Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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Canada's #1 rodent

Everything you wanted to know about our national symbol but were afraid to ask

Canada is a land of heroes — furry, scaly and feathered heroes. While photogenic mega-fauna like elk and bear pose for tourist photos in Banff, the country’s more peculiar and uglier animals, like lemmings and sturgeon, just get on with keeping the food chain functioning.

In recognition of their valiant Canadianess, we are launching a new series to salute some of our less-vaunted critters. First up is the animal you thought you already knew all about — the beaver.

My first memorable experience with a beaver took place about 25 years ago when my family lived out in the country near Montreal. My uncle showed up at our backdoor. He looked tired, wet and excited. Next to him was a black garbage bag, leaking liquid onto the porch.

Without speaking, he reached into the bag and pulled out the largest dead rat I had ever seen. “I finally got the beaver at the back lake,” he said grinning ear-to-ear and holding it by the tail.

Beaver? I looked closer. Flat tail. Huge teeth. Yep, there was our national symbol, dripping onto the woodpile. It stank.

It was the closest I had ever been to a castor canadensis. I was disappointed. Was this the pelt that launched a thousand ships? The creature that created the Canadian economy? The little bugger that dammed our back lake and drowned our trees?

After that, I starting reading all I could on beavers in order to find out why they were so important. I already knew the popular impression of our national symbol — hard-working, mates-for-life, family-oriented, constantly-renovating, maniacal snacker.

What I did not know was that there were once Eurasian beavers all over Europe. The 1892 book Castorologia states that, by the 16th century, they were so threatened that the Poles set up a beaver reserve. The last recorded beaver in England was spotted in 1526. In the 18th century, the Prussians started passing edicts protecting them.

The reason they were so popular was that the oil secreted from their anal glands, castoreum (not to be confused with castor oil, which comes from castor beans). According to a 1685 book, also called Castorologia, it was thought to do “much good to mad people; and those who are attacked with pleurisy [...] Castoreum destroys fleas; it is an excellent stomachic; stops hiccough; induces sleep; prevents sleepiness; strengthens the sight, and taken up the nose it causes sneezing and clears the brain.”

Beavers, Bears and Barbarians

Meanwhile, back on our side of the pond, in the place French encyclopedists referred to as “a country inhabited by bears, beavers and barbarians, and covered, eight months of the year, with snow,” the first settlers found beavers aplenty — it was like striking furry, smelly gold. This time the appeal was not the odorous anal-gland secretions, but the downy pelts for making highly fashionable tri-cornered hats.

When the European fur traders arrived (first mostly French, then lots of Scots), there were an estimated six million beavers in Canada. A pelt bought here could be sold in Europe at about 20 times the price. At the height of trade, around 100,000 pelts were being shipped to Europe a year.

The beaver pelt literally became the gold standard for Canadian currency. A coin was even created which was equal to the value of one pelt.

The first Canadian to include a beaver in his coat of arms was fur trader, and later member of parliament, Sir William Alexander in 1621. Then the craze took off. In 1678, the Hudson’s Bay Company stuck four beavers on their coat of arms (their London headquarters was called Beaver House). When France successfully defended Quebec in 1690, they struck a commemorative medal featuring a sitting woman (France) with a beaver (Canada) at her feet.

Over the years, it has been on the shield of everything from the Canadian Pacific Railway to the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Montreal’s first coat of arms, designed in 1833 by Jacques Viger, the city’s first mayor, featured the symbols of the four European founding communities: the English rose, the Irish clover, the French-Canadian beaver and the Scottish thistle.

Canada’s first postage stamp, issued in 1851, was the “Three Penny Beaver.” We named one of our most iconic planes after it. And, in 1975, it became our official symbol.

When it came time to name the Hudson’s Bay Company magazine in 1920, the obvious choice was The Beaver. It is now the official magazine for Canada’s National History Society. According to its editor, Annalee Greenberg, the animal is a good symbol because “they’re hardworking and steadfast — classic Canadian qualities. I try to overlook the fact that they’re rodents.”

Predictably, by the time Martin published Castorologia in 1892, he was certain about the beaver’s imminent extinction. There were even attempts to safeguard supply by ranching beavers. In 1874, the Marquis of Bute tried to establish a castor colony in Scotland.

