Beaver, be gone

At 36, our national emblem is apparently getting long in the bucked tooth
Rick Harris/Flickr

Yesterday, the Canadian Senate took a page from HGTV as Conservative Sen. Nicole Eaton puckishly launched a national “emblem makeover” campaign to replace the industrious, homely beaver with the “majestic and splendid” polar bear as “Canada’s symbol for the 21st century.”

At first glance, the scheme appeared a masterstroke, given concerns over the polar bear’s looming extinction. What better way of squarely facing the ravages of global warming? Sen. Eaton’s gesture even appeared a bold jab at the government that appointed her—one whose record addressing climate-change is an international joke.

But no. The senator’s pitch made no mention of the mammal’s extinction or endangerment. “The polar bear is the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore and Canada’s most majestic and splendid mammal, holding reign over the Arctic for thousands of years,” she said, nicely echoing the Harper government mandate on northern sovereignty. She even offered a shout-out to the government: “Canada is a world leader in its exemplary system of polar bear management. Our approach features co-management involving aboriginal groups and government, and a strict system of quotas and tags.”

The senator’s rationale for dumping the beaver for the polar bear—a “19th-century has-been for a 21st-century hero,” as she put it— hinges mostly on cosmetics: she trashed the beaver as a “dentally defective rat” and a “toothy tyrant” that wreaks havoc on its environment. As for the Castor canadensis’ integral place in Canada’s nation-building—the lucrative beaver-pelt trade underwrote our country’s European colonization, so much so the Hudson’s Bay Company adorned its coat of arms with four of the rodents in 1678—well, history, shmistory.

Our national emblem since 1975, at 36, is getting a little long in the bucked tooth, she says: “A country’s symbols are not constant and can change over time as long as they reflect the ethos of the people and the spirit of the nation.” The beaver—a smart, monogamous herbivore found in all provinces—is yesterday’s fashion plate, she contends. It’s time to move on: and the polar bear “with its strength, courage, resourcefulness and dignity is perfect for the part.”

The only problem—a big one—is that, as a branding tool, polar bears have already been exploited to the hilt. The only place the heart-warming creatures are not in short supply these days is in advertising and marketing. Earlier this month, Coca Cola’s animated polar bears were named one of “the greatest advertising mascots” of all time. Capitalizing on its polar-bear good will, Coca Cola recently teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund on a marketing blitz designed to promote awareness of climate-change and polar-bear conservation. It’s not alone. The Centre of Biological Diversity just announced that polar bears will adorn its “eco-friendly” condom packaging—along with five other endangered species.

So if we want to take the cue for our national identity from cola companies and condom purveyors, adopting the polar bear as mascot is a no-brainer. But Sen. Eaton’s campaign raises an important question: whether Canada wants to be a nation quick to abandon and “update” its old, indecorous and unfashionable symbols in order to stay on trend. It’s an idea that should reverberate in the Red Chamber. Because if the industrious, stealthy beaver can be replaced, who knows what might be next.