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June 16, 2000

Mattawa woman Grey Owl's inspiration

The recent Grey Owl movie shows Grey Owl in his lectures saying “If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be here now.”

He is referring to Gertrude Bernard, a Mattawa native and the person who led Grey Owl to a remarkable career as a conservationist, lecturer and outstanding author. 

Gertrude, as the movie shows, was his mentor, supporter and wife for 11 years through his evolution from a trapper and a drifter to a man who influenced millions in the 1930s and beyond. 

Several books about him in the 1970s, including Devil in Deerskins by Gertrude herself, and the recent Hollywood movie have consolidated him as a Canadian icon. 
Gertrude Bernard or "Anahareo" led the renowned Grey Owl to a remarkable career as a conservationist lecturer and outstanding author. Photo courtesy of the Mattawa Museum which has a display of her life.

Gertrude, or “Pony” as her friends called her -or “Anahareo” as Grey Owl called her-was born in Mattawa to a Native family on June 18, 1906. 

Lived in Mattawa

She lived in Mattawa near the big pines that are still there on hwy 17 East, on the outskirts of Mattawa until she was 19. Her mother died when she was four, and she was raised by an aging grandmother (who died at age 108) and other relatives. 

She learned to love the woods from her father who was a bushworker, and who taught her snowshoeing, maple syrup making, etc. Her grandmother also taught her many traditional skills, including making leather clothing and accessories and doing beadwork, which she later did for herself and Grey Owl. 

Gertrude was a physically active, intelligent, attractive, strong-willed and adventurous child. She was bored by school and skipped a lot. She had her own little hideaway in the woods. Gertrude taught the boys lacrosse and in the summer went swimming with them, which was frowned upon in those days. 

When Gertrude was 19, she got a waitressing job at the Wabikon Resort in Temagami, and was given the opportunity by a rich guest from the U.S. to go to school anywhere she chose at his expense. She also met Angel Belaney and her daughter Agnes, the wife and daughter of the man who would soon change her life, Archie Belaney, a “Native” man known as Grey Owl who occasionally played piano at the lodge. 

By the end of the summer, Gertrude and Archie were flirting with each other. 

Gertrude was called home suddenly when a young niece died. Because of her family situation, she could not return to Temagami, but she could not get Archie out of her mind. She was about to write to him when the tall, handsome, gentleman dressed in deerskins and a wide-brimmed hat appeared on her doorstep. 

Archie stayed briefly, spending most of his time with her father, and returned to Temagami. He wrote long letters every day for a couple of weeks and eventually sent her a train ticket and an invitation to join him for a few days on his new trapping grounds in Quebec. She went, and the rest is history. 

For the next 11 years, their life together was a joy and a struggle. Grey Owl found that Gertrude, who was half his age, was not the silent partner he wanted. She insisted on going on his trap line with him, and was soon convincing him that this was not an appropriate way of life. 

They eventually adopted two baby beavers that became the start of their conservationist careers. 

Archie, with her encouragement and direction, began to write articles, give lectures, make movies and eventually to write books; he became known as Grey Owl the famous “Indian”-even though he was 100% English. 

Happiest days

These were the happiest days of Grey Owl's life, but this love story did not have a happy ending. Gertrude wanted a life and career of her own, and was often away working as a prospector or on other jobs. She would join him regularly and eventually accompanied him to Saskatchewan when he became a Park Naturalist in Prince Albert National Park overseeing a beaver population. 

By this time, Grey Owl was writing books and taking lecture tours to England, the U. S. and across Canada. 

Gertrude became pregnant in 1931 and their daughter Dawn was born in 1932. By late 1936 they separated permanently. Grey Owl died in 1938 at the age of 50. 

Anahareo -and almost everyone else- thought Grey Owl was an Indian, but the North Bay Nugget announced shortly after his death that he was an Englishman who had arrived in Temagami when he was 17 and had adapted to the Native way of life. 

This has led to divided opinions as to whether this misrepresentation of himself invalidated his remarkable achievements. 

In 1940 Gertrude, using the name Anahareo that Grey Owl had given her, wrote a book called My Life With Grey Owl and in 1972 wrote the best-seller Devil in Deerskins. Gertrude later re-married and had two other daughters and, over the 50 years following her separation from Grey Owl, was active in the conservation and animal rights movement. 

She received considerable recognition for her work and in 1983 received the prestigious Order of Canada. Governor-general Shreyer travelled to Kamloops to present the award because she was ill at the time. The mayor put on a special dinner for her in recognition of the honour. She died in 1986. 

In 1989 I interviewed Gertrude's sister Johanna, who is now in the Mattawa nursing home and will be 100 years old in March. She recalled how Gertrude and Grey Owl's daughter Dawn retraced her father's footsteps and visited Mattawa by coincidence when one of Johanna's daughter's was being buried. 

A few years later, Johanna was in Kamloops visiting Gertrude when Dawn died while visiting her father's homestead in England. 

Recalls visiting Grey Owl

In the interview, Johanna recalled visiting Grey Owl at the Mattawa train station at one o'clock in the morning when he was on his way to England for a lecture tour and a command performance with the Royal Family. 

She also recalled that Grey Owl wrote many long letters to her family, usually with a short postscript from Gertrude herself. She said “I often think today, Why didn't I keep those letters, but did we know what was going to happen? I told him one time he should write a book.” 

Grey Owl's passion for writing was a major factor in driving Gertrude away, but it also, as their biographer Donald Smith says, “immortalized” her in his “masterpiece” 

Pilgrim in the Wild. Grey Owl, Gertrude and Dawn's ashes are spread at the “Beaver Lodge” in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan near a monument to Grey Owl. 

The Mattawa Museum has a display about Gertrude's life. 

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