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A Visit With Grey Owl (at King Edward School)

"My little white brothers and sisters. I am Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, He-Who-Flies-By-Night, Grey Owl. I come in peace. I come to speak to you of the mountains and the great forests and the rocks and the pure waters of our beautiful land. And of the men and animals who have lived here for many moons."

kingedward28.jpgThe speaker is tall and willowy; his movements are lithe but deliberate. He is dressed in a fringed deerskin jacket, buckskin trousers and moccasins. A knife is at his side.

It is the winter of 1937-38. Mesmerized, the pupils of King Edward Public School are seated on the floor of the kindergarten-auditorium to hear this Ojibway Indian plead for a way of life which is being eliminated by the callous "progress" of the white man.

Grey Owl is on one of his many lecture tours. He will speak to the students of several Border Cities schools before he leaves this area.

"I come to tell you that the animals of the forest are your friends."greyowl.gif

He speaks of animals we have never seen, the animals of picture books. His commanding voice, resonant and firm, makes them real to us for the first time in our lives. He speaks of the deer and bear, the moose and loon, of the otter and eagle.

Not a child in the room takes his eyes off Grey Owl. We are enthralled with his stories of the wild. There is, I feel, a special appeal in his voice as he speaks of the beaver. He has dedicated his life to saving this animal from extinction at the hands of onrushing commercialism. I sense that he has a particular contempt for the lumber barons and greedy trappers.

He has an incredible appeal for children. This strange man reaches us as no teacher ever has. The eyes - fierce and haunting, the hair - coal-black, centre-parted and hanging in two braids to his shoulders, the features - brown and aquiline, the sonorous voice, hold us spellbound.

He speaks to us as if he has hopes for us, as if he feels, in his anguish, that he might change us, make us different from the society of our parents, which he so detests. He reaches us as effortlessly as he paddles his own canoe.

To us this day he is a man of unspeakable sadness. A man making a final stand against savage economic forces driving the denizens of the forest (man and animal) from lands they have held since time immemorial.

He will make his point well, this simple man of integrity. His impressions will be lasting. Years later, hiking in Point Pelee National Park, I will come upon some boys tormenting a small snake. When they begin to circle the defenseless creature in order to stone it to death, Grey Owl's haunting voice will come back to me.

A group of sternly lectured boys will slink off.  And I will smile as the reprieved reptile slithers to safety at the side of the road.

Grey Owl's lecture ends on a dramatic note. He does an imitation of a hoot owl for us. This proud man raises his hands to his mouth and hoots for us, the children.

This natural raconteur, who has spoken before the most sophisticated audiences in the world in London, England; who has delivered his message in person to King George V; who has lectured at Columbia University and Harvard, has reached us children with a simplicity and dedication marvelous to behold.

Without the slightest condescension, he has entered our world and left his indelible message.

He will leave the Border Cities after speaking to a gathering of school principals at the Norton Palmer Hotel. He will continue his crusade throughout Canada and the United States.

He will return at last to his rustic cabin in Prince Albert National Park, where he will die of exhaustion on April 13, 1938, five months before his fiftieth birthday.

Within 24 hours the press will pounce. Newspapermen will uncover the background of this Englishman, born Archie Belaney, in Hastings, on the English Channel, on September 18, 1888.

They will write of his boyhood fascination with the Canadian Indians and their way of life, of his coming to Canada at the age of 18.

They will expose how he deliberately immersed himself in Indian life. They will tell of how he dyed his face brown. Of his three Indian wives and one English spouse. And somehow they will make it all sound like a fraud.

But they will miss the point. They will miss the sincerity, the dedication, the love of this strange man who believed all wild life deserves protection from senseless slaughter.

And they will miss the effect he had on thousands of children sixty years ago.

Related Links:

http://www.mcs.net/~klast/www/grey_owl.html

This site provides valuable links and lots of information about Grey Owl, and the new movie, Grey Owl, a flim by Richard Attenborough, starring Pierce Brosan, released in December, 1998.

More Al Roach


 

 

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