Canada's History - - ROOTS - BY RACHEL POLIQUIN

Ni­co­las de Fer’s wall map of the Amer­i­cas, printed in Paris in 1698, de­picts a rare and won­drous scene. In the top left cor­ner, no less than fifty-two beavers have gath­ered to build a colos­sal dam at the foot of Ni­a­gara Falls. A few gnaw at a tree, as real beavers do. But most walk up­right like an army of au­toma­tons, some car­ry­ing lum­ber on their shoul­ders, oth­ers drag­ging mor­tar on their tails. And one has col­lapsed, ex­hausted.

Each an­i­mal is la­belled with a let­ter keyed to a leg­end. There are lum­ber­jacks, car­pen­ters, and bear­ers of wood. There is also an ar­chi­tect who di­rects a group of beavers mak­ing mor­tar, which other beavers thump firm on the dam with their tails. One mis­er­able beaver has fallen over on its back with “a dis­abled tail from hav­ing worked too hard.” Two neigh­bours are ap­proach­ing, but ap­par­ently not with con­cern. Rather they are “In­spec­tors of the Dis­abled,” pre­sum­ably tasked with weed­ing out lazy beavers from those with gen­uine com­plaints and forc­ing the in­do­lent to work.

De Fer’s beaver vi­gnette is ec­cen­tric, to say the least, but such an­i­mal fa­bles were not un­com­mon. Plenty of oddly ro­man­tic tales had swirled around most an­i­mals since an­cient times. For ex­am­ple, it was long be­lieved by many that chameleons lived on air alone, that bad­gers had legs shorter on one side of their body than the other, and that all hares were hermaphrodites.

While most such fa­bles and fan­tasies fell by the way­side as nat­u­ral­ists be­gan to take a more se­ri­ous look at na­ture, the myth of North Amer­ica’s beaver labour camps co­in­cides with the be­gin­ning of mod­ern sci­ence. The fic­tion was re­lated as fact by some of the En­light­en­ment’s most il­lus­tri­ous thinkers, in­clud­ing the great Ge­orge-Louis Le­clerc, Comte de Buf­fon, whose sprawl­ing thirty-six vol­ume His­toire na­turelle be­came the en­cy­clo­pe­dic ref­er­ence for all an­i­mal knowl­edge well into the nine­teenth cen­tury. The idea that, some­where in the wooded wilder­ness of the New World, hun­dreds of beavers, be­laden with logs and mud, were flog­ging them­selves into ac­tion was too fan­tas­tic not to be taken se­ri­ously.

Most Cana­di­ans know beavers as the hum­ble ro­dents on our five-cent coin. Hump­backed and portly, with an earnest and hon­est charm, beavers epit­o­mize the Cana­dian spirit of un­pre­ten­tious­ness, in­tegrity, and in­dus­tri­ous­ness. But the hard-work­ing beaver is not quite what it seems.

It’s not that beavers are lazy an­i­mals; beavers cer­tainly do work hard, and ev­i­dence of their labours is wildly im­pres­sive. Beaver dams usu­ally range from ten to one hun­dred me­tres long, but over gen­er­a­tions beavers can build mag­nif­i­cent struc­tures. The cur­rent record holder, lo­cated in Wood Buf­falo Na­tional Park, which strad­dles the Al­berta-North­west Ter­ri­to­ries bor­der, is an as­ton­ish­ing eight hun­dred and fifty me­tres long, and it’s still un­der con­struc­tion. Beavers also dili­gently store enough food to sur­vive the cold­est win­ters, which puts them in the fa­bled league of the ever-in­dus­tri­ous ant. But for the mil­len­nia that hu­mans and beavers co­ex­isted, no one ever re­marked on the beaver’s work ethic un­til Euro­peans ar­rived in North Amer­ica.

Beavers are found through­out North Amer­i­can First Na­tions’ mythol­ogy as skilled builders, heal­ers, and earth-mak­ers, but no myths sug­gest beavers as be­ing any more hard-work­ing than coy­otes or por­cu­pines. Eurasian beavers also have a long and sto­ried his­tory in Euro­pean folk­lore, but they were known for some­thing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent than busy­ness.

