A Plea for the Canadian Northland
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 12 Nov 1936, p. 90-102
Owl, Grey, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Anecdotes and reminiscences of the speaker's experiences of travel and survival in the wilderness, and of hunger. The destruction of that great heritage of ours that lies to the north. The north country as the greatest asset that Canadians have. Potential for tourism in the north. Three-quarters of Canada in the hands of the Indians; the richest part of Canada. The speaker's gaining of experience in public speaking before he lectures in Canada. How civilization has made the Indian an outcast in his own country. The cost to taxpayers of keeping the Indians in idleness, watching them disintegrate and slowly fade away. A place for the speaker's people in the economic scheme of life in Canada. The speaker's suggestion to "put the Indian where he can do the most work and the most good for the country … you give us education, give us recognition, and we will look after your north country for you." Some words about the beaver. How the speaker used the beaver to gain the interest of the public in wild life. An anecdote about the beaver. The speaker's work to arouse in Canadian people a sense of responsibility for the north country and its inhabitants, human and animal.
Date of Original
12 Nov 1936
Language of Item
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Full Text
Thursday, 12th November, 1936

THE PRESIDENT: Gentlemen, today we welcome to the Empire Club of Canada all bookmen, but I might say more particularly the officers of the Association of Canadian Bookmen who are holding their Book Fair in Toronto this week. We are indebted to the Association of Canadian Bookmen for the presence of our guest-speaker. We have the honour of having some of the officers at our head table. We also have the honour of having the Chairman of the Book Fair Committee, Mr. Hugh Eayrs, a Past President of the Empire Club, consent to introduce Grey Owl to the meeting. Mr. Eayrs.

MR. HUGH EAYRS: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen

This is like old times when I used to stand where the Major was standing a moment ago arid worry you by introducing the distinguished guests who came to this Club. It has been the pleasure and the privilege of the Empire Club for many years to entertain distinguished men and, occasionally, a distinguished woman, from all over the world, notably from the British Isles and from the Republic to the South, but today it is your happiness and mine to entertain one of ourselves, a great Canadian, Grey Owl. (Applause.) I am not at all sure, without the slightest reflection on the distinguished gentlemen who occupy those positions, that we might not well make ambassadors, if we can find other Grey Owls, out of such men as the gentleman to my left. For four months last year he was in England and he spoke on behalf, of Canada to over a quarter of a million people. "Not since Mark Twain," said a great London Daily, "has any literary figure from the other side of the Atlantic so captured the imagination of the British Isles." A very great tribute, indeed.

Grey Owl is a man of the woods. He is a man of plain arid simple things, as he will tell you when he speaks to you. He is a man who, as I said last night, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything. He is, in the best sense of the word, of the earth, earthy. He is a great Canadian, a great naturalist, a great writer, and though I am chary of superlatives, a great friend. Grey Owl.

(Applause.) GREY OWL: (adjusting the microphone) I always have arguments with microphones.

Now, you gentlemen have all got the advantage of me. You have had a good meal ,and I didn't so if I make a few mistakes you will have to bear with me. I have been partaking a little too much of the hospitality of the City of Toronto. My diet has been pretty simple up there but since I have been down here I have tried everything once. As you will allow it is quite a bill of fare, so the doctor has forbidden me to eat today. I am on orange juice. It is not the first time I have been hungry. You know, in the woods, our supplies are generally pretty slim, sometimes they run out. Sometimes in our ambition to get far we get far beyond the reach of supplies. We don't stop to turn back until we get hungry and sometimes we are two days without food. I have been as (high as four and a half days without fwd. This little expedition today doesn't mean a thing.

I might tell the story, too. It might interest you. Another young Indian and myself, a good many years ago--most adventures arise out of the ignorance or the bad judgment of the adventurer, and in this case it was the same thing, we were both young with very little experience--started out and travelled all day. We came to a lake and put our stuff down; it had become dark and we said we would get a moose, we would go out and get a moose for supper and get it done with. The moose is still there as far as I am concerned. We travelled all night looking for the elusive moose. We didn't see any signs of any moose, not even tracks. Then came snow, it snowed about a foot the first night. We had no snow shoes. Another exhibition of good judgment! It snowed all day and night and we had nothing to eat. The next day we said we had got this far we might as well get going. We boiled some tea and went on some more. That evening I shot a squirrel. We had the squirrel raw. That was two days' food. We said, "We are feeling pretty good. Now, let's have another drink of tea and go on." We went on and came to a lake called 'Iron Lake.' We went around and in one corner there ran out at about the same corner two creeks, almost parallel, the one with the water running one way and the other with the water running the other way. We crossed the one with the water running to the left and in about fifteen minutes after we crossed the creek with the water running to the right. We thought we .had returned and crossed the same creek and as a matter of fact that fooled us and started us on a four and a half day expedition of foolishness. The next day we had no longer any tea. We managed to shoot a partridge and quarrelled quite violently over who shouldn't have the breast. Each wanted to give the other fellow the breast. We compromised by cutting it in two. I looked quite longingly at the feathers after the meal was over, too.

