It's been more than twenty years since Nicole Nolan wrote the saucy think piece "Isn't It Ironic" for This Magazine (invisible on the Google, but you can read it here). It contained this fantastic précis of the perennial conundrum of Canadian wildlife symbolism:
On the one hand, the beaver/ eagle comparison reminds us of our inferiority to America. Their country's national symbol is a high-flying mountain bird, glorious in its independence and predatory ferocity; ours is a small, furry, water creature with buck teeth, renowned for biting off its own testicles when cornered. It seems pretty obvious who's superior. On the other hand, the fact that we can acknowledge this fact and laugh about it means that we're not terribly invested in the whole stupid national-animal bullshit anyway, which, in turn, makes us superior.
That was then. As everyone knows by now, the fact that Canada has no official bird has emerged in recent years as one of the country's more pitiful national failings, which in the Trudeau era is no small achievement. As Professor Emeritus David M. Bird of McGill yesterday reminded Canadians, "an official bird would not only represent all of those wonderful things that birds do for us, but also symbolize the very nature of Canadians as being the friendly, hardy and intelligent people the world has come to know us as."
Professor Bird is undoubtedly correct about our debts to our feathered friends, but as for Canadians—alas, these days we are nowhere near friendly and intelligent enough to forge a national consensus on anything bearing timeless symbolic weight. The mind boggles at the prospect of English and French Canadians, First Nations, diverse religious groups, urban and rural dwellers, editorialists, postmodernists, feminists and folksingers debating the elevation of a single avian species into the national pantheon. What would be the prime minister's own pick for national bird? Or Naomi Klein's? Or Jordan Peterson's? Who would be the final arbiter of canonization, and on whose authority? And even if we could whittle down the field to, say, a short list of four or five finalists, how would we contain the inevitable Twitter wars, campus protests and charges of cultural appropriation?
The answer is obvious. In the fragmented, hyper-politicized Canada of 2018, where we cannot even get a pipeline built, there can be no consensus. We will not get our national bird—and it won't be because, per Nicole Nolan, "we're not terribly invested in the whole stupid national-animal bullshit." It will be for precisely the opposite reason—that we've become so inordinately invested in the zero-sum brinkmanship of the culture wars that we have lost the capacity for good humour and compromise.