FFWD Review - Grey Owl

Reviewed by: Maureen McNamee

Armand Garnett Ruffo's new book is a mystery that the author never attempts to solve. But, some mysteries aren't meant to be solved and, although it is irresistible, perhaps this is one of them.

Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney (Coteau Books) is a collection of narrative poetry and journal entires which examine the controversial life of the man who arrived in Canada in 1906 and later reconstructed his identity to become one of its first and most famous conservationists. Posing as a Native, he gained international recognition for his writings and lectures on the Canadian North in the 1930s. 

Ruffo draws on his own Ojibway heritage and family memories, as well as extensive archival research, to tell the story from the perspective of Belaney, the women he loved and the men he worked with.

"The question is whether he's a colossal fraud or a selfless hero," says Ruffo, who refuses to provide an answer.

"I set up the book with the voices rather than using an oniscient narrator... because I didn't want to approach it with an all-seeing or all-knowing eye. Because I think his life is an enigma in many ways....

"All these points of view add up to whatever the reader wants to take and conclude from the book. I don't think there is any answer and I think the book tries to explain that."

Ruffo has a direction connection to Belaney through his family -- as a young man, Belaney lived with Ruffo's grandmother's family for three years in Bicotasting. In fact, Belaney referred to Ruffo's grandfather, Alex Espaniel, as "dad" and considered the Espaniels his adopted family. Ruffo grew up hearing stories about him and says people always spoke with affection and humor.

When his origins were revealed, Ruffo says Natives did not feel betrayed because they already knew the truth and felt he had done no harm. "They knew all along he was not Native."

Those feelings are summed up in Ruffo's book in an excerpt from the viewpoint of John Tootoosis. "We know Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin (Grey Owl) is not born of us, and we say nothing. For us it is of no importance. We do not waste our words but save them, because we know in this struggle of generations the are our strongest medicine. This man flies for us true and sharp, and we are thankful he has chosen our side. While we cheer and the elders nod in approval, we can see the light shine in his face...."

However, Ruffo suggests that non-Natives had a different reaction when they found out Belaney was not a Native named Grey Owl. "After he died, the non-Native population turned their back on him because (they felt) he was a hoax... It was as if he suddenly didn't exist.

"No one likes to get hoodwinked," he comments.

The book leads the reader to question personality, identity and culture. Belaney grew up in England as an unhappy youth who dreamed of being an Indian. After arriving in Canada, he worked as a trapper for beaver pelts, but later developed an affection for two beaver kittens whose mother had died -- he ended up giving them a home and naming them McGinnis and McGinty. Eventually he started to live among the Natives, embracing their lifestyle and evolving into Grey Owl, an author and conservationist. 

"I feel as an Indian, think as an Indian, all my ways are Indian, my heart is Indian. What more can be said?" writes Ruffo in a poem from the perspective of Belaney.

Unfortunately, Ruffo says the mystery of Archie Belamey has overshadowed a more important issue -- conservation of our environment. Another excerpt from Belaney's viewpoint on his decision to become Grey Owl states: "And if this is the only way to get Canadians to listen, then I'll do it, and more if I have to be. Without heisitation."

At one time, Grey Owl's lectures would attract up to 3,000 people, but his words have since fallen on deaf ears. "His ultimate message of respecting nature became lost," Ruffo explains.

He believes Belaney was ahead of his time, noting that he promoted conservation more than 60 years ago -- a message similar to that of environmentalist David Suzuki, who Ruffo recently caught on television discussing the devastation of forests in Northern Alberta. Like many Natives, Suzuki preaches the philosophy of sustainability, or, as Ruffo defines it, a way to exist with nature and sustain it without ultimately destroying it and ourselves.

"I think Aboriginal people have a lot to offer Canada and the world, but to date, Aboriginal culture has been looked on as an entertainment at best, without much to offer Canadian society," he says.

He uses the life of Archie Belaney / Grey Owl as a metaphor for Western society -- and hopes it will end the same way. "He started off very destructive and yet by the end, he's seeing life in a totally different way," Ruffo explains. "Will Western society make that leap that he managed to do?" 

That is yet another mystery that remains to be solved.

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