The next night we had no fire. We had run out of matches. The fourth day we came across where a moose had been killed a long, long time ago. There was nothing left but the bones and the bones had been nicely how will I say it?--weathering in the sun, perhaps a couple of months. We were glad to take stones, light a fire, put the bones on the stones until they got hot, break them open and eat the marrow of the bones, which was rotten. I can't say that I ate the meal' with any relish. I couldn't help but think of the squirrel hide I had thrown away. There was nothing wrong with it except that it had some hair on it.

The next day we began to fall over things, we fell over invisible things. When you are hungry like that you don't see things. Finally, a bunch of Indians found us and they came with dog teams and took us home. I was violently sick for about a month after that. After a thing like that a man doesn't mind missing a meal.

I remember the best meal I ever had. Comfort, you know, is a comparative term, so is hardship. Comfort consists in getting the thing you want if you want it badly enough .at the time. I had wanted that particular meal very badly. I had gone about forty miles that day, an unusual distance to make on snow-shoes in one day. The snow-shoeing was hard, arid I had stopped to make a fire. The way we make a fire in that country, when there is between six and eight feet of snow, we cut a green tree in six foot lengths, and lay it on top of the snow like a grate. If you don't do that the fire will work down through the six foot of snow and there will be nothing but smoke. That grate will last long enough to hold the fire for the period of the dinner hour. I took some little bits of bannock and some pieces of pork, put them on top of brush on the grate, over the fire, then put some more brush on top and covered it with snow. It would never freeze there. Snow is impervious to frost. I went on my way and about ten o'clock that night a blizzard came up, a real, howling devil of a blizzard such as you read about, only reading doesn't half begin to tell what it is like. It went down to forty below. I had all this distance to go down but I wanted this meal when I got back to where my cache was. I started back. There was a head wind and that snow cut a person's face like vollies of sand or broken glass and in a country where it is that cold the fires of vitality begin to burn awful low without food. Ten hours without food may mean nearly anything--you may never be able to arrive anywhere. But I felt confident and I got back to the cache, only to find that the whisky jackers had been there. You men all know what whisky jackers are--a bird who sticks closer than a brother and who knows the steak from the neck when it comes to your meat supply. He had taken everything but a small piece of bannock and a piece of pork and they had been pulled out of the bag and had been frozen hard. In that place, exposed as it was, it was impossible to make a fire. I took the piece of bannock and held it in my hand to thaw it. I took the pork and held it in my mouth to thaw it. For the first moment or two it stuck to my Tips and froze there. I kept it there until it got gooey, and eventually I was able to eat it. I had to use my axe to whittle pieces off my piece of bannock. I lost a few chips and I would sooner have lost a whole bucket of diamonds any time than those few chips of bannock. This half frozen mass got down until it hit bottom and boy, did she hit? It was cold!

Hunger to us is a regular thing, quite a common incident. When I went to England I found that hunger there 'does not exist at all. After the simple diet I had been in the habit of living on, the immense variety of food served in the hotels--I couldn't eat half of it--was a revelation to me. I am a night bird, as you know. I spend most of the nights awake. I spend most of my nights travelling--that is why I am given this name. So, in England, I worked all day lecturing and travelling and stayed up half the night. I would get bored and go down and talk to the night waiters in the lounge and, by the way, I found that waiters can be perfect gentlemen. I think often the only difference between a patron and the man who serves him is in the length of his coat tails and the way his pants act around the ankles. I found the waiters to be perfect gentlemen. They had a great insight into human nature. I told him a lot of stories, I told starvation stories and then he gave me something to eat. He followed with a story about a man who was very noted as an epicure. He wanted a grouse and he wanted it hung very long, longer than usual. He wanted it very high indeed, and he stipulated that the intestines must remain in the grouse during the hanging period. They say when the tail falls off, it's ready. When the great day came, he came along, aft dolled up to eat it. The grouse was placed on the table before him, he opened it and flew in a great rage. He said to the waiter, "Have you the same intestines in, that the grouse was born with?" He said, "Yes." "Well," said the epicure, "You should have taken them out and put another set in. I won't eat it."