An­cient physi­cians be­lieved the beavers’ mal­odor­ous scent or­gans (known as cas­tor sacs) con­tained a po­tent medicine, and be­cause cas­tor sacs look re­mark­ably like tes­ti­cles they as­sumed they were tes­ti­cles. And so, ac­cord­ing to an­i­mal lore, the beaver, when cor­nered by a hunter, and know­ing the value of his medicine, would bite off his tes­ti­cles and es­cape with his life. Ae­sop’s fa­ble seems to be the old­est ver­sion of the tale, and the an­cient Greek fab­u­list en­sured it would be re­peated for cen­turies by wring­ing out a pithy moral: “If only peo­ple would take the same ap­proach and agree to be de­prived of their pos­ses­sions in or­der to live lives free from dan­ger; no one, after all, would set a trap for some­one al­ready stripped to the skin.” Early Chris­tian moral­ists de­lighted in the fa­ble, prais­ing beavers as mod­els of chastity, aus­ter­ity, and pru­dence. But hard work was never part of the Eurasian beaver’s reper­toire.

Eurasian beavers once spread from Great Bri­tain to Mon­go­lia and from north­ern Fin­land to the Turk­ish coast of the Black Sea. But from the Mid­dle Ages on­wards their num­bers were in sad de­cline. They were killed for their musk or­gans. Their fish-like tails were eaten by the pi­ously ab­stemious dur­ing Len­ten fasts. They were hunted for their fur un­til there was hardly a beaver left.

And so, when Euro­peans ar­rived in North Amer­ica, they likely had never seen a beaver. When they wit­nessed the an­i­mals’ as­ton­ish­ing dams, ex­plor­ers were madly im­pressed with the ar­chi­tec­tural ro­dents. They in­vented a tale of such won­der and charisma that it en­dures to this day in di­luted form. And, per­haps even more bizarre than the story of the hun­dred-strong beaver work­force, is its per­sis­tence for cen­turies, through var­i­ous re­vi­sions and po­lit­i­cal retellings. From the forced labour camps of New France, the beaver’s leg­endary in­dus­try was born.

De Fer’s vi­gnette was in­spired by the writ­ings of Ni­co­las Denys, a sev­en­teenth-cen­tury French aristocrat turned New World of­fi­cer and politi­cian. Ac­cord­ing to Denys, as many as four hun­dred beavers gath­ered, and each had their ap­pointed tasks. Some chewed down trees. Oth­ers gnawed logs into stakes. The old­est beavers with the largest tails used them to carry dirt. Just as de Fer il­lus­trated, there were beaver ma­sons, beaver car­pen­ters, ditch dig­gers, log car­ri­ers, and ever-vig­i­lant beaver fore­men who en­sured a high stan­dard of con­struc­tion. If any beavers were lazy or ne­glect­ful, the fore­man “chas­tises them, beats them, throws him­self on them, and bites them to keep them at their duty,” Denys ex­plained.

Beavers were ca­pa­ble of hard work, but they were not re­ally mod­els of in­dus­tri­ous­ness. They needed an en­forcer to keep them in line. After all, this was the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, and whip­ping grunt labour into ac­tion was an ac­cepted and ex­pected method of build­ing great public works. An­i­mal fa­bles have a way of mak­ing cer­tain be­hav­iours seem nat­u­ral and in­her­ently good, even self-cas­tra­tion, even au­to­cratic regimes. For Denys, au­thor­i­tar­ian beavers of­fered a para­ble of a right­eous so­ci­ety.

