Addressing his colleagues on the Northwest Territories Legislative Council in July 1960, Robert “Bobby” Porritt of Hay River took aim at “an unwelcome immigrant to Canada” who went by the name Smokey Bear. “Is the forestry division so short of funds, or so lacking in initiative that it has to adopt an American fire prevention program and has to use posters that come straight from government departments from across the border?” Porritt, himself an immigrant, asked about the iconic mascot. “Surely we should be capable of producing our own posters when they concern our own resources.” He wasn’t alone in his jingoism. “The kind old gentleman in a scout hat and shovel can turn out to be a vicious killer,” an Alberta forestry official maintained. “A bear is not a conservationist but a scavenger and a killer,” said another.
Smokey Bear came to be on August 9, 1944, when the U.S. Forest Service authorized what would become the longest-running public service announcement campaign in American history. With so many trained firefighters away in the armed forces, the agency looked for any opportunity to mitigate and manage the annual fire season, as well as the threat posed by Japanese balloon bombs. “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!” Smokey originally told the public, before his slogan was updated, after the war, to “Remember . . . Only you can prevent forest fires!”
The Canadian Forestry Association adopted Smokey Bear the following decade, in 1956, and soon he was sharing his message of fire prevention across this country, by visiting classrooms, marching in parades, appearing in a weekly comic strip, and attending posh ceremonies at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel. Around the same time, Walt Disney Productions was shooting multiple films in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country, among them Nikki, Wild Dog of the North. To thank the province’s forest service for its help with those pictures, Disney gifted the agency with a fire prevention mascot of its own, Bertie Beaver, drawn with a lumberjack shirt and, like Smokey Bear, wearing a classic campaign hat.
There is a photograph from the 1965 Calgary Stampede of Walt Disney himself, capped with a white Stetson and standing next to a six-foot-tall Bertie Beaver. The costume weighed nearly thirty-three kilograms and cost $2,000. And while it’s unclear who was behind the short buckteeth and pink tongue that day, there’s a good chance it was a fifty-six-year-old woman named Gladys Stevens.
A former Eaton’s clerk from Winnipeg, Gladys began dressing up as Bertie Beaver in 1962, while her husband, Greg, donned a Smokey Bear costume. For the next two decades, the Stevens couple criss-crossed Western Canada on behalf of the Prairie Provinces Forestry Association, often travelling by train, in a modified railway car that featured living quarters and a small theatre. Most of their appearances, according to Greg’s 2001 obituary, were in Alberta, with its more than 405,000 square kilometres of public woodlands, “an area almost three times the size of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined,” the Alberta Forest Service later pointed out.
Sustainable management practices have changed dramatically since Greg and Gladys Stevens were meeting with schoolchildren. Smokey and Bertie are also no longer the only voices helping to spread the word: Quebec’s Société de protection des forêts contre le feu debuted its mascot, Garofeu, in 1979 and brought the “likeable and farsighted” eastern chipmunk back into service in 2020, after a quarter-century break. The following year, FireSmart Canada introduced Ember the Fox, who looks something like a yellow Sonic the Hedgehog. “We felt it was time for Canada to have its own voice regarding wildfire preparedness,” a spokesperson explained, with echoes of Bobby Porritt.
Yet when it comes to wildfire awareness, flag-waving nationalism seems rather misplaced. Nearly 90 percent of adults and almost as many children can already identify Smokey Bear. “In Canada,” a special issue of Fire Management Notes explained many years ago, “Smokey is as well known as Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse.” In other words, more Canadians recognize the “unwelcome” American import than recognize the science of climate change. And with climate change, we should embrace whichever agent most effectively conveys the urgent message, regardless of its country of origin.
As we endure what is already a record-setting year of conflagration and smoke, there is something poignant in the image of Greg and Gladys Stevens standing side by side as Smokey Bear and Bertie Beaver — enduring symbols not of smug or superficial competition but of counterintuitive cooperation against an increasingly sombre and, for so many, profoundly tragic reality.