The story of the Englishman born Archie Belaney, who as an adult sought to recast himself as the trapper cum acclaimed environmentalist author Grey Owl, continues to fascinate academics. So much so that it has become a site for the waxing and waging of Canadian identity politics. Enter Albert Braz’s new book, which wades in combatively to argue that Grey Owl is best understood as an “apostate Englishman.”
Braz has carefully plumbed Grey Owl’s oeuvre. What he often discovers is that Belaney, qua Englishman, invariably lay hidden in plain sight. In itself, this constitutes a welcome addition to a body of literature that, Braz correctly notes, tends to focus heavily on the story of Grey Owl’s outing, revealed upon Belaney’s death in 1938. He builds the case methodically in six short chapters that follow the course of Grey Owl’s career as a writer. Usefully, the book includes a map so that the reader might more easily plot its protagonist’s movements as well as ten terrific photographs, many of which will be familiar to readers.
The study appropriately expends considerable energy engaging the secondary literature. This provides a useful way to position the author’s interpretation. While there can be little doubt that Braz has read the many works, he tends to employ them so as to construct a series of too convenient straw men, insinuating, among other things, that all other writers have axes to grind. This gambit serves a useful rhetorical function, of course, but the tack may also come across as cloying, if not disingenuous. Unfortunately and unnecessarily, it may plant doubt in the mind of the reader as to the motivations of the author. [End Page 163] In short, while the argument is sound, the architecture that supports it remains in need of repair.
Questions naturally arise. To begin with, if Grey Owl was indeed an apostate, clearly an interesting and defensible proposition, then one might expect that the author would explain precisely how he understands the terms “English,” “Canadian,” and “Indian” as well as how those terms were understood more broadly in Canada in the 1930s (and forward too, for that matter, since he tracks the secondary literature into the twenty-first century). Thus, while the prose is generally fluid, it is also at times maddeningly imprecise. For example, “I argue that what troubled many people was not so much that Grey Owl had fooled them about his identity and embraced the North American Indigenous way of life but the fact that he had forsaken European culture” (1). The difficulty is that the so-tagged “many people” are never explained, though one might adduce in the course of reading that he is referring primarily to other scholars. Similarly, what are we to make of the phrase: “North American Indigenous way of life”? This monolith recurs off and on throughout the text. In much the same way, we never get a firm understanding of how the author understands terms such as “European culture,” as if it comprises a single static thing.
Elsewhere one discovers that “[d]iscussions of Grey Owl and his writings still tend to be accompanied by a profound sense of outrage at his deception, indicating the general discomfort with the idea of a white man pretending to be an Indigenous North American” (37). Braz may well be right here, but the presentation of evidence is patchy and too anecdotal to merit such a conclusion. And so it remains unfounded, as does the implied smear that those who have queried Belaney’s behaviour must be racially intolerant.
In the conclusion, the work identifies “the Englishman’s metamorphosis into Grey Owl as symbolic of a process of Indigenization that all non-Indigenous Canadians must undergo, at least psychologically” (166). Such advice rings hollow, given that the study does little to dis-abuse a reader of the idea that Belaney’s fashioning of an Aboriginal identity for himself was a cynical ploy to promote his own self-interest, the value of conservation notwithstanding. Despite the...