Denys pub­lished his nat­u­ral his­tory of Aca­dia in Paris in 1672, although he wrote most of it in the New World, per­haps in Nepisiq­uit (in present-day New Brunswick), one of the many set­tle­ments he founded. Denys spent more than three decades of his life in Aca­dia, first ar­riv­ing in 1632 and dy­ing in Nepisiq­uit in 1688. He likely had seen a beaver, if only a dead one, and at the very least he had en­coun­tered their phe­nom­e­nal feats of hy­draulic engi­neer­ing. (Denys ac­tu­ally sug­gested that most lakes and ponds in New France had been made by beavers.) Strug­gling to un­der­stand how such ex­tra­or­di­nary con­struc­tions were pos­si­ble, Denys of­fered an equally ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pla­na­tion: hun­dreds of beavers labour­ing united.

The idea of an­i­mals toil­ing for the com­mon good was se­duc­tive, but it re­quired one more imag­i­na­tive leap of logic to be­come the per­fect po­lit­i­cal al­le­gory. Surely four hun­dred beavers re­quired some sort of or­der or chain of com­mand to de­sign and build enor­mous com­mu­nal dams. Four hun­dred hu­mans cer­tainly would. So what po­lit­i­cal struc­ture did beavers pre­fer?

Bac­queville de la Potherie, an eigh­teenth-cen­tury chron­i­cler of New France, sug­gested that beavers were ruled by a pa­tri­arch: “His house is so ad­mirable that one can rec­og­nize in him the author­ity

of an ab­so­lute mas­ter, the true char­ac­ter of the fam­ily fa­ther and the ge­nius of a skilled ar­chi­tect.” A sur­geon-ex­plorer known only by the sur­name Dière­ville sug­gested that beavers were gov­erned by an aris­toc­racy. In Dière­ville’s ver­sion, beavers didn’t re­quire fore­men, as ev­ery beaver gladly as­saulted a lazy neigh­bour: “Jus­tice is ev­ery­thing among beavers.”

In fact, most writ­ers agreed that beavers were au­thor­i­tar­i­ans. Lazy or vagabond beavers were var­i­ously beaten, brought to heel, or ban­ished. Their fur was stripped from their back as a mark of in­famy, and they were forced to live in holes by them­selves, in dis­grace.

Build­ing beavers were never just beavers who built. The myth’s ap­peal was in its so­cial res­o­nance. Whether they laboured will­ingly or not, beavers were won­der­fully mal­leable ac­tors for think­ing about hu­man so­cial re­la­tions, at least for those in con­trol.

The his­to­rian Gor­don Sayre, for ex­am­ple, has sug­gested that beavers of­fered a cor­rec­tive to the ever-loom­ing pos­si­bil­ity of colo­nial anar­chy. Through­out New France land ten­ure was es­sen­tially feu­dal. Large parcels known as seigneuries were granted to mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, no­bles, and clergy, who rented smaller plots to ten­ants, known as habi­tants. The habi­tants cleared the land and built their homes, but it was the seigneurs who took on the in­vest­ment of build­ing a mill or road. In 1671, the first Aca­dian census counted 392 peo­ple, a few less than Denys’ four hun­dred-strong beaver labour force (and less than the 484 cows and 524 sheep also re­ported). With a beaver gu­lag as its moral guide, a so­ci­ety based on civil obe­di­ence and sub­or­di­na­tion might achieve mag­nif­i­cent, awe-in­spir­ing works in this new-found world.

Out­cast beavers also of­fered a moral les­son for habi­tants who were tempted to go prim­i­tive and be­come coureurs de bois. Ven­tur­ing into the wilder­ness to seek their for­tune in furs, coureurs de bois were nat­u­rally vil­i­fied by the rul­ing classes and by bour­geois fur mer­chants. Liv­ing like vagabond beavers, they re­fused the du­ties of so­ci­ety and ac­quired a taste for wan­der­ing and its as­so­ci­ated vices. Re­pent now, the fa­ble al­most warns, lest you end up in a dark and dirty hole with no coat on your back.

