Grey Owl (or Wa-sha-quon-asin, from the Ojibwe wenjiganoozhiinh, meaning "great horned owl" or "great grey owl") was the name Archibald Belaney (September 18, 1888 – April 13, 1938) adopted when he took upon a First Nations identity as an adult. He was a writer and became one of Canada's first conservationists.
Belaney was raised by his grandmother and two maiden aunts. He expressed an interest in nature and native culture at an early age. He went to Hastings Grammar School, and at the age of 16 – due to his aunts' urging – left to work for a timber yard. He was fired when he dropped a bomb down his employer's chimney.
During World War I, in 1915, Grey Owl joined the 13th Montreal Battalion of the Black Watch. His unit was shipped to France, where he served as a sniper. His compatriots treated him as an Indian and generally praised his conduct afterwards. He was wounded first in January 1916 and then again on April 24, 1916, with a shot through the foot. The wounded limb developed gangrene, and he was shipped to England for treatment.
Grey Owl was moved from one British infirmary to another for a full year while doctors tried to heal his foot. He also met and briefly married childhood friend Constance Holmes. The marriage failed. He was shipped back to Canada in September 1917 and honorably discharged on November 30 with a disability pension.
In his articles, books, and films he promoted the idea of environmentalism and nature conservation. In 1931, He wrote several articles for the Canadian Forestry Association (CFA) publication Forests and Outdoors:
In 1935 and 1937, he successfully toured England (including Hastings) in Ojibwa costume to promote his books and lecture about conservation. His aunts recognized him but remained silent until 1937. In his latter tour, he also visited the court and met princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
The consequences of this revelation were dramatic. Publication of the Grey Owl books ceased immediately, and in some cases they were withdrawn from publication. This in turn had a knock-on effect on the conservation causes with which Belaney had been associated, affecting donations to conservationist causes badly.
In 1999, the film Grey Owl premiered, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Pierce Brosnan in the title role. The film received mixed reviews and received no theatrical release in the United States. Attenborough had seen Grey Owl at the London Palladium theatre as a teenager along with his brother, the naturalist David Attenborough. On a Michael Parkinson chat show in 1999, Richard Attenborough mentioned that they were both very affected by seeing Grey Owl, perhaps influencing their future career paths.
On the 100th anniversary of his birth, a Canadian Red Maple tree was planted in his honor in the grounds of Hastings Grammar School, now renamed William Parker School. In June 1997, the mayor of Hastings and the borough's Member of Parliament (Michael Foster), unveiled a plaque in his honor on the house at 32 St James Road where he was born. There is also a commemorative plaque to Grey Owl by the ranger station at Hastings Country Park, 4 miles to the east of Hastings, a full-size replica of his Canadian lakeside cabin in Hastings Museum at Summerfields, along with an exhibition of memorabilia and a commemorative plaque on the house at 36 St Marys Terrace where he lived from 1895.
In 2004, Deejay Ra launched a 'Grey Owl' Birthday Recognition Campaign incorporating Grey Owl titles into his 'Hip-Hop Literacy' project and campaigning on Canadian community TV for September 18th birthday recognition on the country's calendars for the first author to teach Native rights at Harvard University. In 2005, the birthday recognition campaign led to Key Porter Books re-publishing Grey Owl's "Tales From An Empty Cabin" classic and inspired a BookTV special that featured Deejay Ra and Lord Attenborough discussing Grey Owl's legacy.
Grey Owl, the Faker Who Still Captivates the Queen; He Was an English Womaniser Who Convinced the Royals He Was a Red Indian Hero. Now Pierce Brosnan Stars as the Enigmatic Charmer
Mar 07, 1999; Byline: BRENDAN BOURNE HE YOUNG Princesses must have looked forward to their exotic visitor's arrival. They had seen pictures of...