Our Bear's Canadian Roots

Stamp #1: Winnnie and Lt. Colbourn, White River, 1914 The only stamp in this issue to feature a Canadian is the first one, which depicts a baby black bear being bottle-fed by a uniformed Lt. Colebourn; the caption reads, "Winnie and Lieutenant Colebourn, White River, 1914." Lt. Harry Colebourn (1887-1947) was born in England and moved to Winnipeg in 1905. Little of his life in Winnipeg is known. Colebourn received his training at the Ontario Veterinary College and was later attached to the 34th Regiment of Cavalry as a veterinarian. While on his way to join his infantry brigade his train stopped briefly in White River, Ontario - the site portrayed in the stamp. During this stopover, Colebourn purchased a female bear from a hunter who had shot her mother. He named the bear 'Winnie' after his home town, Winnipeg, and brought it to England as the brigade's mascot. When his unit was called to France, Colebourn presented Winnie to the London Zoo for a 'long loan.' After the war, he donated the bear to the Zoo in 1919.(13) There is one historical truth that is set right with this first image. In A.A. Milne's introduction to Winnie-the-Pooh, he relates Christopher Robin's fascination with polar bears, from which the reader infers that Winnie is a polar bear.(14) In fact, Christopher Robin obsession was with Colebourn's Canadian black bear.

Colebourn's identity is defined here by the care with which he provides Winnie. His personality is represented solely through his relationship with the bear. His face is mostly covered by his cap. Unfortunately I could find no actual portrayal of Colebourn so I have no means of comparison. We might interpret this stamp as a symbol of Canada's role in global conflict by dissociating it from the WWI context. It certainly accords with our prototypical picture of Canada as a caregiver and as a peacekeeping nation. Of note is the fact that our hero here is not a combat soldier, but the brigade's veterinarian. It is possible that this part of the set was intended to meet one of the SAC's criteria not directly referred to above, "to foster a spirit of national and international goodwill and understanding."(15)

Whereas the fourth stamp uses Disney World as a backdrop, this first stamp has no background picture. The image claims to represent White River but makes no attempt to situate Winnie and Colebourn in that context. Further, White River is not a well-known place on the map - would the average Canadian, especially one outside of Ontario, recognize it as a Canadian place? Was this omission deliberate? Given Winnie's namesake, perhaps a Winnipeg scene would have been more appropriate. I wonder whether Winnipegans resented this choice. Both White River and Winnipeg make claims of ownership to Winnie, and both have erected monuments in Lt. Colebourn and Winnie's collective honour. Further, a 1995 ceremony at the London Zoo featured the unveiling of a statue of Winnie and Colebourn donated by the Manitoba government, with a plaque explaining the bear's connection to Winnipeg.(16) Both cities also held unveilings for the Winnie-the-Pooh stamp set, to compliment the principal ceremony held at Disney World.(17)