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Back Roads Bill: Grey Owl — the great imposter

This week Bill looks at the lasting spirit of Grey Owl and cultural appropriation

Pretendian is a pejorative colloquialism used to reference a person who has falsely claimed Indigenous identity by professing to be so. Being a pretendian is considered a form of cultural appropriation - the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, it is disrespectful.

If you Google the term the list of pretenders is a long one.

It includes the novelist Joseph Boyden and actor Johnny Depp and now Buffy Sainte-Marie. Most recently the songwriter, musician and social activist claims to Indigenous ancestry are being contradicted by members of her own family through an extensive CBC investigation from The Fifth Estate, making her the latest high-profile public figure whose ancestry story has been contradicted by genealogical documentation. Her impactful life has been unravelled right before our eyes and ears.


In the book North Words: Near North's History (this author’s first Back Roads book published in 1990), one of the greatest of the impostors was profiled because of his Northeastern Ontario roots. Excerpts from this book were revisited and are in italics. Terminology used in the past is no longer acceptable.

Sunday, September 18, 1989, marked the centennial celebration of the birth of Archibald Stansfeld Belaney. Although he only lived for one-half of these 100 years, Grey Owl as he is better known remains with us.” [On Sept. 18, 1989, a few hundred locals and naturalists blockaded the Red Squirrel Road, near Temagami to protest potentially destructive logging practices. The non-violent protest ended in over 300 arrests (including that of future Ontario Premier, Bob Rae)].

Grey Owl was born in Hastings, England in an upper-middle-class home. He became a famed North American “Indian” conservationist. On emigrating to Canada in 1906 he spent his early years as a trapper, particularly within the Temagami wilderness area.

He befriended many indigenous people while learning indigenous cultural ways including bushcraft. Much of this through a number of marriages/relationships to indigenous women. Those indigenous people who really knew him knew him as “Archie the English man.”

By his mid-thirties, he had become a protector of wildlife, particularly beaver, and a popular author and lecturer in Europe and North America. An enormously successful impostor, he played the part of an indigenous person with a dramatic flourish. Wearing his trademark indigenous attire of the time he was granted an audience with King George VI, to whom he relayed his message of conservation.

Grey Owl was a great impostor. He came out of the Temagami wilderness as a trapper/guide/forest ranger, to win international fame, many years later, as the author of some of the best nature books ever written. He used his fame in the early 1930's to become a champion for the preservation and protection of the Canadian wilderness. His stories within Tales of an Empty Cabin, published in 1936 and a 1937 film on his adventures, promoted the values of canoe tripping.

He created the persona of a "Noble Indian,” and was touted at the time as a modern-day “Hiawatha.” who cared. He told the world, through four books, one novel, and extensive lectures, about his Native heritage. Within hours of his death, April 13, 1938, the mask of secrecy was removed and his English roots as a full-blooded, educated, white man were finally uncovered. He was an eccentric, an unusual breed, who had adopted beliefs and dress to meet his goals. A reporter for the North Bay Nugget, Britt Jessup, had actually written a newspaper story several years prior to Grey Owl's death, but the revealing story was never published until the day after he died, out of respect for his accomplishments.”

I invited Britt Jessup to one of my creative writing classes in 1988. Britt explained how he met Grey Owl at the former Empire Hotel on McIntyre St. in North Bay. “I rounded the hallway corner and he expertly threw a hunting knife into the wall.” Grey Owl explained how he was run out of Biscotasing, as from a distance, would take potshots at the local church steeple.

Grey Owl legacy

In ‘North Words’ I tried to highlight and apply some of his writing.

The Native heritage that Grey Owl speaks about in two books: The Men of the Last Frontier (1931) and Tales of an Empty Cabin (1936), evolved from a 6,000 year existence in the Temagami area. The N'Daki Daki Menan, the aboriginal homeland of the Temagami Indians (Deep Water People), have navigated throughout the area by using the nastawgan a system of trails (portages) and waterways (canoe routes).

The Forest Reserves Act of 1898, an attempt at multiple-use management, identified the potential for the area. In 1901, planners set aside the Temagami Forest Reserve (6,000 square miles), through which the government envisioned a perpetual source of timber and public revenue. At the time, this was thought to be the largest reserve of red pine in central Canada. What was supposed to be an area of pine management, became an area of cutting leases.

In the year of Archie's arrival, survey crews were busy laying out a townsite at the northeast arm of the lake, and leases for summer resort purposes were being approved by the government. Temagami Lodge, opposite Bear Island, was being constructed to accommodate rich, and predominantly American tourists seeking a wilderness experience. This enterprise was to give Indians employment while making their life more comfortable.

Archie Belaney had come here to fulfill a dream of becoming an Indian and what he saw, was a threat to his romantic dreams of living with them in isolation. He adopted the Indian way of life, married an Indian girl, Angele Eguana, and became assimilated into their culture. But their hunting and fishing grounds were not protected by law, what he saw was an eventual loosening of the cohesiveness of the traditional native ways. It was these developments that drove him away from the area to Biscotasing (southeast of Chapleau).”


There remains the Grey Owl name and physical references in northeastern Ontario. There are the Grey Owl Camps, outfitters centred out of Biscotasing off of the Sultan Industrial Road (southeast of Chapleau, Hwy. 667 and the Height of Land sign on Highways 144/560 There is an Ontario historic plaque in Finlayson Point Provincial Park. There are seventeen wooden/carved, tourism statues in and around Mattawa, one is of Grey Owl and Anahareo (his writing partner-Gertrude Bernard).

Much has been written about Grey Owl. As a primer, consider these two resources. Google: Temagami Canoe Festival – on the home page you will find a ten-minute documentary, The Path of Grey Owl, and the definitive book ‘From the Land of Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl’ by Donald B. Smith.

There’s another Grey Owl article by Back Roads Bill. You can find on microfiche at the North Bay Public Library - Steer, Bill., the original article, Grey Owl's wilderness legacy should be remembered. North Bay Nugget article, Sept. 17, 1988, before the publishing of ‘North Words.’

And you can see OO7-Pierce Brosnan in the 1999 Richard Attenborough, ‘Grey Owl’ movie trailer.

I think one way to explain Grey Owl and cultural appropriation is to listen to the CBC’s Commotion podcast, Monday, Oct. 30 – how two indigenous artists explain how one may appreciate Buffy Sainte Marie.

There are pretenders and it is difficult to undo what was and is. The best we can do is respect the experience that teaches. What Grey Owl tells us are the truths that wilderness areas have a diverse composition of natural resources important to many people, in many ways. His outstanding and forward-thinking quote: “Remember you belong to Nature, not it to you.” Sage advice on the back roads.


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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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