Grey Owl: The Many Faces of Archie Belaney
by Jane Billinghurst
Published by Greystone Books
150 pages, 1999
Buy it online
The Helpful Fraud
Reviewed by Thomas R. Everitt
Imagine, if you will, in today's matrix of microsecond cross-global communication levels and 1-800 findanyone business, a time when humans could successfully cast aside the memories, stereotypes and class structures of an unsatisfactory early life and change completely. Imagine literally reinventing oneself into an international public figure, of a different race, going so far as to dye any natural hair colors out every two weeks and hauling around a sun lamp: and all in the 1930s. Stranger still, to me, is the fact that there were sunlamps in the 1930s.
Nevertheless, it is only as we approach a new millennium with fear and trepidation from our almost total dependence on modern technology, that we might admire an apparent impostor like Archie Stansfeld Belaney, or as he was known in his later life, Grey Owl. Canada's "Indian" environmentalist, philosopher and gripping public speaker of the early 20th century.
In the first half of Jane Billinghurst's wonderfully photographed and gently written biography Grey Owl: The Many Faces of Archie Belaney, it is rather easy to dismiss Archie as yet another hard drinking, womanizing rogue of Canada's northern regions. After ruthlessly abandoning two wives, a girlfriend and a total of three children with seeming ease before adopting his Grey Owl persona, Archie had yet to even remotely resemble anyone's idea of a Canadian hero (Pierre Elliot Trudeau not withstanding). Even as Grey Owl, Archie was a notorious drunkard, going on two or even three week binges when he feared his identity may be uncovered and proving to be a difficult and demanding celebrity to anyone working behind the scenes on his lecture tours. But, as any modern day entertainer or "colorful" personality will tell you, the general public is always more than willing to forgive its heroes more readily than they would themselves. Archie Belaney, though for more sincere and admirable reasons, is no exception.
In his gradual transformation from upper middle class Englishman to rugged fur-trapper and finally, to Grey Owl, Archie's views on the conservation of fur-bearing animals and the habitats that surrounded them proved decades ahead of their time. His co-habitation with beavers became legendary, as did the four films he produced about them. However, it is in his beautiful prose, nestled between each stage of Billinghurst's well-researched account of his life, that one begins to accept Archie as Grey Owl, with ever-decreasing doubts of his intentions. In describing his views on nature, one finds it hard to believe it was written in the 1930s and not yesterday:
So let not those who are benefiting by the prosperity of the present day forget the debt they owe to the Life of the Wild the part it has played in the progress of the country in the past and its immense (potential) value in the industries and recreation of the present and, let us hope, the future.... Things are different now, and the time will come when a well-taken photograph will be a greater test of a good hunter than the possession of the head or hide.
Even more curious is the seeming acceptance that Native Canadians of the time had for this obviously blatant impostor of their culture. From Billinghurst's accounts, it would seem that they understood and appreciated Grey Owl's efforts regardless of his true identity. Perhaps they accepted Archie at face-value, knowing that he could help, rather than hinder, their causes.
Geoffrey Turner, an ethnologist present when Grey Owl began his presentation at Oxford City Hall, describes his hesitation in discrediting Archie's authenticity:
... as he got going, the Hiawatha stuff vanished and we got down to the real Grey Owl: a man of acute perception, poetic feeling and whimsical humour, and an ardent faith in his mission of wild life conservation... fascinating.
Turner's comments mirrored the feelings of many educated doubters and those few who realized Archie's deceptions. One may think if both academics and Natives were willing to conceal his identity, why should history deny him his rightful place?
Billinghurst's book does a true justice to both the deceptions and honorable works of Archie Belaney. It is quite easy to both love and hate him, yet he was such a wonderful (albeit early) gift to the beginning of the conservationist movement in Canada, in the very least, it is hard not to admire him. Again his writing proves a wisdom far more advanced than one might have thought for the time:
The Provinces of Canada have at last decided, now that some varieties of animals and timber are on the point of disappearance, to get together and try to evolve some means of preserving Canada's rapidly dwindling natural resources. The stable door is about to be closed, the horse having long gone. How slowly we move!
Billinghurst also goes so far as to offer the reader a press commentary at the end of her biography. It would appear the media's division at the time of his death was also quite strong. It is in these comments that the majority of readers will, in all likelihood, conclude that Archie Stansfeld Belaney was indeed a conservationist in the truest sense of the word. In describing him as an "ambassador from the wild," Billinghurst writes, "those who have read Grey Owl's books or heard his broadcasts cannot doubt his sincerity, and the record of his work speaks for itself." If this is true, history will, in all likelihood, be kind to him. And with Pierce Brosnan starring in Academy Award Winning director Richard Attenborough's story of Grey Owl, Hollywood, as usual, finds the intrigue more than a little appealing. In any case, the story of Grey Owl is as unique and interesting a Canadian story as there ever was. If he wasn't one of Canada's greatest conservationists, he was certainly one of the most unusual. | November 1999
Thomas R. Everitt is a Vancouver-based writer.