Beaver or bear? Fur flies over Canadian sense of identity

Montage image (L) Beaver and (R) a polar bear

The suggestion from a Canadian senator that Canada should replace its national emblem has sparked a national debate about what it means to be a Canadian in the 21st Century.

Beaver or polar bear? This is the stark choice Canadians face as they rethink how they want to present themselves to the rest of the world.

It all started when a Conservative Senator, Nicole Eaton, "dissed" the beaver, Canada's official emblem since the 1970s.

The "dentally-defective rat" - as she called it - was deemed yesterday's animal.

Cue lots of puns about "gnawing fears" and whether the nation should '"give a dam". The polar bear, she claimed, would better reflect the spirit of the nation.

The debate could be summed up as follows: The beaver, humble and industrious, represents Canada's colonial past, an era when hardy pioneers schlepped through the wilderness in search of fur for fashionable Europeans.

It was the relentless pursuit of beaver fur that drove Canada's early expansion. "A bygone era," cry detractors. Besides, as one columnist put it, Canadians are tired of being perceived as a nation of "apologetic fur trappers".

The polar bear, on the other hand, is a majestic creature. In the words of Canada's national anthem the defender of - "The True North, strong and free".

Despite its cuddly appearance, it is no cutie. Rather, a ruthless predator at the top of the food chain. One of life's winners.

"A bully," cries Team Beaver, though the earnest protests are drowned out by the roaring bears.

The debate has set fur flying across the country.

But, beneath the comedy, there are some serious undertones. Canada, for so long seen as a country of moderate beaver types, has actually been undergoing an identity makeover for a few years now.

Under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, many believe it is becoming a much harder place.

Witness the government's increased military spending. The staunch defence of the highly polluting tar sands industry. The reduced funding for arts programmes. The "super-prisons" proposed under tough new crime laws. The steely determination to defend and exploit the country's Arctic territory - the polar bear poised to see off Russian interlopers.

Image caption Stephen Harper's government withdrew this week from the Kyoto Protocol

The change of tone is reflected in the media landscape. Three quarters of the country's newspapers endorsed the Conservatives in this year's federal election.

This year also saw the launch of the Sun News Network, a tough-talking television channel with the self-professed aim of combating the political-correctness of the so-called "lame-stream media".

Everyone knew they referred to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), the nation's public broadcaster, often derided as a hotbed of bleeding heart liberals.

But even the CBC itself is shriller than it used to be. The network's leading hockey commentator was recently the subject of a national scandal when he called players a "bunch of pukes" for speaking out against violence in the game.

And, one pugnacious TV presenter raised eyebrows when he called a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist a "left-wing nutbar" for his views on Occupy Wall Street.

Not very Canadian, all this.

Free thinking

But what does being Canadian mean?

To find the answer, it might be worth going back to the era of Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

First elected in the late 1960s, the country's long-serving prime minister led idealistic campaigns for world peace and nuclear disarmament, dropped in on John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Montreal bed-in and was friendly with Fidel Castro.

Charismatic and unconventional, he was once photographed pirouetting in Buckingham Palace as other guests greeted Queen Elizabeth.

Trudeau may not have been a typical Canadian, yet people believe he represented the best of Canada.

Perhaps more importantly, he was a free thinker whose policies were often at odds with those of Canada's southern neighbour.

Ah, the USA. It cannot be easy having such a big, powerful country next door. Particularly one represented by a bird of prey. Eagles eat beavers for breakfast.

Little wonder so many Canadians are turning to the polar bear. They are fed up with being seen as a poor man's America, a nation of people who apologise when bumped into. It is enough to make you turn passive aggressive, which Canadians are often accused of being, by the way.

But, in retiring the beaver, would the country not risk losing the very qualities that make it unique?

Canada may not be the most assertive of nations, but it is appreciated for its quiet virtues - its sense of fair play, its ability to compromise, its open-mindedness and its generosity.

In a world of eagles, bears, dragons and other fearsome beasts, surely we need more, not less, of the beaver.

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