Out-Grey-Owling Grey Owl

MB Williams had been living in London, England for four years when her past in parks caught up with her. J.C. Campbell, the man for whom she had been passed over as head of publicity at the Canadian Parks Branch, contacted her in late 1935 about the speaking tour that Grey Owl was about to begin in England. Grey Owl was the Indigenous nature writer whom the Parks Branch had taken under its wing in the early ‘30s, giving him a place to live at Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba and then Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, making him its spokesman for conservation. (That the Branch, having evicted Indigenous people in creating national parks, now saw value in hosting a single cultural representative of them, speaks to the way national parks were to be places associated with a symbolic indigeneity but not an actual Indigenous past or present.) The arrangement had been mutually beneficial, drawing international attention to both the Canadian park system and the Indigenous author. Except, of course, Grey Owl was not Indigenous at all, as the world would learn following his death in 1938: he was an Englishman, born Archie Belaney.

Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney), photographed by Yousuf Karsh

The remarkable series of four letters that Campbell wrote Williams in December 1935, January 1936, March 1936, and April 1936 offer the most candid record of the Parks Branch’s knowledge and opinion of Grey Owl—far more candid than anything found in the Branch’s own archival record. Campbell knew Grey Owl well, having “discovered” him for the Parks Branch by visiting the writer’s backwoods home and filming a short silent movie there, The Beaver People, which brought Grey Owl some of his earliest fame. While at the Parks Branch, Williams had gotten to know Grey Owl, too. In an October 1932 letter here, Grey Owl invited her, now that she was retired, to take the “long deferred and oft-promised visit” to see him, his wife, and “the Beaver People”—that is, his beaver pets.

In preparation for Grey Owl’s 1936 tour, Campbell asked Williams to do whatever she could do to keep the author out of trouble, to save the Canadian park system from potential embarrassment. The picture Campbell paints is of a Parks Branch terrified of what its increasingly celebrated spokesman, “either through liquor, women, or temper,” might say or do. To Campbell, he is a primadonna who feels he has moved beyond the nature writing, the park agency, and the nation that have made him famous: “He is obsessed with one idea and that is that he [is] a great backwoodsman. He . . . does not want to be known as an author as he thinks that is synonymous with being a crooner or gigolo par-fumier.” There is blunt mention of Grey Owl’s manipulative nature, his egotism, his drunkenness, his impatience for renown. And there is cryptic reference to worse. “There are many things I know that I cannot write to you,” Campbell writes, “and my constant prayer is that there will be no outbreak that would cast discredit on the National Parks and those with whom he is associated.” Although circumstantial, these letters are the strongest existing evidence that the Parks Branch, Grey Owl’s employer for a half-dozen years, knew full well before his death that he was a fraud.

As for MB, she was still loyal to the Parks Branch and so did as Campbell asked. She gave a talk about parks alongside Grey Owl, deflecting some of the attention away from him—she “out Grey Owled Grey Owl,” in Campbell’s congratulatory terms. And yet the publicity director warned her against doing more, fearing that becoming associated with Grey Owl would only embroil her in whatever future trouble was sure to come his way. “The unfortunate thing about it,” wrote Campbell, “is that while we know the truth now we will have to let him carry on if the Publishers so wish until such time as he meets his Waterloo.”