An Indigenous perspective on the Canada jay

Arguments for the official recognition of the Canada jay as the country’s national bird 

  • Jul 28, 2023
  • 1,158 words
  • 5 minutes
A Canada jay pictured in Algonquin Provincial Park in late winter. (Photo: John Mayer/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Excerpted from The Canada Jay: The National Bird of Canada ©2021 by David Bird, Dan Strickland, Ryan Norris, Alain Goulet, Aaron Kylie, Mark Nadjiwan, Michel Gosselin and Colleen Archer. Published by Hancock House Publishers. 

Beyond the inclusion of my drawing For Seven Generations in this book, which is an honour, I wish to begin by further acknowledging the desire of “Team Canada Jay” leadership to include contributions from all of Canada’s three founding groups, and for reaching out to me to provide an Indigenous voice to the discussion at hand. So miigwetch to David Bird, the coordinating editor, and all my fellow co-authors!

The Canada Jay, cultural bridge-builder and symbol of environmental stewardship, "For Seven Generations", by Anishinabek artist Mark Nadjiwan.
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As a point of respect, I want to first offer that I am acutely aware that the many First Nations spanning the country are exactly that, “many,” and as such we are far from homogenous. Consequently, to speak for any or all of them would involve claiming a pan-cultural right to do so that I neither possess nor aspire to. In fact, in what follows I do not even claim to speak for the Nation to which I belong, the Anishnabek, nor the community of which I am a member, Neyaashiinigmiing. My offerings here, while informed by Indigenous values, are my own. As for my brief contribution, I want to go a little more broadly and deeply into the conversation and perhaps reach the reader on an aspirational level. I believe I am correct in saying that this book is ultimately intended to be more aspirational than informational—though it does indeed contain great information! In the previous chapter, for example, Dan Strickland capably addresses a couple of First Nations factual elements, so there is no need for trespass or repetition on my part. As an artist I am, as most artists are, far more interested in the transmission of new ideas or ways of looking at things, than in the communication of established facts. My fellow contributors represent an important range of disciplines and styles including, for example, the “whimsical” words of poet Colleen Archer, further enlivening our hopeful cause of having this particular corvid, the Canada Jay, named as the Country’s national bird. 

When I completed For Seven Generations in 2015, I decided to write an accompanying “story” that spoke to the threats posed by climate change—not only threats to the Canada Jay, but to all of us, and the collective responsibility we have to radically alter the way that we relate to the natural world for the sake of the next seven generations. I have continued this kind of messaging in both image and word in my more recent works as well (Dan Strickland and Ryan Norris also address environmental threats in Chapter 7). So to David’s already compelling list of worthy reasons to make the Canada Jay our national bird, I would add that its role as an environmental messenger strengthens not only the case for such a designation (we are, after all, a big country with lots of environment to be concerned about!), but that such a designation could establish further common ground between settler Canadians and Indigenous Peoples. 

Canada Jays are non-migratory and are well-adapted to survive and breed in our harsh Canadian winters. (Photo: Marcel Gahbauer)
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As we know, the struggle to find common ground between our Peoples has been an enduring issue throughout the history of this land as we work toward a yet-to-be-fully-attained goal of truly becoming co-sovereigns, more equitably sharing a territory as per the original spirit and intent of the treaties. So, I would beseech all of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, to rally ‘round the Canada Jay. To embrace her and her many fine qualities as our own, and to pay particular heed to her messages about re-envisaging the ways that we care for this land, for the sake of all those who dwell upon it. To be sure, though, this last request may understandably pose a challenge to more typical Indigenous values. Let me explain…

The practice among nation states of having a “national” animal, with its effect of raising one above all others, reflects a trait of many non-Indigenous cultures, where the status and integrity of the individual surpasses that of more communal interests and values. While it is certainly true that we Indigenous People have our Clan/Totem systems, headed up by animals whose attributes are to be brought to bear on one’s own conduct, these systems pertain only to prescribed roles, and no one clan animal is ever elevated beyond the others in their importance. Let us not forget too, that conversely, some settler Canadians still embrace totemic remnants in their own societies (whether they know it or not!), as one needs only to think of service organizations like the Lions Club or the Elks Club. So, while an objection may well be raised against the goal of this book on the grounds that it runs afoul of “traditional” values, I would certainly respond by acknowledging the merits of those said values, while at the same time recognizing that transformation within any tradition is one of the most powerful! All cultures do and indeed must evolve and undergo change. Our People have, after all, already undergone perhaps more change than any other demographic in the country. And while most of that change has been thrust upon us, I believe that the aspiration of this book presents an opportunity for us to be active partners in change (rather than passive recipients of it), and to do so in the interest of the shared responsibility for environmental stewardship alluded to above. Thus, I am pleased to lend my Indigenous voice to such an act of further Reconciliation, though it be relatively small when compared to the much harder work that needs to be done … all the more reason to take it up, perhaps. 

This amazing mosaic floor in Murano glass and gold is an integral part of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration located in Markham, Ontario, and blessed by Pope John Paul 2 in 1984. The artwork and design for the mosaic were imagined by Fabrizio Travisanutto and Helen Roman-Barber, but the mosaic itself was fabricated and installed by Travisanutto Mosaics. The themes are the Militant Sheep, the Alpha and the Omega, the Celtic Cross, our Lord’s fish, and for Canadian content, the Canada Jay.
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The Canada Jays featured in the mosaic tile floor created by Travisanutto Mosaics and Helen Roman- Barber were inspired by a photo by Dan Strickland featured on Page 58.
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Finally, the ongoing predicament on Mother Earth, including the ever-increasing threat of zoonotic diseases, is driven by the degradation of our natural environment—through human encroachment, wildlife exploitation, resource extraction, animal agriculture, climate change, and other stressors. I believe this reality bolsters the case for why parliamentarians should act to name the Canada Jay, a powerful winged environmental emissary, as the national bird. And as I have meandering thoughts about the current pandemic, I am struck by some curious wordplay that I suspect comes from afar. My home is on the Saugeen Peninsula, on Treaty 72 lands. Indeed, as I write these words by an open window facing north over a young cedar forest, I am sure that I hear whiskyjack in her alternate persona as Trickster, quipping from her home in northern Muskego, “Jeez, them settler-government folks, ever tired of this COVID stuff, I bet … maybe they need to talk about some CORVID instead, hehe … do them some good, anyways!” And as her mischievous giggle runs away with the next gust of wind, I know I can safely answer her on behalf of all the contributors to this book: “Ever hope so, us”!


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