To many, he's still ‘Hardly Know It.' That's particularly true in the North, the place that put him on the map. But it turns out Mowat put the North on the map, too -- so after 50 years, why do we still hate him? By Tim Querengesser
Few knew it, but Robert Service wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee having yet to see the Klondike goldfields. Service knew it, though. By 1911, he was rich and soaked with guilt. With a birch-bark canoe, the former banker, who only moved to Dawson after the poems were published, set out to prove he could have been a sourdough, like his fictional characters Sam McGee and Dan McGrew. He’d use the longest way possible: the 3,200-kilometre “Edmonton Route” that meanders north along the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie rivers and then south, against the current, along the mighty Yukon. During the 1898 rush, this trail killed more Stampeders than any other. And indeed, as he paddled and pulled, Service nearly joined them in the icy riverbeds. He considered quitting, but wrote in his journal, “If you do . . . you’ll never respect yourself again.” Service eventually made it. Only then, after cheating death, did he consider himself authentic.
His guilt wasn’t unique. The North has forever condemned its successful writers as phonies. Perhaps because they spent so little time here compared to the status they gained from it, many Northerners have grudges with the heavyweights – Service, Jack London and even Dawson native Pierre Berton. Though they’re held in reverence elsewhere, the North assigns them an asterisk. Farley Mowat, the most successful of all, gets an asterisk the size of the sun. Considered a fudger-of-facts on both sides of the divide, he nonetheless has few detractors in southern Canada. But in the North, Mowat is largely seen as part villain, part buffoon. Speaking his name here pushes a button. “Oh, you mean Hardly Know It” some say, rehashing a nickname that’s 50 years old. Some scoff, or laugh, while those who support him steel themselves to argue in his defense.
All this is well-trampled dirt. In 1952, a review in the magazine The Beaver dismissed People of the Deer – Mowat’s debut, and his first of many books set in the North – as “totally erroneous.” This charge clung to him. It reached its nadir in 1996, when Saturday Night magazine ran a cover image of Mowat as Pinocchio. The accompanying story, titled “A Real Whopper,” meticulously documented the half-truths, omissions and fabrications in his Northern books.
So why reopen this debate? The answer can’t be avoided: Mowat is 88 years old, and declared 2008’s Otherwise his last book. At some point rather soon he will no longer be with us. That’s the sentimental answer. The serious one is that no other writer, even today, attracts to the North the audience and enthusiasm that Mowat does. Isn’t it time we shake the foundation of the grudge against him to see if it’s still solid?
Mowat always had eyes for the North. In 1947, aged 26, he traveled to the Barrens near Ennadai Lake, in the southwest corner of what’s now Nunavut. He came as a field biologist for the Arctic Institute of North America. But this was already his second trip to one of the remotest regions of the tundra. When he was 15, his uncle brought Mowat to Churchill, Manitoba, where they shot birds for scientific studies. Mowat’s second trip, though, had a much darker subtext. He’d just returned to Canada after the madness of the Second World War. As biographer James King writes in Farley, to the young Mowat the Arctic seemed “like a good place to run.” The war had ground his belief in Western society into dust. When reading Mowat’s first Northern books, the young man’s state of mind on this and a subsequent trip the next year to study caribou should be considered.
On both trips, Mowat encountered the story of a starving tribe of Inuit – the Ahalmiut, or caribou eaters. He heard through second-hand sourced that they were dying, under the nose of the government. The tale confirmed his dim views. So, as Mowat told the people’s stories in People of the Deer, first published in 1952, he added his beliefs on the cause of the famine. For a first book it’s remarkable – an accessible masterwork that captures Arctic geography in pure emotion. “It was a soft white nightmare that we were flying over,” Mowat writes of first seeing the tundra from a plane. “An undulating monotony of white that covered all shapes and colours. The land, with its low sweeping hills, its lakes and its rivers, simply did not exist for our eyes.” But Mowat knits a challenging accusation into the book. The Canadian government is declared indifferent to the Ahalmiut famine; other Northern institutions, like the Hudson’s Bay Company and the RCMP, are also criticized for their part in creating it.
After People of the Deer was released, Mowat’s indictment was passed around like a grenade. Some denied the Ahalmiut existed, though Mowat wasn’t the first to document the starvation. Mowat himself was called a “liar” in the House of Commons. His facts were quickly given energetic scrutiny and some were found lacking.
In the foreword to the second, 1974 edition of People of the Deer, Mowat addresses this directly. He writes that, when the first book was published, “it was impossible for me to obtain documentary corroboration for much of the story.” This was because the “Old Empire” of the North – the missions, the Mounties and the government – held the proof, he claims. “I was therefore forced to be somewhat circumspect.” For readers wanting the story without omissions, changed names or time and space distortions, the version given in The Desperate People – the 1959 follow-up to People of the Deer – “is the correct one.”
