In 1851, the British Crown transferred authority to the Province of Canada for the management of its own postal system, whereupon Canada hastened to issue postage stamps so as to give tangible form to its new authority. Only two days after being instructed to reorganize the Post Office from top to bottom, James Morris met with Sandford Fleming in Toronto, on 24 February 1851, to discuss certain details concerning postage stamp illustration.
During this meeting, Fleming suggested the idea of using the beaver to illustrate the first Canadian postage stamp. The proposal was audacious, to say the least, for it broke with the tradition hitherto observed in the British Empire of using the effigy of the monarch to illustrate postage stamps. Sandford Fleming felt that the beaver was totally appropriate, since this characteristic specimen of Canadian wildlife, known for its industriousness, its building skills and its tenacity, was the perfect representative of a young nation occupied with building its future in a land that was still virtually undeveloped. The beaver was also evocative of the colonys beginnings, since beaver pelts were one of the first articles of trade between Amerindians and the French who disembarked in New France.
Sandford Fleming succeeded in convincing James Morris, and, on 23 April 1851, a three-pence postage stamp for domestic mail was issued. Its central motif is of course a beaver, which appears in profile in its natural habitat, at work building a dam near a waterfall; on the same plane, to the right, is a field of trilliums. The stamp is not devoid of symbols of the monarchy, for it also features the royal crown of England on a cushion of heraldic flowers: the English rose, the Scottish thistle and the Irish shamrock. The VR monogram of Queen Victoria also overhangs the representation of the beaver.
Sandford Fleming created two other postage stamps in 1851, this time for international mail. These were a six-pence stamp with the effigy of Prince Albert and a twelve-pence bearing the portrait of the Queen.
The beaver we now see on the back of our five-cent nickels became the official emblematic animal of Canada on 24 March 1975.
Masse, Denis. Le Castor de Fleming et ses descendants. Montréal: Académie québécoise dÉtudes philatéliques, n.d.