But it was François-René Chateaubriand, the fa­ther of French Ro­man­ti­cism and name­sake of the chateaubriand steak, who trans­formed the po­lit­i­cal al­le­gory into a glo­ri­ously ab­surd fan­tasy. Es­cap­ing the vi­o­lence of the French Rev­o­lu­tion and flee­ing to New France in 1791, Chateaubriand claimed to have wit­nessed a vil­lage of pala­tial beaver lodges, a ver­i­ta­ble “Venice of the wilder­ness,” as he called it. Lodges were five storeys tall, with domed, art­fully stuc­coed vestibules. Beaver so­ci­ety was equally cul­tured — they ate their meals to­gether, were fas­tid­i­ously clean, and had an elected govern­ment. But beavers, like hu­mans, were hot-blooded an­i­mals and of­ten clashed with neigh­bour­ing tribes or muskrats. If a beaver was caught ma­raud­ing on an­other tribe’s ter­ri­tory, he was brought be­fore the chief and beaten. For a sec­ond of­fence, his tail was cut off. Some­times dis­putes were set­tled by a duel be­tween chiefs or a com­bat of thirty against thirty. The bat­tles were al­ways vi­cious and to the death.

Chateaubriand also noted that “the beaver lives chastely with a sin­gle fe­male; he is jeal­ous and some­times kills his mate, if she has been guilty of in­fi­delity, or he sus­pects her of it.” The de­tail, unique to Chateaubriand, is es­pe­cially odd con­sid­er­ing he was a no­to­ri­ous phi­lan­derer.

The eigh­teenth cen­tury was a time of po­lit­i­cal up­heaval and so­ci­etal re­form, es­pe­cially in France, and French writ­ers had a par­tic­u­lar affin­ity for beaver tales. The so­ci­ety of build­ing beavers raised all the right ques­tions for En­light­en­ment thinkers. How might so­ci­ety achieve its great­est good and hap­pi­ness? Was a monar­chy or an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime re­ally the only way for­ward? Or might an egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety achieve even greater suc­cess?

The wan­der­ing, erst­while of­fi­cer and no­ble­man Louis-Ar­mand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de La­hon­tan, claimed beavers had achieved utopia. In his ac­count of his trav­els in North Amer­ica, which were pub­lished in 1703, La­hon­tan de­scribed beavers as liv­ing a good, happy, gen­tle, and egal­i­tar­ian ex­is­tence with peace and har­mony as their pri­mary goals. Beavers even had a sort of in­tel­li­gi­ble jar­gon of “be­moan­ing inar­tic­u­late sounds” by which they com­mu­nally agreed on what needed to be done to main­tain their lodges, dams, lakes, and the peace­able or­der of their repub­lic, he claimed.

La­hon­tan is a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter in the early his­tory of Canada. With the death of his fa­ther, he came to his ti­tle in 1674 at the young age of eight. He joined the mil­i­tary at seven­teen and ar­rived in the New World in 1683. He spent a decade in New France, ex­plor­ing the re­gion and learn­ing the lan­guages and cul­tures of neigh­bour­ing First Na­tions be­fore de­sert­ing the army in 1692. Un­able to re­turn to France and hav­ing lost his in­her­i­tance, La­hon­tan went to Am­s­ter­dam, where he pub­lished his works in­clud­ing his fi­nal and most fa­mous, Sup­ple­ment aux Voy­ages ou Di­a­logues avec le Sau­vage Adario.

Based around an imag­i­nary di­a­logue be­tween him­self and a Huron chief named Adario, Sup­ple­ment aux Voy­ages con­trasted the po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion, and so­cial in­equal­ity he saw rav­aging the Old World with the free­doms and jus­tice of North Amer­ica’s Indige­nous na­tions. His ide­al­ized view of hu­mans liv­ing in a pure and nat­u­ral state of­fered an early ex­pres­sion of the En­light­en­ment trope of the “no­ble sav­age.” Although La­hon­tan never makes the link ex­plicit, there is much to com­pare be­tween the utopian so­ci­eties of Adario and those of North Amer­i­can beavers. In La­hon­tan’s eyes, beavers and hu­mans shared equally in the bliss of the New World.

