Distinctly Canadian

Visitors to Jasper, Alberta, still love the town’s namesake host, seventy years after his first appearance.

Summer, 2018 / No. 41
Photo of Jasper by W. J. L. Gibbons
W. J. L. Gibbons

On a warm Monday last August, a small crowd gathered on Miette Avenue, in Jasper, Alberta. Their heads craned upward as they squinted to see the bear that had climbed to the top of a tall tree that looked wholly unable to support the animal’s weight. A Parks Canada warden soon arrived to tape off the area and, eventually, return the bear home.

Public education about what draws bears into populated areas has, in recent years, reduced the number of such events in Jasper’s core—with one exception. A few blocks away, just off the main thoroughfare, a life-sized effigy of Jasper the bear stands at the centre of a small, unnamed park. “There’s not five minutes, in winter or summer, where there’s not people huddled around that statue,” said Pattie Pavlov, the executive director of the Jasper Park Chamber of Commerce. “There was a vigil held here right after the Pulse nightclub shooting, in Orlando. They asked if they could have it at Jasper’s park and, sure enough, there were a lot of people around that bear statue that night.”

Jasper was created in 1948, by Jim Simpkins, a Toronto-based illustrator who was commissioned by Maclean’s to develop a distinctly Canadian animal character. (One of the magazine’s editors suggested the name Jasper.) Jasper is a black bear with an air of playful superiority. He enjoys pranking campers but also warns them that real bears can be dangerous. Jasper appeared in hundreds of single-panel Maclean’s cartoons, and even on a few covers, before eventually starring in a syndicated newspaper strip. Jasper National Park adopted him as its official mascot in 1962, and he has since appeared on everything from dishes to greeting cards to salt and pepper shakers. New strips haven’t run for several generations (Simpkins retired in 1972 and died in 2004), but Jasper’s popularity continues here, no doubt owing to the easy lovability of a mischievous anthropomorphic bear.

The original Jasper statue, which was located one street over, near the train station, was retired several years ago, and now greets visitors at the Jasper SkyTram, about eight kilometres away. When the new, more resilient statue was built, the chamber, which oversees the use of Jasper’s likeness, decided to grant him some green space. “He just means so much to everybody here,” said Pavlov. “We have a knitters’ group that has an annual convention at the Jasper Park Lodge, and every year you know when they’re in, because Jasper gets a new hand-knitted scarf. They leave it on the statue and Jasper wears it all winter.”