The beaver is Canadian

The beaver exemplifies what it means to be Canadian. Rachel Poliquin puts it this way:

“Humpbacked and portly, with an earnest and honest charm, beavers epitomize the Canadian spirit of unpretentiousness, integrity, and industriousness (Canada’s History magazine, Aug/Sept, 2017).”


The beaver has not always been regarded as exceptionally hard-working. Canada’s indigenous people viewed them as skilled builders, healers, and earth-makers but not any more hard-working than coyotes or porcupines.

Eurasian beavers were hunted to near extinction. Ancient physicians regarded the beaver’s smelly sent organs as a potent medicine. Beavers would give off the smell to repel attackers, a bit like a skunk. Mistaking the castor sacs that held the scent for testicles, early Europeans thought the beavers bit off their testicles and shed their fur to escape capture. The Greek fabulist Aesop had this to say:

“If only people would take the same approach and agree to be deprived of their possessions in order to live lives free of danger; no one, after all, would set a trap for one already stripped to the skin.”

Eurasian beavers were seen by Christian moralists as models of chastity, austerity, and prudence.

Beavers were so rare in Europe, that by the time that Europeans arrived in North America, they saw them for the first time. They were so impressed by the rodent’s architectural abilities that they imagined a beaver society that could achieve such wonders.

The seventeenth-century French aristocrat, Niclolas Deny, outlined what he saw as a beaver society in which specific tasks were assigned such as cutting down trees, making stakes, with the oldest carrying dirt with their tails. The construction of beaver mansions was overseen by foremen. Beaver carpenters, ditch diggers, log carriers, ensured a high standard of construction. If any workers were neglectful, the foreman “chastises them, beats them, throws himself on them, and bites them to keep them at their duties,” wrote Denys.

Denys’ views mirrored the society in which he grew up. Great public works could only be achieved by keeping the grunt labourers in line. Whipping them into submission was an accepted means of accomplishing a greater good.

Europeans wondered what kind of political structure the beavers preferred. Of course, since only rich aristocrats could afford to explore, beavers must have preferred aristocratic overseers.

Aristocratic beaver society served as a model for settler society. Lazy beaver workers would have the fur stripped from their backs, it was imagined, and banished from beaver society to live their lives, exiled, in holes.

This was a convenient tale to tell independence-minded settlers, many who were escaping social upheaval in Europe. It was to keep settlers under the thumb of aristocrats. Poliquin explains:

“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 bourgeois fur merchants. Living like vagabond beavers, they refused the duties of societies 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.”

Modern Canadian beavers have escaped the tyranny of aristocracy and live in well-insulated homes. They come out of their dens to vote every four years. Unpretentious, yet a bit smug, they imagine their society to be better than others such as the one to the south.


Austerity and kitchen table politics

Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes austerity as a suicide pact; a deal between the powerful business elite and government to reduce public spending. That leads to a slowdown in the economy which leads to a “vicious cycle of spending cuts and slumping growth.”


Dinyar Godrej elaborates in the New Internationalist magazine: “Austerity is being used as a tool for ever-increasing privatization, either with the collusion with moneyed-elite in government (as in Britain), or by the imposition of it on crisis-hit countries. . .”

Canada was on that path until the election of a new Liberal government. The intention of the Harper government was to reduce the size of government and reduce taxes; code words for reducing the effectiveness of democracy by starving government of cash.

The politics of austerity hit home in what I like to call “kitchen table politics” where some imagined family sits around the table and has frank discussions about their finances. Former Prime Minister Harper liked to play these politics. In a desperate bid to show the cost of Liberal promises during the last election, he turned to game-show tactics. Harper, sleeves rolled up, shared the stage with a family. Each took their turn peeling bills from a stack of cash and laying them on the table as a comical “ka-ching!” sound effect filled the room supposedly illustrating the cost of government spending.

Bad theatre aside, kitchen table politics ring true because voters confuse the government finances with their own. If families must tighten their belts then so should governments. In that light, Canada’s spending spree seems to defy logic: the Liberal government has promised to spend billions just when our economy is going through tough times.

When times are tough, so goes the rhetoric, hard choices have to be made. Austerity is the bitter pill that we all must to swallow to return the economy to health. Business confidence will only be restored when governments tighten their belts. Tax breaks for corporations will provide an incentive to invest more and create jobs.

The austerity of kitchen table economics seems to make sense. “The reason is clear,” says Dinyar Godrej, “In a depressed economy with increased job insecurity and worsening welfare provision, people want to hang on to their savings and not spend, prolonging the stagnation.”

Of course, it would be foolish not to manage spending when you lose your job. But austerity acts like a dark cloud hanging not over just the unemployed but everyone. Reduced spending perpetuates the downward cycle. Families need reasons to feel confident about the future.

Governments can create that confidence. Blind faith in corporations to stimulate the economy got us into this mess in the first place. Take Harper’s plan to make Canada an “energy superpower” as an example. It was a colossal mistake on two fronts. Emphasis on the exportation of our resources was at the expense of our manufacturing sector. His emphasis on small government left us with an infrastructure deficit.

Canada faces tough times but austerity would have made it worse. Government jobs carry the economy when the private sector can’t.