Fierce Foliage?

If you want to get an idea of how a country views itself, look no further than the currency it produces.  One side will likely display a former head of state and the other, the tail, is symbolically that of an animal which personifies that nation.  All the great empires feature fierce creatures; the English lion, the Russian bear, the Chinese dragon, the Indian tiger, and eagles in both Germany and the United States.  France on the other hand – and I’m not making this up – has a chicken.  What animal best serves this role for Canada?

Well in order to answer that question you have to define Canada’s national identity.  Canada famously gained its independence from Britain by asking nicely and while it is a source of pride that no blood was spilled it doesn’t give people the impression that we are a fearsome people.  Traditionally Canadian soldiers served as part of the British armed forces and it wasn’t until the First World War that they even had the dignity of a Canadian commander.  I remember being told in high school about how our troops in WWI were so effective that the British used them as vanguard forces.  While I don’t discount the incredible bravery shown by our men in places like Vimy Ridge I couldn’t help but question the fact that this also meant that it was our troops and not our British masters who bore the brunt of the worst fighting.  I think this is the root of the Canadian stereotype of being good-hearted, very brave but not very wise.  I believe it is also the reason why the Moose became so closely identified with Canadians.

A Moose is an incredibly large animal, which befits the second largest country on earth.  It is a herbivore so it is not seen as being fearsome, however it is quite brave as any railroad conductor can attest since a moose will hold its ground no matter how foolish this may be.  Proof of this burgeoning stereotype was evident in the late 50’s with what was likely the first uniquely Canadian fictional TV character, the daring, well meaning and decidedly dimwitted Mountie called Dudley Do-Right.  It was a segment on the American produced Rocky & Bullwinkle show, which also starred a good-hearted and decidedly dimwitted moose.  While this caricature has certainly endured, good-natured dimwits Bob & Doug McKenzie of SCTV fame were the direct result of a required two minutes of Canadian content, I don’t think it really applies anymore.

In the generation following the Second World War the government made a concerted effort to try and forge a new and unique Canadian identity.  The Maple Leaf flag was adopted in 1965 and ten yeas later the beaver was adopted as our national animal.  It is understandable why a government committee would come up with this idea.  The beaver has a reputation as a little guy who accomplishes remarkable feats like felling tall trees and building massive dams through hard work and team effort.   It also had a historical component because much of Canada was first explored by trappers looking for beaver pelts, which were highly prized by European hat makers.  While their intentions were noble I find it hard to believe that most Canadians want to be represented by a glorified rat whose claim to fame was a 17th century fashion fad.  There is a precedent in the United States where they have both the Bald Eagle as a their national emblem and the Bison as a national animal.  I think as a nation we can do better.

The bald eagle was officially adopted by the US Congress in 1789 and at the time it was seen as a symbol of strength, courage, freedom, and immortality.  However the reality was much different.  While large and impressive looking the vast majority of Bald Eagles are lousy hunters with upwards of 90% dying before reaching adulthood.  The ones that survive do so by scavenging carrion and stealing from other birds.  Their courage has often called into question too since they are often chased off by mobs of crows or other smaller birds.  Freedom is a trait that can be attributed to any bird but immortality is not one that can be associated with Bald Eagles.  In the 18th century there were an estimated 500,000 Bald Eagles soaring through the skies North America, by 1963 this number had been reduced to just 487 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.  Canada has yet to adopt a national bird.  Some have suggested the Canada Goose but this would be a travesty since they are an even bigger pest than the beaver.  There is a better option.

In 1987 the Canadian mint introduced a $1 coin with heads being Queen Elizabeth II and the tails represented by the Common Loon.   The Loon and its signature calls are synonymous with Canadian wilderness.  Their breeding range is a virtual map of Canada and there is a rich history both practical and spiritual with the native peoples of Canada.  The etymology of the name loon means awkward or clumsy and while this would seem to be an odd choice for a national symbol I think it fits with the famed Canadian sense of humour and the truth of the matter is that loons are absolute physical marvels.  The perceived awkwardness comes from the fact that their legs and feet are set farther back than they are on other birds however this enables them to be excellent swimmers who can also dive to depths of 200ft.  The can fly upwards of 90 mph and exhibit incredible stamina covering great distances without rest.  Adult loons don’t have any predators, they mostly keep to themselves swimming and fishing on the many lakes of the great white north.  While other creatures out there look fiercer, few are as tough as the Common Loon and none of the others can laugh.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by danielle on February 2, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Hi Dave, loved it… interesting perspective.


  2. Posted by Billy Crowe on February 4, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Fantastic Article – It was not only informative but very thought provoking as well. I think it is the best article so far.

    Looking forward to the next one.


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