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Recollecting Grey Owl

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Next Wednesday, 18 September 2013, is the 125th anniversary of the birth of the Canadian First Nations environmentalist, writer and lecturer known as Grey Owl.

Grey Owl was working as a fur trapper in Ontario when in 1925, aged 37, he began an affair with a 19-year-old Mohawk Iroquois woman known as Anahareo, who was keen to protect wild animals rather than kill them. After Grey Owl trapped a mother beaver and canoed away ignoring the cries of her kits, Anahareo persuaded him to return for the babies, which the couple then adopted.

This was the start of Grey Owl’s conversion from trapper to conservationist, working to  preserve Canada’s wild creatures rather than to hunt them .

Grey Owl’s first book, ‘The men of the last frontier’ (1931), traced the story of beaver trapping. He recorded that the demand for pelts had become so great that the animal was nearly extinct. But its very scarcity attracted trappers in ever higher numbers. He argued that the only way to save the beaver was to ban trapping, a difficult concept in Canada at the time because “beavers were to the north what gold was to the west”.

Grey Owl went on to work with Canada’s National Parks Branch, gaining recognition and fame as a conservationist. He wrote further books and many articles and he lectured widely on conservation.

Grey Owl died of pneumonia in 1938. Only after his death did it become widely known that his Canadian First Nations identity was a sham. He was in fact an Englishman, Archie Belaney, who as a teenager in Hastings had been entranced by native North American culture. Aged 17, he emigrated to Canada, where he quickly absorbed the Ojibwe language and culture and was treated as a member of the tribe.

At first, the revelation of his British origin damaged his reputation, but Grey Owl’s conservation efforts are now once again appreciated. Recognition has included biographies, a film about his life and a blue plaque at his Hastings birthplace.

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