This Week in History


Grey Owl

This story was initially published in 2000

On April 13, 1938, Archibald Stansfield Belaney - the controversial "Native" conservationist known as Grey Owl - died at Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Grey Owl feeding one of his beavers
© Parks Canada / W. Oliver / 1935

Born in Hastings, England, in 1888, Belaney dreamed of a life beyond the confines of the city. This craving for the wilderness drew 17-year-old Belaney to Canada. Learning wilderness survival from the Ojibway of Northern Ontario, Belaney lived as a trapper and guide in Ontario and Quebec. In 1920 he realized his childhood dream of becoming an "Indian" by adopting the name Grey Owl, (Wa-Sha-Qion-Asin or Man-Who-Walks-By-Night). Soon he claimed he was half-Scot and half-Apache.

After rescuing two orphaned beaver kits, McGinnis and McGinty, Grey Owl's wife, Anahareo, convinced him to abandon trapping and devote his life to conservation. Establishing a beaver colony in Cabano, Quebec, Grey Owl began writing and talking about life on the frontier. While lecturing there with new beaver kits - Jellyroll and Rawhide - the Canadian government's Parks Branch became interested in Grey Owl. It was hoped that by employing him as Canada's first conservationist in one of the National Parks, Grey Owl's popularity would promote Canada's parks system. In 1931, after a brief stay at Riding Mountain National Park, Grey Owl moved into Beaver Lodge on the shore of Ajawaan in Prince Albert National Park. For the next seven years he wrote numerous books, lectured in North America and England, and established a world-famous beaver colony.

Grey Owl in front of Beaver Lodge
© Parks Canada / W. Oliver / 1935
Grey Owl, however, was moody and arrogant. His marriage to Anahareo ended at Beaver Lodge, and their daughter, Shirley Dawn, was raised by another family. Grey Owl became absorbed with writing and drinking. In 1935, on his first lecture tour of England, he became an overnight success. While away on his second British tour, however, Parks decided to release him because of his difficult personality. He returned to Canada in 1938 with renewed popularity and Parks was forced to reverse this decision. In April, Grey Owl returned to Beaver Lodge.

On the day he died, Grey Owl's true identity became known. Outraged that he was an Englishman, some described it as the hoax of the century. Embarrassed, Parks tried to distance itself from any association with Grey Owl. His popularity and almost legendary status, however, made that impossible.

Fittingly, Grey Owl's grave overlooks Beaver Lodge. For his contribution to nature conservation, Grey Owl was designated a National Historic Person in 1993.

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