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May 18, 2007

Archie Belaney arrived in Temagami 100 years ago this month.


Temagami will be remembering one of its best known enigmatic and contentious characters this summer.  The Temagami Community Foundation will be celebrating the event with various activities including a fascinating exhibition based on the life of Archie’s Bear Island wife Angele Egwuna (1888-1955).  The exhibition, known as the Angele Project, ran at the W.K.P. Kennedy Gallery in North Bay last summer.  The exhibition supported by a Trillium Grant and other generous donations will be held at the Train Station and in two boxcars adapted as exhibition space nearby from June 1 to mid October.  

Grey Owl’s photograph by Karsh on book of poetry about him by Armand Ruffo.

Archie’s other relationship with Gertrude Bernard who he called Anahareo from Mattawa has been well told in various ways including a big celebration in Mattawa celebrating her 100th birthday last summer.  The 40 million dollar Grey Owl movie and Grey Owl’s masterpiece book The Pilgrims of the Wild made her famous. 

Angele will finally get the recognition she deserves for her important influence on Archie’s life during his five year sojourn in Temagami.  The exhibition looks at Angele’s time with Archie, their daughter Agnes Belaney and their descendants. 

Archie Belaney grew up in Hastings England until he was 18 years old and he was raised by two aunts and his grandmother while his reprobate father was sent out of the country never to be seen again.  Archie’s mother remarried.  Without a mother and father and as a highly intelligent and imaginative young man he created new parents, one of whom was native and lived an imaginative life with his animals and long treks across the countryside and his favorite books.  He was also an excellent musician. 

In March 1906 he finally broke away from his dysfunctional and damaging upbringing and sailed for Canada arriving in Halifax.  He stayed briefly with some MicMac native people before heading to Toronto to work.  In the late fall of 1906 he took the train to Temiskaming, Quebec where he met the famous Bill Guppy, a woodsman and entrepreneur who took him in.  Bill tells the story of this period in his biography written in 1940.  He and his brothers taught Archie hunting, trapping, canoeing and woodsman skills.  In May 1907 Archie, Bill Guppy and his two brothers headed for the burgeoning Temagami where the Guppy’s guided and 19 year old Archie worked as a chore boy at the Temagami Inn.  (To read the chapter of Archie in Bill Guppy’s book log on to www.ourroots.ca). 

Archie eventually met Angele Egwuna who was his age but only spoke Ojibwa.  Archie courted Angele whose parents had died and was being raised by her Uncle John Egwuna who was married to Helen White Bear, a sister of Chief Frank White Bear.  Archie worked in various jobs including some trapping with the Egwunas on their hunting area east of Austin Bay.  He carried the mail back and forth to Temiskaming and worked in the summer of 1910 and 1011 at Camp Keewaydin.  In the late summer of 1910 he married Angele and Agnes was born the next spring.  Archie was always restless and adventurous.  He made a trip back to England and on another occasion tried to cross Algonquin Park on snowshoes in midwinter to protest restrictions on trapping.  He continuously took notes and made drawings. 

In 1912 Archie moved to Biscotasing where for years he worked as a fire ranger and trapped in the winter.  He went overseas for three years in the Army where he was wounded.  A Biscotasing girlfriend had his child and died while he was away.  While in England he married an old friend for seven months and came back to Canada, eventually being divorced by her. 

None of his relationships were very long and he had none for 1918 to 1925 when he made one of his occasional trips back to Temagami where he visited Angele and Agnes.  He also met 19 year old Gertrude Bernard, a native girl who was half his age.  Trapping was curtailed in Temagami due to over trapping there and Archie headed for Quebec where Gertrude joined him.  With over trapping there and Gertrude’s abhorrence of killing beavers they began to raise two beavers and display them.  Archie also began to write and speak about conservation and native rights. 

He was soon hired as a Park Ranger in Saskatchewan where he and Gertrude (now called Anahareo) raised the beaver for public display.  Archie and Anahareo were a couple for a decade but as strong as Archie (now Grey Owl) was Anahareo was a feminist ahead of her time and soon wanted a life of her own.  They had a daughter Dawn in 1932. 

As Donald Smith says “In the 1930s this same impoverished woodsman would be renowned as the best-known Canadian author and lecturer of his day.” 

Several films were made of Archie and Anahareo with their beaver and Archie wrote four best selling books and numerous articles that made him rich.  He made two spectacular tours of England where he gave dozens of talks to standing room only crowds.  He rubbed shoulders with famous people including the King and his family and was highly respected.  Because he believed he was an Indian and because acting like one helped his work he presented himself as one.  His friends and all but one of his relationships were native.  On one occasion he said “I feel like an Indian, think like an Indian, all my ways are Indian, my heart is Indian.”   

Because of his compulsive hard work and a drinking problem he died in Prince Albert Park in 1938 in his 49th year. 

His exposure as an Englishman not an Indian caused a temporary crisis.  After a court battle Angele received an allowance from his estate for life, as did Agnes.  Books, movies, plays and exhibitions have celebrated his remarkable transformation and accomplishments.  He is deservedly recognized as being a way ahead of his time relative to conservation and native rights, both of which are in the forefront today. 

For details on this summer’s activity check at the train station or check www.angeleproject.com.  For other articles on Grey Owl see my website www.pastforward.ca.

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