Tags: human rights in Canada; racism; Grey Owl; Belaney, Archie; Men of the Last Frontier; Grey Owl: the Curious Life of Archie Belaney; From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl; Wilderness Man: the Strange Story of Grey Owl; forest fire fighting
Recently I was reading The Men of the Last Frontier, a book written by Grey Owl, published in 1931. I was shocked to learn for the first time that he held some strongly racist views. I was not shocked that he held these views, but rather that neither of the two men who wrote detailed biographies of him–both of which I have read–considered these views worthy of mention. The biographies in question are:
Smith, Donald B. From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1990
Dickson, Lovat. Wilderness Man” the Strange Story of Grey Owl. Toronto: Macmillan, 1973
It is not that these biographers were trying to whitewash his memory. They described his skill as a woodsman and success as a conservationist, author and lecturer; however they did not hesitate to mention his negative qualities. He married or lived with at least half a dozen women, abandoning most of them plus the children they bore him. He was also an alcoholic who could become violent while drinking.
Anyone who grew up before the 1970s will likely recognize the name Grey Owl; younger people likely will not. Those of you familiar with the story of Grey Owl will know he actually was a British man named Archie Belaney who passed himself off as Aboriginal. He had a passionate interest throughout his childhood in wild animals and the native peoples of North America. He came to Canada in 1906 at the age of 18 with the ambition to become a wilderness guide and to learn first-hand about Indian people. He was successful in both these aims. He also worked as a fire ranger and a trapper before gaining fame as an early Canadian conservationist, a lecturer and the author of a number of best-selling books.
Although best known to many people as the Englishman who tried to pass himself off as a man of mixed race, Belaney did not make a serious effort to do so until some 20 years after his arrival in Canada. By the time that his first book, The Men of the Last Frontier, was published he apparently had decided that the success of his book would depend on it being written by an Aboriginal man.
Back in 2004 I had my second book Grey Owl: the Curious Life of Archie Belaney published. The research I did when writing this book included reading the two biographies mentioned above as well as excerpts from some of the four the books he had written. Although I had read parts of The Men of the Last Frontier at this time, I did not read the chapter about his experience as a fire ranger and his concern that Canadian forests were being destroyed until this winter. He wrote very critically about fire protection in the early 20th century and about how the fire service had greatly improved by 1930. He also harshly criticized timber companies, charging that “Certain unscrupulous lumber companies, of foreign origin, have been the cause of fires designed to scorch large areas of timber on Crown lands. Burnt timber must be immediately sold or it will become a total loss.” [p. 145]
Grey Owl’s attack on foreign lumber companies may or may not be justified, other comments he made can only be described as racist. He blamed “Hunky” colonies for starting some fires. The accompanying footnote in his book states: “Bohunk, a term applied to S.E. Europeans. They are rated as of the lowest grade of intelligence by U.S. Government standards. It is known that they frequently cause fires deliberately in order to obtain employment fighting them.” This term—coined by joining the words “Bohemian and “Hungarian”—is now considered derogatory; in the 1930s it likely was considered acceptable.
Grey Owl had a very poor opinion of the Canadian immigration policy. He described the policy as being encouraged by the demands of a “wage-cutting type of employer” and promoted by shipping and transportation companies “whose only interest is to collect fares.” He charged that Eastern Europeans would work for less than the “white” (his quotation marks) races and thus would lower the standard of living for English-speaking and French-Canadian people. He stated that “the unskilled labour market in Canada is glutted” [pp. 148-9] and went on to write, “I fail to see what right men such as these (Eastern Europeans) have to a share in the unearned increment of Canada, whist the English-speaking and French-speaking Canadian workers are shouldered aside to make room for them.” [p. 152]
Grey Owl was correct in that the government allowed many unskilled labourers into the country in the years 1911 to 1914 in response to the powerful business lobby; however, he implied in his book The Men of the Last Frontier that these policies were still in place in 1930. This was not the case. The Immigration Act of 1919 addressed many of the issues he raised, and immigration actually dropped off drastically between 1915 and 1945.
As I said in my opening paragraph, I am somewhat surprised that in the 1970s, when the Dickson biography Wilderness Man: the Strange Story of Grey Owl was written, Grey Owl’s racist views would have been still considered acceptable and thus not worthy of mention in a biography. It is even more surprising that this would still have been the case in 1990 when Smith published his biography From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl.
It is certainly true that racist, anti-immigration and anti-refugee views are still held by many people today. One only has to listen to the news and to read online comments by many people, including prominent political figures, to realize the truth of that statement. However, I believe there are two main differences between racism today and the racism of the 1930s. One is that different groups are being demonized today. The other is that during the years since the passage of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1984 it has become no longer politically correct to make racist comments or to take racist actions.
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