Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Oh. Canada.

Recently one of the cover lines on a recent issue of MacLean's caught my eye: "National Symbol Smackdown." The related article was about the campaign by Canadian MP Nicole Eaton to make the polar bear Canada's national symbol, displacing the beaver, which has formally enjoyed the honor since 1975 (but for much longer informally). The Honourable Ms. Eaton has some rather harsh things to say about castor canadiensis, calling it a "dentally defective rat." She prefers the polar bear, which she calls, "A mighty mammal...that dominates our northern landscape of cold and ice."

Her proposal has provoked widespread outrage. She's received quite a lot of hate mail. To be sure, the beaver is very much a part of Canada's national brand. To many, beavers are a perfect symbol for Canada: they're hard working, community oriented, don't harm others.* There are also sound historical reasons for associating beavers with Canada. For centuries, beaver pelts were highly prized by European hat makers. Beaver pelts were the primary reason European traders went to Canada. One could make the argument, no beavers, no Hudson's Bay Company—and thus no British presence in what is now Canada. No beavers, no French trading posts. No beavers, no smackdown on the Plains of Abraham.

Polar bears, on the other hand, played no role in Canada's economic development. Hell, you see a polar bear, you run away if you've got half a brain. Polar bears are the apex predator in their environment. They kick ass whenever they can. They see something they want, they take it. That's so not the Canadian self-image. It sounds more like...take a guess

However, I was naively surprised to read about the outraged provoked by Eaton's seemingly harmless proposal (in part because I think polar bears are fucking awesome), until I thought about how crazy Americans get about their symbols. I was a teenager in Mississippi when it was first proposed that the stars and bars be removed from the upper right hand corner of the state flag. From the outrage you would have thought every white person within the state's borders had been asked to kill their grandparents (or dance on their graves if they were no longer around). I also remember the fury provoked during my college years by what seemed to me a constitutionally protected exercise of free expression.

I was also bemused that a huge controversy could be happening in a neighboring country and Americans would know next to nothing about it. Sure, it's not an issue of substance (at least not to me) but reporting it would have been an opportunity to teach Americans a little history. But I guess it's more important that we all know about Ashton Kutcher's failed marriage.

A day or two later a new MacLean's arrived at work. This one had a picture of a gray-haired man with a cover line to the effect that Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has been tapped to fix the global economy (specifically, he's been appointed to head the Financial Stability Board). In a masterpiece of anti-climax, the cover line concluded, "If he succeeds, he'll be our most prominent player on the world stage since Lester B. Pearson."

I imagine you have no idea who Lester B. Pearson is. I certainly didn't. The name Lester B. Pearson sounds like it should belong to the head of the Chamber of Commerce of Columbus, Georgia, or a 1950s author of self-help books. It turns out he was Canada's fourteenth prime minister, and a hell of a good one. His government introduced universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and student loans. He was also a diplomat's diplomat. He played important roles in the founding of both the UN and NATO. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in keeping the Suez Crisis from exploding into a full-blown war that could have pulled in the US and the Soviet Union.

I know it's a cliché to lament that Americans know so little about other countries, but Jesus, a guy from next door stopped World War III and we have no idea who he is?

*Strangely, in all the discussions I've read about beavers, no one has raised the question of whether or not male beavers bite off their own testicles.

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