“Farley Mowat proved to be about as trustworthy as Rob Ford and as distinguished a Canadian as Ben Johnson,” writes John Goddard

John Goddard

John Goddard

“In the three books for which he is best known, Mowat claims to have spent two years living with a group of Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. He tells of learning their language, and discovering that they were once a community of 2,000 members reduced to near-extinction through disease, starvation, and deliberate government neglect. In fact Mowat spent two summers in the subarctic, did not once set foot in an Inuit camp, and did not once see a neglected or starving Inuit person. Farley Mowat proved to be about as trustworthy as Rob Ford and as distinguished a Canadian as Ben Johnson.”

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May 1996

A Real Whopper

Farley Mowat shocked the world with his best-selling accounts of life in the North. Now, from the archives, comes the real story.

By John Goddard
Saturday Night

“I never invent,” says Farley Mowat. “I may elaborate — Ha! Ha! — but I don’t invent. I experience and observe, and then I write.”

Mowat sounds defensive. He sits restlessly in a beige armchair at his winter home in Port Hope, Ontario, a one-hour drive east of Toronto. He and his second wife, Claire, also a writer, spend summers on the windswept east coast of Cape Breton Island and winters at Port Hope in a trim, elegant old house that he bought years ago from his mother. In a back living room, daylight from floor-to-ceiling windows washes Mowat in soft illumination.

He is seventy-five years old but looks younger. He has an elfish beard, a headful of ginger-brown hair, and a small, rounded physique so full of bounce that he appears ready to stride off again — as he did nearly fifty years ago — into the Arctic Barrenlands. Visually the effect is charming, but a forcefulness in Mowat’s voice signals annoyance at being asked how loosely he treats facts, a question that has dogged him throughout his long, illustrious career.

Asked a second time, he begins to backtrack. “The primary consideration for a writer is to entertain,” he says. “Using entertainment you can then inform, you can propagandize, you can elucidate, you can do anything you want.”

MowatSN1Mowat ranks with Pierre Berton and Peter C. Newman as among the country’s foremost writers of nonfiction. He is a national icon. From the outset, he has drawn praise for his spirited, emphatic style, and for his ability to conjure up a scene for the reader, not only visually but also emotionally. He is part storyteller, part crusader. He is famous for the fearlessness with which he is ready to confront and ridicule established authority, and for the affinity he often shows in his books for animals, native peoples, and the natural environment.

Mowat also ranks as one of the best-selling Canadian authors of all time. He pays little attention to sales figures, he says, but a decade ago his secretary added print runs of his first twenty-six books. The total came to 11,300,000 copies published in thirty-five languages. Since then he has released eight more titles, which along with most of his others continue to sell in Canada and elsewhere. His publishers now put total copies printed at more than 14-million.

International success came with his first book, People of the Deer, published in 1952. In it, he tells of travelling alone into the Arctic Barrenlands, west of Hudson Bay, to locate a little-known Inuit people said to live exclusively on caribou. He tells of living with them for two years, learning their language, and discovering that they were once a populous race of 2,000 members reduced to near-extinction through disease and starvation. Only forty-nine emaciated souls remained, he says, a fate for which he blames white trappers, missionaries, Hudson’s Bay Company managers, and most particularly what he calls the “indifference and neglect” of the Canadian government.

Mowat’s revelations were sensational at the time. As Canadians awakened to the North’s resource potential and strategic importance after the war, attention was also turning to the people who lived there. American readers took an interest as well. Three excerpts from the book ran in The Atlantic Monthly, and the book itself appeared simultaneously from the Atlantic Monthly Press in Boston, and McClelland & Stewart in Toronto. For a new Canadian author the breakthrough was unprecedented, encouraging Mowat to build on his reputation as an Arctic authority. In 1956, he wrote a novel for young people, Lost in the Barrens, for which he won the governor general’s award, and in 1958 he published Coppermine Journey, the first of a series of books he was to edit from the journals of Arctic explorers.

