Out-Grey-Owling Grey Owl
MB Williams had been living in London, England for four years when her past in parks caught up with her. JC Campbell, the man who had usurped her as head of publicity at the National Parks Branch, contacted her in late 1935 about the speaking tour that Grey Owl was about to begin in England. Grey Owl was the aboriginal nature writer whom the Parks Branch had taken under its wing in the early ‘30s, giving him a place to live at Riding Mountain and Prince Albert national parks, and making him its spokesman for conservation. Except, of course, Grey Owl was not an aboriginal, as would become known immediately following his death in 1938: he was an Englishman, born Archie Belaney.
Williams had known Grey Owl from her days in the Parks Branch. In an Oct 1932 letter here, Grey Owl invited her, now that she was retired, to take the "long deferred and oft-promised visit" to see him, his wife, and "the Beaver People."
The remarkable series of four letters from Campbell to Williams in Dec 1935, Jan 1936, Mar 1936, and Apr 1936 is the most candid existing historical record of the Parks Branch’s opinion of Grey Owl – far more explicit than anything found in the Branch’s own archival collection. Campbell wished Williams to run whatever interference she could during Grey Owl’s tour, to save the naturalist and so the Parks Branch from embarrassment. The picture Campbell paints is of a Parks Branch terrified of what its increasingly celebrated spokesman, “either through liquor, women, or temper,” might say or do. To Campbell he is a primadonna who feels he has moved beyond the nature writing, the parks agency, and the nation that have made him famous: “He is obsessed with one idea and that is that he a great backwoodsman. He … does not want to be known as an author as he thinks that is synonymous with being a crooner or gigolo par-fumier.” There is blunt mention of Grey Owl’s manipulative nature, his egotism, his drunkenness, his impatience for renown. And there is cryptic reference to worse. “There are many things I know that I cannot write to you,” Campbell writes, “and my constant prayer is that there will be no outbreak that would cast discredit on the National Parks and those with whom he is associated.” Although circumstantial, these letters are the strongest evidence we have that the Parks Branch, Grey Owl’s employer for a half-dozen years, knew full well of his lineage before his death.
As for MB, she was still loyal to the Parks Branch and so did as Campbell asked. She gave a talk about parks alongside Grey Owl, deflecting some of the attention away from him – “out Grey Owled Grey Owl,” in Campbell’s congratulatory terms. And yet the publicity director warned her against doing more, fearing that becoming associated with Grey Owl would only embroil her in whatever trouble was sure to come his way. “The unfortunate thing about it,” wrote Campbell, “is that while we know the truth now we will have to let him carry on if the Publishers so wish until such time as he meets his Waterloo.”
Photo Credit: Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada, Acc. no. 1987-054, PA-164228