I had my cocoa and thought to myself about a time when I was travelling in the woods and had been two days and a half without food and I found in the snow the remains of a partridge which had been killed by an owl. He is a dainty eater, he will not eat intestines, he 'is not an epicure. I found a few feathers, the feet and the intestines, and I, a man, the leading creature of the world, was glad to play scavenger to an owl. I took the intestines, thawed them out .and was mighty glad to eat them. When I told the waiter the story I thought of the epicure. He couldn't eat the bird without the right kind of intestines. How in the name of God would he like to eat the intestines without the bird?

Now a word or two about us. Mind you, the fact that I am an Indian doesn't make any difference to me, we are all Canadians together, we .are trying to build the country; I am trying to do my bit in my small way, perhaps a different way to yours but if we each stay on the road we know we won't wobble off, we will all get there, we will all arrive about the same time and something will be accomplished. I am a little slow at accomplishing, Lam not an executive, I can't push buttons and get things done. I have to influence the Indians, and influence the Government, and influence you people. I have got to influence my own people, I have got to sell myself to you. I have to sell Canada to the Canadians. Do you know, the average Canadian doesn't know his own country, he doesn't begin to know the half of it. I won't say the most, but a large proportion don't care either, and that is why that great heritage of ours that dies to the north is being destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth while we sit down complacently and eat meals and talk over microphones. That north country is the greatest asset we have and it should be heard from. It 'is the greatest potential asset that Canada has. Think of the tourist trade. Now, nobody thinks much about the tourist trade. Do you realize that the Americans dropped, two or three years ago, $260,000,000 in this country of ours? That is a rustle of currency worth having, worth keeping. They didn't come up to this country to see you or me, or our hotels or our skyscrapers or our railways or anything of the kind. They came to see our wild life, our huge stretches of forests and lakes and the beauty of the scenery. They come up to see the natives and they would sooner see the Indians, a picturesque spot on the landscape than a blot as they are at the present time. If we haven't those things, they simply say there is nothing there. They won't come back and where is your $260,000,000? It is worth keeping.

Here is something else. A bargain in wheat never made a nation great. It may be profitable but it never made anyone great. Your souls have to, have something, too, that you find nowhere else as in the north country. I notice the money-changers among the nations are conspicuously absent in the list of the great nations and we must not let the idea of profit alone obsess us. We have got to have art, we have something intrinsically Canadian that no other country has. Any country has skyscrapers, fat hogs, fields of wheat. We have got to have commercialism and (lots of it. Otherwise, we don't have progress. But we have to have the other thing, too. Do you realize that there is only one-quarter of Canada in the hands of civilization? The other three-quarters are in the hands of the Indians, for all anybody dare tell them it 'isn't. That is the richest part of Canada.

I suppose a great many people in Canada wonder why we don't lecture in Canada. By now, it should be obvious to you that I need more training in lecturing before I face an audience of my own people. I have some important things to say and I want to say them right. I am going to Europe next winter and I am going to England again and; I am going to go to the States. I am in no, sense trying it out on the dog, but I am getting training there and formulating ideas. Remember, I only emerged--when I was fourteen I talked a very fair pidgeon English--I have only emerged from, I don't like the word 'savagery,' primitiveness, if there is such a word. I have only come out in the open, so to speak, to civilized people during the last two years. I have to have time. I am learning, I intend to, keep on learning and when the proper time comes I will address my own people. I have often been asked where I got the power (the 'guts' was the word that was used) to come out before a large audience in a foreign country. When I say a foreign country, it is different people, of course, in England. I have been asked where I got the power to stand and do that confidently and talk to people. It is not me at all. I have behind me that immense north country, I have the power of it standing behind me, greater than you or I. I am only the screen for the picture I wish to show. I am the mouthpiece. I have the unlimited experience of those of my people behind me, besides my own life experience.

