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The mother beaver

David Monaghan, Curator, Curatorial Services

When Symbolism and Reality Collide

The Beaver with Shield, Peace Tower, 2013.

The Centre Block is often referred to as a symbol of Canadian democracy and certainly the Peace Tower is recognized throughout Canada as a symbol in own right. Like a finely crafted piece of jewelry the building and Tower abound with objects, paintings, sculpture and other objects that each reflects an element of our long history as the focal point of parliamentary democracy in Canada. Similar to a good story, the tone is set at the very beginning.

The main entrance of the Centre Block is imposing structure, comprised of the arched base of the Peace Tower followed by the pair of bronze double doors. A visitor approaching from Wellington Street walks along the broad ceremonial walkway and then must climb some twenty steps to arrive at the top of the Vaux Terrace, or the Drive, immediately in front of the building. Ahead is the main entrance and 10 more steps leading to the graceful arch made of Wallace sandstone from Nova Scotia and the Peace Tower soaring a little over 92 meters overhead. The whole experience of walking towards the entrance is simply uplifting, and quite fitting for the ceremonial entrance to Canada’s Parliament Building.

John Andrew Pearson, architect of the Peace Tower, supervised the installation of an extensive sculpture program on the Tower prior to its inauguration on July 1, 1927. However, the arched entranceways were not completed by that date. As in so many other areas, John Pearson demonstrated his vision by installing substantial blocks of uncarved stone around the arches to allow for future carving. It would take another decade before work would begin on the main entrance.

The carvings surrounding the ceremonial entrance to the Centre Block are magnificent pieces of sculpture designed by the first Dominion Sculptor, Cleophas Soucy, and his assistant, Coeur de Lion McCarthy under the direction of Alan Keefer, a noted architect for the Department of Public Works. The intricate designs around the door were carved between 1937and 1938 by a team of six carvers, along with Soucy and McCarthy. The work garnered much attention from the media when it began in the summer of 1937. The entrance has a distinctive gothic character in keeping with the building. Heraldic devices, mythical beasts, animals, and floral motifs abound. While the themes may fit within a traditional gothic program, it is the subject of the carvings that gives the main entrance its distinctively Canadian flavor, as the Dominion Sculptor stated at the time.

The Carving Team standing in front of the Entrance, ca. 1938.

The archway is flanked by on either side by a 1.8 meter high beast shown standing erect; a unicorn is the east side and a lion on the west. Known as “supporters” in heraldry, these two beasts are found on the Arms of Canada as well as the United Kingdom. The Lion carries a Union flag and supports the Royal Arms, while the unicorn carries the Royal flag of France and supports the Arms of Canada. These two guardians anchor the archway with its own two distinctive bands of carving featuring far more distinctive Canadian symbols.

The inner narrow band of carving, or frieze, depicts various birds, trees and flowers of Canada, a theme found throughout the entry. The outer band of relief carving is comprised of the provincial coats of arms. The Coat of arms of Quebec and Ontario flank each other at the tops of the arch and are surmounted by a royal crown. All of the provincial arms are shown on a background of maple leaves, pinecones and other Canadian flora. Originally only nine shields were carved and the tenth was left blank – a very wise decision by the sculptor. In 1949 room was available for the addition of Canada’s newest province to the grand entrance.

Cléophas Soucy’s Model of a Single Beaver, with original design on shield, 1938.

Any doubt in the Canadian character of the entrance will soon be dispelled when one looks up from the ground to the apex of the entry to the Centre Block. It is a study in contrasts, as sitting high above the heraldic devices and mythical unicorn and stately lion is a single beaver supporting a shield. The design on the shield is different than most in that it carries images of five flowers representing the European cultures that played a prominent role in early Canada. A Tudor rose represents the English, a Fleur de lis represents the French, a thistle the Scots, a shamrock the Irish, and a leek represents the Welsh.

Ironically, amidst all of these mythical creatures and symbols, the beaver actually created quite a commotion when the original design was initially reported in the newspapers of the day. What is most interesting about the uproar was not the selection of the iconic beaver, but how the beaver was to be represented. Cleophas Soucy’s original design was of a more symbolic nature in that it was to depict a mother beaver surrounded by nine young beaver kits, each baby beaver representing the nine provinces and Canada itself. This was certainly a creative design to fit into the existing symbolism found on the Hill and in the building. A number of newspaper articles reported on the design in January 1938 and even depicted photographs of the plaster design that Soucy had prepared for his carvers.

The Model of the Mother Beaver with Nine Kits, 1938.

However, the news reports created something of a bureaucratic uproar. In February of 1938 Chalotte Whitton, then Executive Director of the Canadian Welfare Council and later Ottawa’s first female mayor, wrote a personal letter to the Prime Minister’s Executive Secretary, Edward Pickering, to prevent what she termed a wrong against our national animal, the beaver, as to have this stone work represent a beaver with nine kittens. It would appear that Ms. Whitton had been informed by various sources that beavers typically produce litters of two or three kittens, not the nine depicted; to continue with the proposed design would be a violence to fact.

Ms. Whitton’s request resulted in considerably more internal memoranda. Mr. Pickering contacted the Deputy Minister of Public Works on the matter who, in turn, raised the matter with Public Work’s Chief Architect. It would appear from the correspondence that followed that Public Works made additional inquiries with a specialist at the Victoria Museum, today’s Museum of Nature, to determine if a female beaver could produce a litter of nine kits or not. According to their findings Ms. Whitton’s facts were not entirely correct; while nine kits were in the realm of possibility, it could not be confirmed to any degree of certainty. Consequently, at the beginning of March 1938, the Prime Minister was briefed on the matter and a proposal was put forward that the mother beaver with kits would be replaced by a single beaver, alone.

History notes his decision. By September 1938 new models depicting a single beaver were produced for approval. Two designs were submitted, one produced by McCarthy and the other by Soucy. On September 12, 1938 Soucy’s design of a single beaver, approximately a meter in height, supporting a shield had been approved for carving. Work must have progressed quickly as local papers reported the completion of the sculpture on the building, along with the history of the mother beaver, a month later. Standing high above the entrance, seventy-five years later the beaver continues to survey Parliament Hill, a distinctively Canadian symbol greeting alike common citizens, monarchs, presidents, and Prime Ministers, albeit alone.

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