He then returned to the field notes on which he had based People of the Deer. He wrote a sequel in 1959 on the Inuit starvation called The Desperate People, and in 1963 he produced Never Cry Wolf, telling of “revolutionary” discoveries he made about wolf behavior during “two summers and a winter… as a biologist studying wolves and caribou.”

The wolf book became one of his all-time top sellers. Twenty years later, Walt Disney Pictures also released it as a movie. Mowat went on to write other books about whales, ships, boyhood pets, and the Second World War, but he remains best known worldwide for his startling accounts from the Keewatin District of the Northwest Territories, west of Hudson Bay: People of the Deer, The Desperate People, and Never Cry Wolf.

The nagging question remains: how far does Mowat stretch the truth?

In the Northwest Territories people openly accuse him of getting facts wrong, and call him “Hardly Know-It.” Earling Porsild, an Arctic scientist who reviewed Mowat’s first book for The Beaver magazine, conferred on him the Inuit sobriquet “Sagdlutôrssuaq,” meaning “Great Teller of Tall Tales.”

Other reviewers, however, have tended to give Mowat the benefit of the doubt. “The reader has no way of telling whether what Mowat writes is fact or [fiction],” D.M. LeBourdais wrote in Saturday Night in 1952 of People of the Deer, while saying also that the book “cannot be ignored.” Jack Batten, writing in Maclean’s magazine in 1971, said that although he finds Mowat often gloomy and misanthropic, nobody can match him for dedication. “He dropped alone into the Keewatin as causally as you or I would drop into a neighbourhood store,” Batten writes, “and, for two years, he shared his life with furious cold, storms, flies, loneliness, dull diet, a harsh landscape and plenty of danger… Mowat really did it. He was there. And it seems wonderful and courageous of him.”

Now it appears that Mowat did not really do it after all.

Documents recently made public at the National Archives of Canada, and papers that the author himself sold years ago to McMaster University, show that Mowat did not spend two years in the Keewatin District in 1947 and 1948 as the books say. He spent two summer field seasons in the district — totalling less than six months — and mostly in a more southerly part of the district than he describes. He did not casually drop in alone but travelled on both occasions as a junior member of well-planned scientific expeditions. He did not once — contrary to the impression he leaves — see a starving Inuit person. He did not once set foot in an Inuit camp. As for the authenticity of his wolf story, he virtually abandoned his wolf-den observations after less than four weeks.

In various editions of all three books, Mowat goes out of his way to portray himself as a diligent researcher who sticks closely to the facts. “All the major events in this book, and most of the minor ones, have been documented from official sources,” he says in a foreword to The Desperate People. “Other sources which were used included published works, signed statements, and private correspondence, together with many hours of tape-recorded conversations with [Inuit and white people] who were involved in the recorded events. To obviate the possibility of error, all Eskimo conversations were independently translated by at least two Eskimo linguists.”

Outside the book, he says he cares nothing for the facts. In interviews, he has labelled his writing “subjective nonfiction,” saying that he trusts what comes from inside himself more than he trusts empirical evidence. “Truth is largely subjective,” he has also said. At home in Port Hope, pressed a third time on the question, he says outrageously: “I never let the facts get in the way of the truth!” And in the preface to a catalogue of his papers at McMaster University, he calls himself “a simple saga man, a teller of tales,” declaring that his motto has always been, “on occasions when facts have particularly infuriated me, Fuck the Facts!”

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Mowat first travelled to the Northwest Territories in the spring of 1947. He was twenty-six years old. He had served with the infantry in Italy during the war and felt an intense desire to escape what he recalls now as “my own kind of people,” meaning civilized human beings who were prepared to wage mass destruction against each other.

On this point Mowat is consistent. In his first book he says, “I wished to escape into the quiet sanctuaries where the echoes of war had never been heard.” Similarly, in an earlier letter to his parents from the battlefield, he tells of wanting to “skedaddle to a point some five hundred or so miles north-west of Churchill in the middle of the Barren Grounds and start digging a hole.”