I have my idea the we people need not be the hoboes and misfits we are at the present time. Civilization has made the Indian an outcast in his own country. That sounds like a paradox but it is a fact. Now you have beaten him, you have to, keep him. That is a wrong state of affairs. You people are taxpayers, it is costing a lot of money to keep us in idleness and watch us disintegrate and slowly fade away. We have our place in the economic scheme of life in Canada and we want the same jobs we had before. We can do it. And it is worth trying one more experiment on that great job after the many failures you have already had. Put the Indian where he can do the most work and the most good for the country, a fifty-fifty proposition. You give us education, give us recognition, and we will look after your north country for you. (Applause.)

I know what you are all waiting for. You want to hear something about beaver. Well, we will talk about beaver. It is my favourite subject and it never gets tedious, though I have put it to the end of the programme. I have a couple of notes here, I can't see them but I know they are there. You have often read and perhaps you have wondered why one man devotes his fife to the preservation of an animal. Did it ever strike you that these animals are not inferior beings? They are put on the earth for a special purpose, and they should not be destroyed, tortured, burned and double-crossed as is being done. Those animals have a place, and the beaver definitely has his place. The function of the beaver is to retain water; in areas where the beaver has been removed there is a shortage of water. There is a shortage of water in the West, mainly owing to the fact that the beaver have been ruthlessly removed. I am a professional beaver hunter. Originally, I killed the beaver as ruthlessly as the rest, until I saw the outside hunters coming in and using brutal methods, methods that we wouldn't stoop to, and then I began to have a fellow feeling for the beaver. I said, I am like a man betraying his country into the hands of the enemy, I will do it no more. I will be like Paull, though I am by no means a saint, and I tried to help those whom I had so assiduously persecuted for so long. I used the beaver as the thin edge of the wedge to gain the interest of the public in wild life. To hear the beaver talk it sounds like people from another planet talking in a tongue we do not understand, like little children. I can tell a hundred stories of the childlike appeal of the beaver. They have inspired most of my work. I am not a writer yet, I don't intend to be, but I intend to get some stuff on paper before it is impossible to get it.

You people did well when you picked the beaver as a representative animal of the country. The beaver's determination, its assiduous industry is simply marvellous. Here is a case of determination. I want to tell you the beaver is rather destructive. Don't try keeping beaver about, they may take a liking to your furniture and you will find your Louis XV, and your Chippendale pieces of furniture without legs. I left two small beaver behind in the cabin one day and when I came back I found the door difficult to open. That was because the blankets had been laid in front of the door to stop the draft. The place was a wreck, it looked as though a cyclone had passed through. The tables were down, the dishes had disappeared, they had gone in the beaver den in one wall--a lot of them are there yet. The washstand had been neatly raised to a place on the bed. The soap was gone and a five-gallon can of coal oil had fallen off the table, right side up. The floor was covered with chips and strings. I said, "This was pretty good." It was the first time it ever happened. It has often happened since. I have learned to build furniture very quickly. The beaver is quite destructive, but they will run up to you and you can't punish them. They run up to you feeling all the joy of a good job, well done. When a beaver has determined to do something, neither you or I or anybody else can stop him doing it unless we stay awake 24 hours at a time and hold them, and that is a hard thing to do.

I remember an instance in one of the parks. There was a road alongside a lake and the water was no more than afoot or so below the road. It was a valuable road, a highway. Some beaver came wandering down and decided to build on the lake. They built a three-foot dam which flooded the road for about half a male. The Superintendent came down and looked over it and he said, "We will have to move the little fellows. When is the best time to do, it?" I said, "The best time is in August. The young ones are grown up and can move with the parents and it is not too late for them to go some place else." He said, "All right. Are you in agreement?" I said, " Yes."

So they got a bunch of men and they put up their tents. They had a case or two of dynamite. I told them to just blow a little piece out the first time. They blew a little piece out, nothing at all, and the next morning the little piece was back in the dam. The foreman said, "A11 right. Remove a little more." They blew up a bigger piece and the next day the piece was back in the dam. He said, "I have a notion to remove the whole dam." I said, "Don't do that just yet. They will get annoyed by this kind of thing after a while and will move out." Anyway, at last the Superintendent came, they kept rebuilding the dam, and he said, "'I guess I will have to blow it out." I said, "Okay, blow it out. Do it in the morning when they are all sleeping, it won't hurt them." They blew the entire dam out on Saturday. The men went back to camp. No good working man will go to work on Sunday. They lay around camp all day Sunday thinking, "Well we fixed the beaver. Hope we didn't hurt the little fellows." On Monday morning we went back and the dam was a foot and a half higher and had flooded another quarter of a mile of the road. So the foreman said, "Well, Mr. Superintendent what will we do? Blow it out again?" The Superintendent said, "No, move the road. It's cheaper." (Laughter.)

