A-D-A spelled out simply in a Canadian adapted font, with a stylized D becoming a solid base for a little flag. It is a massive success…a poll conducted in 1999 found that 81% of us knew that it represents the Government of Canada. I wondered, ‘what would Naomi Klein say about this?’ I grew up never understanding how a sport that I had never seen (until last year…Go Rock!) was the authorized sporting event of Canada. Lacrosse was the official activity until the early nineties, when the government declared that hockey was to become Canada’s national sport. This caused a serious uproar, and by uproar, I mean a Canadian uproar, where a handful of people quietly complained about it, and in true Canadian fashion a compromise was created to make both sides of this sporting controversy happy. In 1994 Bill C-212 was amended, recognizing both sports as official pastimes: hockey became the national winter sport, and lacrosse our national summer sport.

Let’s continue our assault on these Canadian icons with the easiest of targets, the Castor Canadensis, or better known as the beaver. Little quick sidebar fact: The beaver is part of the rat family, and is the second largest rodent in the world. It is also the symbol of MIT and New York (who knew?). So, why did our forefathers choose such an odd creature as our national character? It is the national animal because it is the main reason that Canada was explored and colonized in the first place. Starting in 1534, Jacques Cartier drained the beaver population of Gaspé to supply the must have fashion of the day, large ungainly fur hats. As these hats became more popular, the demand for the pelts obviously grew, and the importance of Canada with it (odd eh? Our country was essentially founded because of fashion. One would figure we would be more fashionable!). In 1673 governor general Count Frontenac, suggested that the beaver was the appropriate symbol for Canada, but it was not until 1975, almost as an afterthought, that the beaver’s place in our folklore became official. The parliament of Canada finally recognized the furry creature as a symbol of the sovereignty of our nation. Out of all the options we could have used for an icon, what is up with the Beaver? Obviously there is a deep historical relevance to this national symbol, but the metaphor of the beaver is so dodgy, only part of which is the giggle inducing side of it all. The Russians have a strong bear, China has the pretty crane, and Ireland has the romantic stag. We might have used a timber wolf, polar bear, or bison, all fine creatures to emulate, but instead we got stuck with a pudgy, bucktoothed rodent. Could Canadians have chosen a less inspiring emblem?

Now, I felt a need to salvage this symbol’s reputation, and here are my main reasons why the beaver is a fine symbol for the country. 1. They are peaceful and community focused. When a number of these animals come together (through loss of habitat, or whatever), they immediately combine into a civil beaver society. Without bitching, they toil together, and get to work building their little part of the world. 2. They are sweetly humble, displaying a gentle social energy. In doing this research, I have fantasized of beavers taking over the TTC, or the QEW, and showing us all that we can be kinder and better to each other. 3. They represent perseverance – By 1829 the beaver was almost gone, but “unlike Ecuador’s condor or America’s bald eagle, both poignant national symbols absolutely struggling to survive”, the Castor Canadensis is now booming. In Manitoba the beaver population has surpassed the number of human inhabitants and brought about a Kill-a-Beaver Program, which has obvious ethical and symbolic issues. SO…what is the etymology of the ill-fated slang version of our national animal? Well I found two early sources. The first written example is from 1616, and it came from British poet Ben Johnson who penned a metaphorically rich tribute to his ladylove: Have you marked but the fall of the snow Before the soil has smutched it? Have you felt the wool of beaver? This led to the later and more obvious, gynecological comparison from 1927 Britain. It is here that beaver became associated with the female genitals, especially with a display of pubic hair. The meaning was transferred from an earlier slang used for “a bearded man”, and was generated because of the appearance of split beaver pelts.

OK, we are nearing the end… and I wanted to pose a question for us to talk about. Are our Canadian symbols still relevant, and do they still represent us?

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