What happened next is where his published books and the archival documents part company. In his books, Mowat says that after a year at the University of Toronto (studying biology, he suggests in Never Cry Wolf) he headed north by himself with only a vague idea of his destination and purpose. He says that a bush pilot dropped him into unmapped territory, and that a half-breed trapper led him to an Inuit camp. “I was the first outlander to come upon it in all the centuries that tents had stood [there],” he writes in the first book, People of the Deer.

He goes on to describe intimate details of Inuit life — what people ate, what they wore, what they smelled like, and how their lives were threatened by starvation because white people were encroaching on the southern fringes of the caribou herds.

Mowat’s personal papers, on the other hand, show that he had been studying for a general bachelor’s degree, not one in biology, and he did not go north alone or without plans. Through an intermediary in Toronto, he made contact with a field scientist in Pennsylvania named Francis Harper, who engaged Mowat as a junior partner to help collect plant, bird, and animal specimens for six months in the southern Keewatin District of the Northwest Territories. Harper was well organized. Partly funded by the Arctic Institute of North America, he had arranged an air charter out of Churchill, Manitoba, and had made plans to use a set of trappers’ cabins at Nueltin Lake, 250 miles father north at the tree line (not 350 miles farther north in the Barrenlands as Mowat says in People of the Deer). After classes ended that spring — on May 31, 1947 — the two men flew north together in Harper’s chartered plane.

From the beginning, they did not get along. Harper was an experienced scholar interested in cataloguing specimens; Mowat was an amateur naturalist still longing to escape into the wilds, and five weeks into the research he did escape. He met three trappers who lived in the area — brothers of mixed German and Cree parentage named Schweder. The eldest, Charles, said he would be leaving soon for Brochet, Manitoba, to buy trapping supplies for the winter, and Mowat volunteered to go with him. On July 8, over Harper’s objections, he cast off with Schweder in an eighteen-foot freighter canoe heading south.

In his books, Mowat barely mentions the trip. The books place him mostly in the Arctic Barrenlands, but he was gone a month, meaning that he spent much of that summer in northern Manitoba. When he and Scweder returned to Nueltin Lake on August 5, Harper was still angry. He said that the air charters were his, and that he would not allow Mowat to board the return plane in December. With no other option, Mowat talked Schweder into canoeing out together, and on August 15 they headed east to Hudson Bay on their way to Churchill. On a map in People of the Deer, Mowat shows them canoeing all the way, but in a report at the time to the Arctic Institute he says they canoed halfway, then hitched a ride on a federal-government plane.

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Mowat next travelled to the Northwest Territories the following spring, in 1948, and most of the events he describes in his Keewatin books derive from the four months he spent there that year on a government caribou study.

Initially, he had planned to conduct an independent caribou study with his best friend, Andy Lawrie. The two had attended high school together at North Toronto Collegiate, and had reunited after the war. Lawrie was due to graduate that spring with a master’s degree in biology. Together, they had begun soliciting funds to follow caribou along their migration routes, but when word of their interest got around, the fledgling Dominion Wildlife Service hired them for an ambitious caribou investigation of its own.

Few subjects appear with more distortion in the Keewatin books than the caribou investigation and Mowat’s role in it as a federal-government employee. In his books, Mowat portrays Ottawa as uniformly uncaring towards the Inuit, but documents at the National Archives show federal officials responding quickly to a perception that the caribou herds, on which many Inuit groups depended, might be in danger from increased mining activity and an influx of outsiders after the war.

By order-in-council, on July 3, 1947 — the summer Mowat was with Harper — the government introduced sweeping restrictions on caribou hunting in the Northwest Territories. A licensing system took effect for non-natives; sales of caribou meat to hotels and restaurants were banned; penalties were introduced to discourage waste.

A short time later, the wildlife service proposed its caribou investigation. Biologists at the time knew virtually nothing about caribou — how many there were, what they ate, why they moved around the way they did. Government officials saw an urgent need for a conservation plan that would protect both the animals and the Inuit. “It is hoped that the barren-ground caribou will not follow the trail of the buffalo,” one policy paper typically states.