Mr. Eayrs has reminded me of a story of the fidelity of the beaver. It is rather a mushy story. I didn't think I should tell it to an audience of men. It illustrates the fidelity of the beaver. I have two beavers, Jelly Roll and Raw Hide. Wherever they got their names, I don't know, don't ask me. Jelly Roll weighs in the neighbourhood of 75 to 80 pounds. She is a big lump. She follows me all over, she loves me. She talks to me, she will stand on her hind legs and the attempts of that animal to make herself understood with me are sometimes ludicrous and sometimes quite pitiful'. Of course living with them, and with their voice resembling the human voice so much, it is not hard to understand what is going on in their minds.

We have a habit of working naked to. the waist. This particular instance was in the month of March. There was two or three feet of snow and we were moving some heavy logs. I was stripped to the waist; the wind turned to the north. I was quite interested in the work and didn't notice the change. I got chilled and the next day I was down. I had bronchial pneumonia. I had a telephone up on top of the hill and I used to, go up and report every day how I was getting along. I had it up there where I could call them but they couldn't call me. I have 'found how important that is since I have been in Toronto. An aeroplane couldn't get to it, it couldn't land, the ice was in such shape that it couldn't land on the pontoons. It was snowing and was so soft and wet that nothing could get in there and I was a hundred miles from the nearest civilization in nearly a dying condition. This isn't a hard luck story; the story is about beaver, but you have got to know the facts. I remember, at last I passed out of my head and I didn't know what was going on. I remember occasionally I had lucid intervals and as I looked down, there beside me on the floor was that beaver. The beaver was dry, I noticed that, and the floor was never wet; and a number of times during the ensuing days land nights I looked over and the beaver was still there. She wanted to get up on the bunk but I had purposely made the bunk just too high for them to get in because they fall out and hurt themselves. She reached and pulled and tried to get hold to pull herself up. I don't know how many days I laid there. The floor was never wet and there was no evidence that the animal had ever gone out of the cabin. I knew that this animal knew there was something wrong with me, that her friend was down and out. She couldn't do a thing but she did the only thing she could do, she stood by. A dog wouldn't do more and I know human beings who wouldn't do that much. That is part of my reward for the effort I have made for those animals. I say it is really worth it, after all. (Applause.)

I want you gentlemen to remember this one thing. I have been often asked what my work consists of. It begins to be rather ambiguous, I think. It is this: I want to arouse in Canadian people--excuse me speaking off my subject, I do that continually as thoughts come, I won't read a lecture--I want to arouse in the Canadian people a sense of responsibility, the great responsibility they have for that north country and its inhabitants, human and

animal. I thank you. (Hearty Applause.)

PRESIDENT: Grey Owl, in thanking you for this most interesting and instructive address, I think I can safely voice the feeling of all within the sound of your voice and say that you have entertained us, you have instructed us, and you have taught us a moral lesson, namely, to look after our country. We have learned a good deal about the Northland today, we have learned a good deal about the beaver, and last, but not least, we have learned a great deal about Grey Owl, to his great credit. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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A Plea for the Canadian Northland

Anecdotes and reminiscences of the speaker's experiences of travel and survival in the wilderness, and of hunger. The destruction of that great heritage of ours that lies to the north. The north country as the greatest asset that Canadians have. Potential for tourism in the north. Three-quarters of Canada in the hands of the Indians; the richest part of Canada. The speaker's gaining of experience in public speaking before he lectures in Canada. How civilization has made the Indian an outcast in his own country. The cost to taxpayers of keeping the Indians in idleness, watching them disintegrate and slowly fade away. A place for the speaker's people in the economic scheme of life in Canada. The speaker's suggestion to "put the Indian where he can do the most work and the most good for the country … you give us education, give us recognition, and we will look after your north country for you." Some words about the beaver. How the speaker used the beaver to gain the interest of the public in wild life. An anecdote about the beaver. The speaker's work to arouse in Canadian people a sense of responsibility for the north country and its inhabitants, human and animal.