Of course, that incorrect first book had already changed Canada and the North. In the early ‘50s, People of the Deer was well received for a Canadian book, published in the Atlantic Monthly and, aside from a few harsh receptions, showered with glowing international reviews. Canadians were shifting their eyes north thanks to the Cold War and Mowat gave this newly discovered land a human face. A cause was born: Save the Inuit! The government jumped. By 1960, the surviving Ahalmiut were relocated to the coast of Hudson Bay. Whole towns were erected, and emergency food was shipped.
To some Northerners, Mowat’s ends justify his means. “There are people alive today who would likely be dead or not even be born if Farley Mowat had not written about the famines in the Keewatin region in the 1950s,” says Jim Bell, the outspoken editor of the Nunatsiaq News, in Iqaluit. “That is a legacy that can never be taken away from him.”
But the “Old Empire” mandarins in the North, as well as many Inuit, mostly noticed the errors. “It all stared with People of the Deer,” explains Jonquin Covello, a long-time Yellowknifer who once lived in the Keewatin, counted Mowat as a friend, and who’s now writing an English doctoral thesis on Northern literature. “People who’d been to Rankin and Ennadai said, ‘What is he talking about? He’s taken these people’s names and completely misrepresented them.’ It’s like any other piece of non-fiction or even fiction. If you recognize somebody you know you immediately say, ‘Well it’s not right. This guy’s an idiot.’ It always amazes me that Northerners are – how long ago was it, 1948? – still basing their opinions on things Farley said 50 years ago.”
John Goddard has nothing but fire for Farley Mowat and his facts. It was 13 years ago that he wrote the Saturday Night article that exhaustively catalogued Mowat’s entire mistruths. But even today, as I discuss with him Never Cry Wolf – Mowat’s book on wolves in which, he claims, he urinated around his camp like a wolf – Goddard laughs, bitterly. “People actually believed this happened when they read it,” he says.
He comes to the interview armed. In Otherwise, Mowat’s latest book, his main points are again illustrated, he says – that Mowat uses people in order to paint himself a hero, and that he fabricates. He points to quotes in Otherwise that are apparently drawn from Mowat’s Arctic journals. They are “totally made up,” he says. He then quotes a passage about Andy Lawrie, Mowat’s companion during his caribou monitoring in 1948, and one of his best friends. It’s now known, thanks to Goddard, that Mowat left Lawrie alone in the Barrens in order to see his wife in Toronto. In Otherwise, however, this fact is artfully reversed: It’s Lawrie who leaves for Toronto. To some this is perhaps just a detail, but to Goddard it’s part of a pattern. “This is one of the closest people in his life,” he says. “It’s disgusting to me.”
It was almost by accident that Goddard became an expert on Mowat’s errors. In the 1980s, he worked as a Canadian Press correspondent in the North. One day in Rankin Inlet, he says an Inuit man referred to Mowat as Hardly Know It. “I thought ‘What’s this?’ It sort of planted the idea in my mind.” There it sat until 1996, when Goddard looked deeper. What he found at the National Archives in Ottawa, he says, “astounded” him. It was a termination letter, dated 1948, addressed to Mowat from the Canadian government. In People of the Deer, Mowat doesn’t mention that he was canned. Instead, he speaks of himself as a noble writer and scientific explorer who visits uncharted Northern lands and discovers starving people. With this, Goddard knew he had a story. Later, he went to the McMaster University archives, to which Mowat had sold his Arctic journals. There he found dozens more inconsistencies.
The resulting Saturday Night article lists them with precision: the time Mowat spent in the North – and that he observed wolves – was overstated; the fact he never encountered a starving Ahalmiut in person was glossed over; many people accompanying him on his trips were omitted. Goddard also documented what appeared to be a pattern, by comparing what Mowat wrote in his journal to what he put into print. “Where the books show Mowat calling for government relief of the Inuit,” Goddard wrote, “his journal shows him fed up with [government] handouts [for the Inuit].” Could Mowat’s whole thesis that the government was indifferent be fiction, too?
The charges Mowat made, in Goddard’s view, required he get them right. As a reporter at the Toronto Star, Goddard lives in this black and white world. So, even today, far removed from the debate, he bristles when considering the pass people have given Mowat. On Bell’s argument that Mowat alerted the nation to the starvation, falsities and all, he disagrees. “By making those claims and doing that writing he got a lot of people worked up,” he says. “There was a lot of talk in Parliament and public debates, and it was a lot of energy spent on an entirely bogus point. That’s where the destructiveness comes in. It’s beyond me why people believe anything Mowat writes. It is so twisted, so distorted, so destructive, so anti-Canada and anti-North.” To Goddard, Mowat is the Ben Johnson of Canadian literature “except he didn’t get caught.” Despite the facts on Mowat being out, though, he believes Mowat will likely remain a hero. “Who’s going to care about that after 50 years of idolization?”