Initial research was to proceed in three regions simultaneously. The chief government mammalogist, Frank Banfield, took the Back River region in the north-central Northwest Territories. A second biologist took the Great Slave Lake region in the southwest. Mowat and Lawrie were assigned for seventeen months to the Keewatin District, in the south-central part of the territories west of Hudson Bay. Lawrie, with his graduate degree, was named “leader of the Keewatin party” at a salary of $2,400. Mowat became Lawrie’s assistant at $1,980.

Their job was to gather as much data on caribou as possible: numbers, habitat, migration routes, life expectancy, reproduction rates, and state of health. They would be based at the same cabins at Nueltin Lake that Harper had arranged to use the year before. They would be travelling to some extent, but not only by canoe as Mowat depicts in People of the Deer. Twenty-five hours of flight time was budgeted for the first year.

They were part of a well-organized government operation, but in his books Mowat barely mentions Lawrie or the study. In the first book he makes no explicit mention of a government study at all. In the second he makes a passing, sarcastic reference to it, saying, “Though no one in authority showed the least alarm about the future of the Eskimos, there was very real alarm about the future of the northern deer.” In Never Cry Wolf, he says that a “predation control division” in Ottawa hired him to research wolves in an effort to justify wolf extermination. In fact, the wildlife division assigned him to watch wolves as part of the caribou study.

One other detail that Mowat neglects to mention in his books: he got married that winter. While he was making plans to go north with Andy Lawrie for seventeen months, Mowat fell in love with a classmate in the botany lab, and on December 20, 1947, he married her. Frances Thornhill was her name. In the books Mowat barely mentions her existence, but from the outset of the summer his feelings for her were to affect profoundly the course of events, both real and imaginary.

When exams ended in mid-May, Mowat and Lawrie left by government plane for Churchill, landing on the ice at Nueltin Lake on May 23. They spent their first few days hauling supplies over rotting ice and organizing their new home. Spring break-up appeared imminent. Mowat shot two caribou, adding meat to dinners of mashed potatoes, onions, tomatoes, apricots, bannock, and tea. “Good to be back in the country,” he records as ice shifted loudly on the lake the third evening, “but praise God we don’t have to swim for it at midnight.”

Much of the detail of daily life that summer comes from a handwritten journal of more than 300 pages that Mowat kept in a zippered leather binder. In it he shows his playful side, so evident in Never Cry Wolf. “No more deer and fear me they is gone till August,” he writes of a realization that the main caribou herds have already passed. “We caribou students shall be caribouless.”

He also shows a tormented side not as obvious in the books.

Day three: “Miss Fran like the devil.”

Day eight: “Smitten with desire for the company of my girl. This separation not good.”

Day nine: “Little else to report except, of course, to record the growth of misery over the parting from my love.”

To relieve his longings, Mowat tried to keep busy. He patched canoes and fixed motors. He baked bread on the wood stove, and pulled up fresh fish almost daily from nets that he and Lawrie had set in the lake. With the camp finally operational, Lawrie began his caribou-habitat studies. Mowat went looking for wolves.

Mowat calculates in his journal that for his study to be of value he would have to log 400 hours of den observations. At a minimum, he says, he would have to match the 195 hours logged by Adolph Murie, the American author of a standard wolf text at the time. Mowat was to complete only ninety hours, a hard-cover log book now with the McMaster University collection shows, almost all between June 12 and July 6, a period of less than four weeks — far short of the “two summers and a winter” he claims in Never Cry Wolf.

The gap between Mowat’s private and published writings only widens from there. In the journal, he describes commuting to his observation post each day from the cabin. Each morning he motors across a bay by canoe and hikes up an esker to a lookout two-thirds of a mile from the den. To keep off rain and mosquitoes he erects a tent, and from the doorway he peers over the ridge with periscope binoculars, allowing him to see the wolves without the wolves seeing him. “For 2 1/2 hours I lay and shivered” in a cold wind, he writes of his first sighting. “[The wolf] unaware of observation.”

In Never Cry Wolf Mowat reports the experience altogether differently. He shows himself living in the tent at close quarters with the wolves, making the trip back to the cabin only occasionally. He shows himself awkwardly carrying a government-issue telescope and tripod as curious wolves approach him at such close distances that the equipment is unnecessary. He describes his first sighting on top of an esker as particularly intimate. “My head came slowly over the crest — and there was my quarry,” he writes. “His nose was about six feet from mine.”

