Grey Owl

Almost as soon as the man known as GREY OWL died in a Prince Albert, Sask., hospital on April 13, 1938, his many secrets began to emerge into the open air.

Grey Owl

Almost as soon as the man known as GREY OWL died in a Prince Albert, Sask., hospital on April 13, 1938, his many secrets began to emerge into the open air. That same day, The North Bay Nugget ran a story it had sat on for three years, revealing that the famous Indian naturalist was actually an Englishman named Archie Belaney. And not just any Englishman, it eventually turned out, but a binge-drinking bigamist who had had five "wives." His closest supporters, especially Lovat Dickson, the Canadian-born London publisher who had made Grey Owl a household name in Britain, were devastated. They were desperately worried that all the good Grey Owl had done the cause of conservation would now be interred with his bones. But the twists and turns of Archie Belaney's strange saga by no means ended with his death.

Belaney was born in the English Channel port of Hastings in 1888, the son of a teenage bride and a reprobate father who soon left his family. Raised by two strict maiden aunts, Archie early on began to develop elaborate fantasies about his absent father, entwining the elder Belaney with his own love of animals and fascination with North American natives. Those fantasies became the basis of Grey Owl's imaginary ancestry as the Mexican-born son of a Scots frontiersman and an Apache woman - Belaney's standard account of himself within two years of his arrival alone at age 17 in Northern Ontario in 1906. In 1910, Belaney married an Ojibwa woman, Angele Egwuna, his first and only legal wife. The next year, already drinking heavily, he abandoned her and their daughter, Alice.

During the next four poorly documented years of his life, Belaney strove to eradicate his English accent. He also had a son with a Métis woman, who died of tuberculosis soon after giving birth. Belaney next emerged in Digby, N.S., in May, 1915, when he enlisted in the Canadian army. There he told the army recruiters that he was unmarried, thereby depriving Angele and Alice of government financial support. Belaney was out of the trenches in a year, after losing a toe to a possibly self-inflicted rifle wound. While convalescing near his aunts' home in Hastings, he re-met a childhood friend, Ivy Holmes, and married her in February, 1917. When he returned to Canada that September, he told Ivy he would send for her. They never saw each other again.

After the war, Belaney continued to fine-tune his identity as an Indian. He dyed his hair black and coloured his skin with henna. His disgust with civilization, made almost complete by his combat experience, only deepened his concern for the shrinking forests of the North and the disappearing beaver. Under the influence of his fourth wife, an Iroquois variously called Pony or Anahareo, Belaney abandoned trapping. In 1929, he wrote a successful article for the British magazine Country Life about the passing of the wilderness way of life. The magazine's editors suggested he write a book. During the two years he worked on The Men of the Last Frontier, Belaney told his editors first that he lived among Indians, next that he had been adopted by Indians, and finally, in 1931, that he was an Indian. After a stab at the name White Owl, he settled on Grey Owl. From the book's publication until his death from pneumonia seven years later, he was an international superstar, one of the most famous Canadians of his day.

During his glory years, Grey Owl wrote more best-sellers, two of which - Pilgrims of the Wild and The Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People - are still regarded as classics. He made movies. Yousuf Karsh photographed him, even though Grey Owl missed a dinner engagement with Karsh and a clutch of Ottawa VIPs because of his involvement in a drunken brawl in a hotel bar. Grey Owl did manage to dine with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and he conducted two triumphant lecture tours of the British Isles, culminating in a three-hour audience with the Royal Family, including the future Queen Elizabeth II.

All the ironies of Archie Belaney's deceptive life came into play in that time. Certainly his key message of preservation of wilderness and wildlife struck a responsive chord, especially in animal-loving Britain. And in the time-honoured Canadian fashion, success in Britain brought acclaim back home. But what gained him a hearing in the first place was his assumed identity as an exotic noble savage, buttressed by his compelling storytelling power, itself polished through years of lying. His real upbringing provided him with his graceful prose. Grey Owl may have looked and sounded Indian, at least to urban audiences, but he wrote like the Hastings Grammar School graduate he was. (Only one contemporary critic noticed Grey Owl's rarified English, however, and enraged Belaney - who could not admit the truth - by suggesting the untutored native had had the aid of a ghostwriter.)

Throughout the 1930s, dozens of people, including almost every Indian who encountered him, knew the truth about Archie Belaney. Yet none ever exposed him publicly. Angele willingly admitted the facts to anyone who asked, including a North Bay Nugget reporter in 1935, but she did not initiate an open scandal. Those who knew Belaney either liked him - even the abandoned wives - or like the Nugget's city editor and Indian leaders who appreciated Grey Owl's support for natives, thought his message too important to risk harming. And when his death freed the Nugget to publish, setting off an international media frenzy, the Canadian response was surprisingly positive. "Of course, the value of his work is not jeopardized. His attainments as a writer and naturalist will survive," concluded The Ottawa Citizen, in an opinion widely shared in the national press.

That didn't stop a generation of neglect, however, as another world war and unprecedented economic growth pushed wilderness Canada out of the public consciousness. But the dawning environmental movement of the late 1960s found inspiration in Grey Owl's work. "Grey Owl was a superb propagandist for the natural world," says University of Calgary historian Donald Smith, author of From the Land of Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl. "He was the first to get it right - our uniqueness, our wonderful forests and rivers, what we were doing wrong - the first to tell mainstream Canada, 'Remember you belong to Nature, not it to you.' "

In the early 1970s, Grey Owl's books came out in new editions and in 1972 CBC-TV aired a documentary on him. His books remain in print, and new works about their author continue to appear, including Smith's 1990 biography and Jane Billinghurst's lavishly illustrated Grey Owl (1999). Even Parks Canada, which had allowed Grey Owl's last home, Beaver Lodge in Prince Albert National Park, to fall into disrepair, was roused to action. It made the area around Beaver Lodge a protected wilderness sanctuary and restored the cabin itself. That was a gesture that might have moved the enigmatic Archie Belaney. In a lifetime of deceit, love of the wilderness may have been his only genuine emotion.

Maclean's October 4, 1999