The only time I ever bagged school to read a book was on account of Farley Mowat. I was 11; the book was Lost in the Barrens. I still remember the basic plot if not its details, including thinking it weird that the characters had a cabin made of tree logs – weren’t they supposed to be lost . . . on the Barrens? But I didn’t put it down that day. And what stayed with me since is an interest in the North. Mowat was my entry point, even if I never credited him.
There’s a trend today in literature to attack non-fiction writers, from those who authored the great works of the past to the bestsellers on Oprah Winfrey’s book list. The list of those who’ve been, for lack of a better term, ‘outted’ as fabricators of facts is constantly growing. Mowat’s condemnation came before all this, but his comments on facts have done little good in the new environment. “Fuck the facts,” he writes in his introduction to his journals in the McMaster archives. When interviewed by Goddard 13 years ago, Mowat said he didn’t “invent.” But he later added, “I never let the facts get in the way of the truth!”
While the case of the North’s continued dismissal of Mowat may seem to be about the facts, though, it falls to pieces when you look at them. After reciting Mowat’s ‘Hardly Know It’ nickname, only a few people who I talked to could tell me why they said it. Fewer still had read his books. Yet everyone, from people at bookstores and museums to long-time Northerners, shared what appeared like a hand-me-down grudge. The condemnation is no longer about pure facts.
This point is amplified as I talk with Eric Anautalik on the phone from Baker Lake, Nunavut. Anautalik is an Ahalmiut. He was a baby during the starvation in the Barrens, though he has few memories of it. “My dad had no more energy because of starving,” Anautalik recalls. “I was still on my mother’s back, in an amauti. We were in mud hut and I remember my mom told us to eat the ‘white ones’ on the wall. It was some sort of plant and it gave us energy. That’s the only thing I remember.”
Fifty years later, Anautalik saw The Desperate People at the library in Baker Lake. He was startled. “The cover page is a picture of my mom and my sister.” This stirred emotions about his family. But as I ask Anautalik how he feels about Mowat, he isn’t sure. “Oh, it’s hard to say,” he says. “It’s something useful, I guess, if it’s the truth, if there’s a starvation and somebody’s gotta get help in Ottawa. That’s what they were trying to do, I guess. To tell you the truth, I never read the book.”
Thanks to the North’s feeling towards writers, it’s likely Mowat would have been considered a fraud whether he got everything right or not. For his faults he could have repented in the search for authenticity, like Service. Perhaps the North would have forgiven him then. But the truth is Mowat didn’t need to. People of the Deer and his following books on the North sparked mass interest in the place. Students still read them and are coaxed into dreaming of life beyond the 60th parallel. Fifty years on, has Mowat’s stock not been tarnished enough to allow us to accept him, exposed warts and all? We now have guides, such as Goddard, to warn us to read him for his stories and not his facts. So shouldn’t we thank him for turning people’s eyes Northward at some point soon? “We don’t have stories of our land,” Covello says, “except the ones that Pierre Berton tells and Farley Mowat tells. Those are the stories of our land, as far as I can see. And those are the stories that a lot of people love.”
To properly reconsider Mowat’s legacy in the North, you couldn’t do much better than retracing his steps. Writer and filmmaker Karsten Heuer has. Heuer lived in Inuvik for three years, then went on to shoot his popular documentary, Being Caribou, in the northern Yukon. In 2008, as part of his Finding Farley project, which will result in a film and book, Heuer – along with his wife and their two-year-old son – canoed and sailed from their home in Canmore, Alberta to Mowat’s summer home in Nova Scotia. Along the way they retraced Mowat’s literary trips, and encountered his baggage as they did. In Lac la Ronge, Saskatchewan, Heuer ran into historians who “really tore a strip off us for how we were holding up Farley to a high esteem because of all the things he hadn’t quite gotten right.” This encounter, so pointed, changed their perspective. As they headed north by canoe, “everything was thrown into doubt,” Heuer says.
The trio arrived at Nueltin Lake, where several of Mowat’s Northern books are set. “It very much felt like we had been there before,” he says. “We could literally use the description from Never Cry Wolf to steer ourselves from the ruins in this old camp where Farley based himself for a couple summers to the actual wolf den he describes in that book.” A wolf paid a visit to them the following day.
By the end of the trip, as they eventual found Mowat at his summer home, Heuer says his reverence had returned in full. Mowat “really captured the gist of these places, the sense of the people and the sense of the landscape,” he says. He considers Mowat somebody who takes “all sorts of artistic license” to create compelling stories, but does it in a “greater subservience to a greater truth beyond facts.” The two talked at Mowat’s home. “People never quite got what he was doing,” Heuer says. “I think he feels a little bit slighted because he’s been accused of not standing up to something he’s never portrayed himself to be.”