- Allan Beaton’s “Ookpik” Was Here
Before Ilanaaq the Inuksuk, a symbol for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, became famous, there was Ookpik, the stylized owl that was an official mascot at Montreal’s Expo 67. It was the first Inuit design appropriated by Canada and, according to Maclean’s, remains the best-ever mascot design because it is irresistibly furry, goggle-eyed, and easy to mass-produce as a souvenir (Geddes).
The original Ookpik design was less than six inches tall, made of sealskin, sported an oversized head and eyes, pointed beak, and flat, fanciful feet. Created around 1962 by Jeannie Snowball at the Fort Chimo Co-operative in Kuujjuaq, Québec,1 it reached international prominence at the Philadelphia Trade Fair, held November 11-16, 1963. It starred in the Canadian government’s promotional campaign and, subsequently, by 1964 was popular in Canada. Supplies of handmade Ookpik dolls, due to the rising cost of sealskin and laborious production methods, could not keep up with demand.
Due to Ookpik’s astounding popularity, the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources registered the trademark, copyright and industrial design of its likeness and name on March 4, 1964. Although protected under Her Majesty, the agreement allowed the Fort Chimo Co-operative to grant rights for the use of its image and name.
As a national and cultural symbol in the mid-1960s, Ookpik became a commercial success and protected emblem of Canada. It was licensed to several consumer products produced by and for the southern Canadian market, with a portion of the revenue going to Snowball and the community. Commodities included plush toys, opossum fur reproduction dolls, jewelry, clothing, medallions, and a daily comic strip. This paper will focus on the “Ookpik” comic.
On November 3, 1964, then-Minister of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources Arthur Laing wrote to former Prime Minister Lester Pearson that arrangements were [End Page 137] made to have Allan Beaton of the Toronto Telegram draw an internationally syndicated cartoon strip with Ookpik as the protagonist. Laing believed that “Ookpik” would give “the Canadian people a humour which is peculiarly our own, the comic strip will also be an excellent educational feature in our attempts to orient Canadians more completely to the development of Canada in depth” (The LB Pearson Papers). “Ookpik” would provide a Canadian cultural identity in newspapers’ funny pages at a time when the government and nationalists were increasingly concerned with American cultural dominance (Edwardson 186-87).
With the intentions of Laing in mind, I analyze Beaton’s comic focusing on Ookpik’s adventures and actions. The comic was envisioned as an educational text, yet recycles stereotypes about the Arctic before fully transforming it into a modern, northern city. Although “Ookpik” takes place in an exotic setting, it more often educates its readers about southern Canadian life in the 1960s. Nevertheless, Beaton’s comic offers a glimpse into Canadian cultural identity: it begins with an owl living in the undeveloped Arctic wilderness who, once personified, settles in a town populated by other animal-citizens, and Ookpik responds to similar challenges and problems as his readers.
In the postwar era, the Canadian Government enacted policies and adopted symbols2 in an effort to shape a unique Canadian culture and identity that was different from Britain or America (Arnold, “The Men of the North” 453; Graburn 5; Lennox 2-3; Pupcheck 191). Laing’s educational goal for “Ookpik” is not unusual because during this time, the federal government—specifically his Department—actively promoted Inuit art as a symbol representing Canadian identity at home and abroad. Since the 1950s, and continuing today, this was accomplished by financially supporting, promoting, and marketing Inuit art by circulating travelling exhibitions, presenting gifts to foreign dignitaries, distributing print portfolios, and disseminating images on stamps and coins (Bauldic, Grussani 36-52; Lennox 7-13). The government would not have adopted Inuit art if Canadians had not already accepted it; since 1949, public demand for it, divided between aficionados and nationalists, exceeded supply (Pupchek 191).3 With this in mind, Ookpik benefited from government protection and promotion because it was trademarked as a symbol of Canada.
The story of Ookpik begins with...