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Oh, Bother! Canada’s Winnie-the-Pooh connection

For the week of Monday, August 24, 2015

On August 24, 1914, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn made a very unusual friend in White River, Ontario.

Mobilizing from Winnipeg for the First World War, Colebourn was on a train toward Valcartier training camp in Quebec when he met the young Canadian who would change his life: a seven-month old black bear cub! Colebourn offered a trapper $20 for the cub, and the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps (CAVC) left White River with a new mascot.

Colebourn teaching Winnie tricks. She would later perform them for spectators at the London Zoo
© Library and Archives Canada / 03631

Winnipeg the Bear, or ‘Winnie’ for short, became the darling of soldiers at Valcartier Camp, and continued her journey with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade to England. She lifted spirits during an especially rainy season on Salisbury Plain with her puppy-like exuberance and ability to perform tricks.

But Winnie’s time with the army was to be short-lived: Colebourn was posted to France, and on December 9, 1914, he brought Winnie to the London Zoo.

During the war, Lieutenant Colebourn served at the No. 1 Canadian Veterinary Hospital in Le Havre, France, as well as a number of other postings. He was with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Second Battle of Ypres, where he treated horses poisoned with chlorine gas. Colebourn was promoted and received a Mention in Despatches for his accomplishments. When given leave in England, he always found time to visit Winnie at the zoo.

Colebourn and Winnie on Salisbury Plain
© Library and Archives Canada / 03631 - 107.

After the war ended, Colebourn went to retrieve Winnie, but saw how the public had fallen for her charm. He decided to officially donate the bear to her wartime home.

One of Winnie’s biggest fans was a young boy named Christopher Robin Milne. He was so taken with her that he renamed his teddy bear Winnie. The boy’s father, author A. A. Milne, took note, and when the London Evening News commissioned a Christmas Eve story, Winnie-the-Pooh was born.

The unlikely friendship of a lieutenant and a black bear became a small part of the Canadian experience in the First World War, along with such significant events as the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. The first is a national historic site in France, and the second is a national historic event.

It is the 100th anniversary of the First World War. For more stories on the war, read Canada Joins the Great War, August 1914: Canada Prepares for War, and Baptism by Fire: the Canadians at Ypres from the This Week in History archives, as well as the Government of Canada World War Commemorations page. For more on animals in Canada’s military, please read Sergeant Gander reporting for duty!

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada! Also, click here to learn about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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