After the early Europeans explorers had realized that
Canada was not the spice-rich Orient, the main mercantile attraction was
the beaver population numbering in the millions. In the late 1600s and
early 1700s, the fashion of the day demanded fur hats, which needed beaver
pelts. As these hats became more popular, the demand for the pelts grew.
King Henry IV of France saw the fur trade as an opportunity to
acquire much-needed revenue and to establish a North American empire. Both
English and French fur traders were soon selling beaver pelts in Europe at
20 times their original purchase price.
The trade of beaver pelts
proved so lucrative that the Hudson's Bay Company honoured the
buck-toothed little animal by putting it on the shield of its coat of arms
in 1678. Sir William Alexander, who was granted title to Nova Scotia in
1621, had been the first to include the beaver in a coat of arms.
The Hudson's Bay Company shield consists of four beavers separated
by a red St. George's Cross and reflects the importance of this
industrious rodent to the company. A coin was created to equal the value
of one beaver pelt.
Also, in 1678 Louis de Buade de Frontenac,
then Governor of New France, suggested the beaver as a suitable emblem for
the colony, and proposed it be included in the armorial bearings of Quebec
City. In 1690, in commemoration of France's successful defence of Quebec,
the "Kebeca Liberata Medal" was struck. A seated woman, representing
France, with a beaver at her feet, representing Canada, appeared on the
The beaver was included in the armorial bearings of the City
of Montreal when it was incorporated as a city in 1833. Sir Sandford
Fleming assured the beaver a position as a national symbol when he
featured it on the first Canadian postage stamp - the "Three Penny Beaver"
The beaver also appeared with the maple leaf on the
masthead of Le Canadien, a newspaper published in Lower Canada.
For a time, it was one of the emblems of the Societe
Saint-Jean-Baptiste. It is still found on the crest of the Canadian
Pacific Railway Company.
Despite all this recognition, the beaver
was close to extinction by the mid-19th century. There were an estimated
six million beavers in Canada before the start of the fur trade. During
its peak, 100,000 pelts were being shipped to Europe each year; the
Canadian beaver was in danger of being wiped out. Luckily, about that
time, Europeans took a liking to silk hats and the demand for beaver pelts
all but disappeared.
The beaver attained official status as an
emblem of Canada when an "act to provide for the recognition of the beaver
(castor canadensis) as a symbol of the sovereignty of Canada" received
royal assent on March 24, 1975.
Today, thanks to conservation and
silk hats, the beaver - the largest rodent in Canada - is alive and well
all over the country.