Canada’s first groundhog was a bear

Move over Punxsutawney Phil, Wiarton Willie and Shubenacadie Sam – it turns out the earliest animal to predict the coming of spring in North America was not a groundhog, but a bear.

Alan MacEachern, Canadian history professor at Western University, has dug deep into Canadian newspapers from the late 1800s to discover how close we actually came to celebrating ‘Bear Day’ on February 2.

On February 3, 1900 British Columbia’s Cascade Record newspaper reported ‘Yesterday was Bear or Groundhog Day.’

The tradition of looking at behaviour patterns of hibernating animals to predict the weather was brought from Europe to North America in the 1800s. Canadians’ animal of choice was the bear.

“If you think about it, it’s not hard to believe. A bear’s credentials are impeccable,” said MacEachern. “They hibernate, they are found across the country, and they are pretty easy to observe, if only at a distance.”

According to MacEachern’s research, when Canadian newspapers started to draw attention to the February 2 folklore in the late 1800s, they initially favoured reporting on a bear. But Americans were favouring the groundhog and dubbed February 2 ‘Groundhog Day.’

“The Canadian bear slowly succumbed to the American groundhog by the early 1900s,” he said.

While it might seem like just a quirky fact of history, MacEachern says it’s important to understand the significance.

“People of the past had countless ways to interpret the natural world. The one great advantage the Groundhog Day tradition has had is that it is associated with a single day, allowing it to become entrenched in a way other folk wisdom hasn’t,” said MacEachern. “In a way, Groundhog Day commemorates, and stands in for, all the nature lore we’ve forgotten.”

Professor MacEachern teaches and researches Canadian history, with an emphasis on environmental and climate history.

He will be speaking on January 29 at the Wolf Performance Hall in London, Ontario on the folklore and fact of hibernating animals. The ‘Nature in the City’ public lecture series runs each Tuesday from 7:00 – 8:30 p.m. until February 19.

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Alan MacEachern
Environment Cananada observation, Arden, ON, 2 Feb 1907 – A portion of an Environment Canada weather observation by Thomas Andrews of Arden, Ontario, on February 7, 1907. "No shadow. Bear did not see it." It is the only reference researchers at Western have found that cites an observer looking for an animal's shadow on February 2. And it's a bear.
BC Cascade Record, 3 Feb 1900 – Clipping from an editorial in the small town newspaper Record of Cascade, BC, on 3 February 1900. It shows how Canadians in the era looked to either the groundhog or bear -- or sometimes both.