But no one had factored in the awesome power of fashion. A miraculous thing happened: beaver hats went out of style, and silk came in. Lucky beavers.

Join the Club

Beavers may be persevering and industrious, but when they are iced-in for the winter, they break out the disco ball and boogie. At least that’s what can be extrapolated from the shenanigans of Canada’s oldest and likely most bacchanalian private fellowship, the legendary Beaver Club.

The club was founded in Montreal in 1785 by 19 men, mostly French Canadian and Scottish. Members had to be commercially successful, socially acceptable, approved by the other members and, critically, must have spent a winter in the northwest fur territories.

The official goal was to balance the power of the Hudson’s Bay Company with their “NorthWest Company.” The unofficial goal was, during the winter when the watery ‘fur highways’ were iced over, to have delicious, drunken banquets every two weeks. A different restaurant was chosen every time (or perhaps they were not invited back). Most were around the street now called Beaver Hall Hill, just east of University Street in downtown Montreal.

The description of an average Beaver Club dinner went something like this: “…when wine had produced the sought-for degree of gaiety in the wee hours of the morning, the dealers and merchants reenacted the ‘grand voyage’ in full sight of the waiters [...]. For this purpose, they sat one behind another on a rich carpet, each equipping himself with a poker, tongs, a sword or a walking stick in place of a paddle and roared out voyageurs’ songs, [...] meanwhile paddling with as much steadiness as their strained nerves would permit.”

Among the “Lords of the Lakes and the Forests” that made that initial cut were James McGill (founder of McGill University), Alexander Mackenzie and explorers such as Peter Pond and a couple of Frobishers. “Honourary Wintering Partners” included Benjamin Franklin, John Jacob Astor and Washington Irving.

New members were inducted with a session on the peace pipe and at least five formal toasts. Then, finely lubricated, stories of exploration were retold. A good time was had by all, except the married men: they were sent packing at midnight.

The Club took a break from 1804 to 1807 but returned with a vengeance from 1807 to 1817. On Christmas Eve in 1808, 35 members and their guests drank 40 bottles of Madeira, 12 of Port, 14 of porter, eight quarts of beer, six of cider and four bottles of various other wines.

Not surprisingly, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) soon absorbed the sodden but cheerful NorthWest Company. HBC tried to revive the Club in 1827, but they just didn’t have the right spirit(s). It barely lasted the winter.

Modern Debauchery

Eventually, the lure of hibernal debauchery was just too much to resist. In 1958, the Queen Elizabeth Hotel opened its doors in Montreal and decided to name its restaurant the Beaver Club. To resurrect the full tradition, they reactivated membership and inaugurated legendary annual dinners that would have left even James McGill reeling.

This time women were allowed and members need only be proposed by other members, successful in their chosen field and socially acceptable (there goes my membership).

Their annual dinners were over-the-top, politically-incorrect extravaganzas. Instead of wintering in the North, new members had to show their bravery by collaring a live bear in the restaurant dinning room (the bear, Gigi, belonged to a friend of the maître d’). Guests arrived on elephants. Dog teams were even driven through the ballroom.

Of course, everyone wanted to join. Over the years, members included Lord Baden-Powell, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, the King of Nepal, and most prime ministers. At one point, the Club had over 900 members from more than 40 countries. Some flew in just for the annual party.

The Beaver Club (900 René Lévesque Boulevard, Montreal; tel: 514-861-3511 ext. 2448; lives on. The restaurant, one of the best in North America, is still there. It is one of those places where the staff has been around forever, so if you ask politely, they might spin a yarn or two about dinners past.

And it is still a power-lunch hot spot: Lucien Bouchard eats there around three times a week. A six-course meal with three glasses of wine costs $146; three courses without wine are $89. The food is exceptional, and the chef has twice been voted Montreal Chef of the Year.

You can also still become a Beaver Club member (it is free, but you have to qualify). But the annual dinners stopped in 1996; a casualty of the times. There is talk of resurrecting the Pantagruelian feasts — I have already started practising doing the J-stroke with my salad fork.

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