Light is Right Joe Campbell

Light is Right Joe Campbell

I was surprised to learn that Canada has no official bird, fish, flower, fruit or mineral. Officially, our nation has only three: the maple tree, the beaver and the Canadian horse. Even Prince Edward Island, our smallest province, has four. The other provinces and territories have from three to eleven each.

Nationally, the paucity of natural emblems is surprising enough. The tardiness in officially recognizing them is shocking. Although the maple leaf has symbolized Canada for hundreds of years, the tree that bears it didn’t become an official arboreal emblem until 1996. Maple syrup moves faster than that in mid-winter.

The beaver didn’t fare much better. It has figured in armorial bearings since the 17th century and appeared on our first postage stamp. But it only won official recognition as a mammalian emblem in 1975. The Canadian horse, our other mammalian emblem, traces its ancestry to the mid-1600s. However, it didn’t reach official status until 2002. Who would have thought that a beaver could outpace a horse?

Why we chose animals as different as the beaver and the horse to reflect our national character puzzles me. Not because the beaver is a rodent and the horse an ungulate, but because the beaver is monogamous and the horse promiscuous. Maybe we appointed the beaver in hopes of stemming the sexual revolution and the horse in recognition that we didn’t. If so, when we get around to naming an official bird, it won’t be the Canada goose. It takes after the beaver.

Even if it took after the horse, it wouldn’t qualify. Although faithful to its mate, the Canada goose is not faithful to us. Every fall it abandons us for warmer climes and doesn’t return until spring. The Canada goose is a snowbird.

To reflect our musical heritage, I’d prefer a songbird, or at least a humming bird. But if neither is interested, I’d settle for an instrumentalist, perhaps the trumpeter swan or the piping plover. As Alberta has adopted the great horned owl, it’s probably not available. But I’d consider the band-tailed pigeon, if it was a jazz band, or the fork-tailed flycatcher, if it was a tuning fork.

In a nation abounding with lakes and bordered by three oceans, you would expect a full complement of official fish. But only five provinces and one territory have them and two of the provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, are landlocked. You could say, I suppose, that Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland have them indirectly, as their official birds eat fish.

Saskatchewan’s official bird, the sharp-tailed grouse, doesn’t. Its diet is limited to plants and insects, no doubt by government edict. I suspect the protocol office would consider it a symbolic blunder if the official bird were tempted to eat the official fish. Alberta’s protocol office isn’t as fastidious, apparently. In Alberta the official bird eats the official fish whenever it gets the chance.

Cod and salmon are suggested candidates for a Canadian piscatory emblem. I doubt, though, that the national heritage department is considering them. Our symbols represent us everywhere. But what kind of image would we project if we routinely ate our national representatives? Symbolically, it would be like eating each other. That’s a worse symbolic blunder than letting our symbols eat each other.

True, we tap our arboreal emblem for its sap, skin one of our mammalian emblems for its fur, and press the other one into domestic servitude. But to exploit national emblems is one thing. To eat them is something else. Provincially, we might get away with cannibalizing our representatives, as Saskatchewan does with its official animal, bird, fish and berry. Nationally, we are held to a higher standard.

So I suppose it is only prudent that Canada eschew declaring an official bird, fish, flower, fruit, or mineral. Canadians eat all five. It is also prudent to avoid declaring an official dog, as Nova Scotia has done. In Nova Scotia the official dog urinates on the official tree.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to how vaguely we talk about our natural emblems. Whenever I read, hear, or say that the beaver represents us, I can’t help wondering which beaver. It’s the same with the Canadian horse and the maple tree. We talk as if there were only one of each, when we know perfectly well that there are more than we can count. Do all of them represent us? I have no idea.

Whatever the arrangement, the way we talk about it could mean that every member of each species represents us simultaneously or successively. This is troubling. I like to know who is appearing on my behalf, but I don’t see how I can when I’ve met only a few beavers, Canadian horses, and maple trees. Even more troubling, the few that I’ve met didn’t show the least interest in me, let alone in representing me to the world.