Is the wolf the most Canadian animal?

A Canadian timberwolf in winter Photo by Michael Roeder / Shutterstock

This essay about the wolf was originally published as part of “The Great Canadian Creature Feature” appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Cottage Life.

Growing up as a ‘90s kid in the United Arab Emirates, I was often glued to the television screen in my living room. Along with subtitled reruns of Full House and ER, a smattering of Canadian shows had somehow made it all the way to the Middle East. I didn’t know much about Canada, a country nearly 11,000 kilometres away. But television taught me a lot about it, both fact and fiction.

My favourite shows were North of 60, a CBC drama about a First Nations town in the Northwest Territories, and Due South, a quirky police procedural about an impossibly polite Canadian Mountie, played by Paul Gross. The Mountie’s constant companion was Diefenbaker, a majestic, white part-wolf that also happened to read lips—in several languages. 

Living as I did in a country where 40-degree summers and sand storms are the norm, Canada’s cold winters, endless snow, and wide expanses of forest became the stuff of fantasy. For me, nothing evoked “Canada” more than an imperious wolf calling to its pack with a piercing howl that resonated across the snowy pines of the wilderness. Ever since those formative years, the wolf has been prominent in my conception of Canada—even after fantasies became different realities when I immigrated to Toronto in 2006. 

I arrived in Canada as a shy, inexperienced 17-year-old university student, separated from my family for the first time. Those early days were exciting, but also terrifying—I was in a strange city in an inconceivably large country where no one really knew or cared about me. And I can definitively say that my first-hand experiences of Canada’s frigid winter temperatures and deluges of snow were the furthest thing from my romanticized fantasies. Those first few years in Canada were tough. In many ways, I identified with the lone wolf, continents and oceans away from my pack. I had to learn to rely on myself to forge a life and career here. I became stronger and more resilient.

Those traits are what I admire the most about wolves—about all of Canada’s wolf species. They’re survivors. Wolves lead harsh lives. While some can live up to 13 years in the wild, most die far earlier through disease, starvation, or from human hunting rifles. They’re shy like I once was, but behind their skittish elusiveness is a dogged desire to live. This desire is what makes them so terrifying to their prey, but it’s also why they’re revered by many First Nations as fearless and patient hunters. While I flew on a plane to leave my family behind, wolves that depart from their pack are known to take solo treks for hundreds of kilometres in search of food and a new home. And in an incredible testament to their endurance and resolve, they can go a week or longer without eating.

Tiny wolf pups practice howling together

But as much as I developed my independence in Canada, I learned that being alone is a limiting way to live. Similarly, while wolves can fend for themselves if they have to, they’re also social animals that will work together. The entire pack assumes responsibility for each pup, and a female wolf will adopt the pups of another mother who starves or fails to return from a hunt. I respect how wolves take this balanced approach to life—depending on the situation, they rely on themselves or the collective.

After my initial isolation in Canada, I made university friendships that have grown into lifelong bonds. Those friends are my brothers today. My new pack. They were the ones who introduced me to a version of Canada that I’d only experienced on television.

Wolves were once vilified by European settlers and hunted to extinction in certain regions of our country. But the Canadian perception has transformed in the last half-century. The 1963 book Never Cry Wolf, author Farley Mowat’s intimate first-hand account of his observations of wolves in the Canadian arctic, is considered a landmark work in shifting public opinion. We now understand that all the wolves that live within our borders are an incredibly integral part of the ecosystem. 

This inclusive shift in our country’s attitude towards all its wildlife is also echoed by the experiences of many Canadian newcomers. The fact that I was welcomed in by people from a vastly different background and the fact that we are building new roots together is because of this inclusive spirit.

Facts and figures

They like to move it, move it:  Wolf packs can really crank up the speed, sprinting as swiftly as 70 km/hr to take down big prey.

Cold, uh, comfort? In winter, wolves will eat the frozen carcasses of moose or deer that have died from hypothermia. 

Scent and sensibility: Like dogs, wolves have a sophisticated sense of smell. They can track scents from two kilometres away.

Read more about the grey wolf

Read more essays from “The Great Canadian Creature Feature” to read more of our favourite writers making the case for their pick for the most Canadian animal in the June/July 2021 issue of Cottage Life.

Featured Video