Last week a feminist writer was thronged by a howling mob outside a Library in Toronto, based on her views on biological gender. She is an advocate for women. She should be a darling of the left. But it seems the saying is true, the revolution eats its own children. The world is becoming a dangerous place, even for activists.
Therefore, while I am able, I would like to talk about an activist I have loved. He has at times been celebrated in the annals of Canadian history. I am talking about a Canadian cultural icon, Grey Owl, also known as Archie Belaney.
What Grey Owl did was unprecedented. He so took on the lifestyle and appearance of a Canadian Aboriginal, that he at one time presented Queen Victoria with a wampum belt, in a ceremony which had all the pomp, splendour, peace pipe-smoking, and eagle feather finery one could ask for. He spoke eloquently, in English and in what was considered to be his native Ojibway dialect. No one in his day could have imagined that he fleeced the modern world, because Archie Belaney was not as advertised. He was at one time an unruly English school boy who had fantasies reading about wild Indians in Canada. From a young age he was given to barefoot life outdoors, catching bugs and animals, and always wanting to camp out in the wild. His constant threat to the smothering aunts who raised him: that he would some day escape, run away to Canada and become a wild Indian.
Archie made good on his promise... took up arms in the First World War, and used that as a way of departure from the strict confines of what polite society expected of him back at home. He took off to Canada, and joined a logging crew in Temogami. In a long career, Archie became a trapper and a forest ranger, a wilderness guide, and per his dream, a wild Indian. Through marriage and ceremony, he was inducted into Indian life and family, and was bequeathed with the Ojibwa name Wa-sha-quon-asin - Grey Owl. Archie went through a number of Indian brides in his day, always moving about, always restless, given to abuse of the bottle and a taste for the kind of freedoms which did not sit well with married life.
Grey Owl may have come and gone without notice, except that claiming an English father and an Indian mother, he took it upon himself to advocate for the Canadian wilderness. He wrote extensively, travelled and spoke about what he loved most, the rugged landscape which was in danger of being eroded by civilization’s footprint. He spoke out against the ravages of clear-cut logging, that would transform and ruin an eco structure, and then move on looking for more virgin forest to devour.
Grey Owl succeeded in securing protection for large areas to be taken under the jurisdiction of Government, and made into national parks. He spent his latter days in Prince Albert National Park, writing his memoirs, “Tales of an Empty Cabin”. I have a tenuous connection to Grey Owl, via my grandfather who used to harvest fire wood from the park during the Great Depression, as a means of earning spare cash. My grandfather used to maintain a friendly connection with him. No one at the time suspected that Grey Owl was anything other than what he represented himself to be. All of that changed after Archie died and his estranged aunts showed up in Canada to claim a part in his legacy. Their revelation was a bit of a scandal in its day.
Grey Owl seems to have fallen into disfavour because of the accusation of cultural appropriation. Still, if imitation is a form of flattery, it could be that Grey Owl paid the greatest compliment possible to Aboriginal traditions. He become what he was not, by imitation of what he loved most. There are other reasons to like Grey Owl. His life may be an argument of sorts as to how a human being can be moulded and changed by life experiences. Like Winston Churchill said, “to improve is to change”. Grey Owl was not perfect but it is extraordinary how his opinions progressed. He went from living as a trapper, trading in furs, to being an advocate for animal welfare, going so far as to adopt two orphaned beavers in his cabin. His life gives hope to any old dogs out there wondering if they can learn new tricks.
I have a small library of Grey Owl’s writing, tales of wilderness life, praise for the beauty of the outdoors. Anyone who loves to camp, or has enjoyed the beauty of the Canadian parks system, owes something to his memory. Modern sensibilities aside, my regard for Grey Owl and his legacy will stay - hopefully to see better and more tolerant times.