Half a cen­tury later, the great French nat­u­ral­ist Ge­orges-Louis


Le­clerc, Comte du Buf­fon, agreed. In the eighth vol­ume of his His­toire na­turelle, printed in 1760, Buf­fon claimed that what made North Amer­i­can beavers ex­cep­tional was their con­vivi­al­ity. No mat­ter how many work­ers ar­rived, peace and good or­der reigned. Beaver dams were “the fruits of a per­fected so­ci­ety,” and beavers were the per­fect cit­i­zens.

As a man who lived through the pol­i­tics and blood­shed of eigh­teenth-cen­tury France, Buf­fon was no stranger to the vi­o­lence of au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes, or to utopian rhetoric. Per­haps Buf­fon was think­ing of his fel­low French cit­i­zens when he con­tem­plated the wretched state of French beavers. Hunted into near ex­tinc­tion, the beavers of the Rhone Val­ley were “dis­persed, for­lorn, and timid crea­tures. There they have never been known to as­sem­ble or un­der­take any com­mon work.” Like men un­der a despotic govern­ment, their spirit had been bro­ken and their tal­ents ex­tin­guished by ter­ror. In the peace and plenty of the New World, beavers of­fered hope for a bet­ter fu­ture.

But even the utopian tales of La­hon­tan and Buf­fon had a dark un­der­belly. At the very same mo­ment when beavers were be­ing praised for their ci­vil­ity, tens of mil­lions of beavers were be­ing slaugh­tered to make hats. Early Canada, after all, was built by the fur trade, which is to say, Canada quite lit­er­ally was built on the back of the beaver. Sur­pris­ingly or not, most writ­ers dis­cussed beavers as model cit­i­zens and as commodities al­most within the same breath. The beaver’s demise was just ac­cepted as the in­evitable re­sult of hu­man progress. Even Buf­fon sug­gested that Euro­pean ad­vance­ment had squelched the nat­u­ral ge­nius of their con­ti­nent’s na­tive an­i­mals.

The fa­ble of the in­dus­tri­ous beaver took a fi­nal turn in North Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. Beavers — this time real beavers build­ing their dams in nu­clear fam­i­lies, as beavers ac­tu­ally do — were an ob­vi­ous sym­bol for a young na­tion. By sim­ply liv­ing their lives and do­ing what came nat­u­rally, beavers em­bod­ied demo­cratic val­ues of in­dus­try, pru­dence, and civic re­spon­si­bil­ity. Beavers built solid homes for their fam­i­lies. They had the fore­sight to store food dur­ing the sum­mer months. They dili­gently ex­tracted ev­ery good­ness na­ture had to give, which nat­u­rally dove­tailed with the po­lit­i­cal be­lief that in­dus­tri­ous home­stead­ers would guar­an­tee the health and hap­pi­ness of the na­tion.

En­dowed with an ever-will­ing, ever-ready work ethic, beavers will for­ever be syn­ony­mous with busy­ness and with Canada, but for oddly in­com­pat­i­ble rea­sons. Beavers are busy be­cause they build mag­nif­i­cent dams, and beavers are Canada be­cause their deaths fu­elled the na­tion’s for­tune. And so, per­haps the last word of ad­vice should come from the so­ci­ety of build­ing beavers: Labour not so in­dus­tri­ously that you fail to see your great­est ad­mirer is also your most deadly foe.


This il­lus­tra­tion by Herman Moll is an in­set from a map en­ti­tled A New and Ex­act Map of the Do­min­ions of the King of Great Bri­tain on ye Con­ti­nent of North Amer­ica, 1715. The beaver scene at Ni­a­gara Falls was copied from Ni­co­las de Fer’s ear­lier 1698 map. Note, on the left side of the pic­ture, the ex­hausted beaver who has fallen on his back.

An in­scrip­tion on Moll’s map de­scribes the scene: “A view of the in­dus­try of beavers of Canada in mak­ing dams to stop the course of a rivulet in or­der to form a great lake, about which they build their habi­ta­tions. To ef­fect this, they fell large trees with their teeth ... they fin­ish the whole with great or­der.”

A beaver cas­trates it­self in this thir­teenth-cen­tury man­u­script.

Amer­i­can Beaver by John James Audubon, 1844.

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