The more the story in the book unfolds, the more outrageous the scenes become. Mowat learns to nap in short bursts like a wolf, and to mark the territory around his tent with his own urine, as a wolf might. He makes a breakthrough scientific discovery — that wolves eat mice during the summer denning period (in reality, a fact available from any standard wolf text at the time). And to prove that mice can maintain a large carnivore in good condition, he adopts an all-mouse diet himself, going so far as to reprint for readers one of many recipes he says he developed: Souris à la Crême. “Eating these small mammals presented something of a problem at first because of the numerous minute bones,” he writes, “[but] I found the bones could be chewed and swallowed without much difficulty.”

Few people who read Never Cry Wolf can ever view wolves the same way again. The book ripples with wit and charm, but beneath the bright writing runs an insidious argument. Mowat contends that Ottawa views wolves as a serious menace and is committed to the wolf’s “annihilation.” He says that wildlife officials sent him north to prove that wolves are causing “a plunge of the caribou towards extinction,” and that the officials were covertly encouraging trappers to poison wolf habitat with strychnine. “The war against wolves is kept at white heat by Provincial and Federal Governments,” Mowat writes, “almost all of which offer wolf bounties ranging from ten dollars to thirty dollars per wolf.” In his book, Mowat defends wolves against such policies, saying that wolves keep caribou herds strong by culling the sick and the lame.

Contrary to Mowat’s claims, however, government documents of the period show that no anti-wolf sentiment existed in Ottawa at all. No wolf-extermination programme existed, no federal bounty existed (a provincial bounty existed in Manitoba), and federal wildlife policy already recognized that wolves benefit caribou herds by attacking mostly the weak and the lame. “The removal of diseased and abnormal individuals form the caribou herds by wolves is considered to be beneficial,” the head of the Dominion Wildlife Service, Harrison Lewis, stated on December 22, 1947, five months before Mowat headed north on the caribou-wolf assignment. “The Department,” Lewis also wrote, “is not prepared to use public funds for the purpose of paying wolf bounties.”

For his book, Mowat appropriated the government position as his own rallying cry.

Mowat’s case for the Inuit is similar to his case for the wolves. He accused federal authorities of trying to annihilate the Inuit, not through outright extermination programmes but through indifference and neglect. “We have made a ruthless and concerned effort to dispossess them from their age-old way of life,” he writes in a foreword to some editions of People of the Deer. “Genocide can be practiced in a variety of ways.”

To help substantiate his thesis, Mowat tells of events at Nueltin Lake on June 4, 1948. In The Desperate People, he writes that all the household leaders from the Inuit camp sixty miles to the north, on the Kazan River, came to him and Lawrie looking for help. On their arrival, one of the men, Ohoto, blurted out a tale of starvation during the previous winter. “The rest of the men confirmed the grim details,” Mowat writes, “and now it required only a close look at the emaciated faces of these people to know they spoke the truth.” Despite their hardships, the men displayed stoic good humour, he also says. “The activities of the visitors gave no indication of what they had suffered in the flesh and in the mind.”

In his field journal of 1948, Mowat records the events surrounding June 4 altogether differently. He says that when he and Lawrie arrived at Nueltin Lake twelve days earlier, they had encountered an Inuit hunter named Owliktuk, and Mowat had asked him, using hand signals, to bring all household leaders to the research camp. Mowat had made the request on instructions from Ottawa, other documents show. Federal officials had asked him to distribute powdered milk to each family, to distribute a supply of axes, pails, stoves, and fishing line requisitioned for the group a year earlier by a federal representative to the area, and to prepare documentation that would bring the group formally into the federal family-allowance programme.

“General horseplay at the cache,” Mowat writes of the men’s arrival on June 4, in his most upbeat journal entry of the summer. Nowhere does he mention starvation. “O-ho-to juggling 4 onions, while the rest played ball… Dished out a little loot to them and they frolicked merrily about.” Mowat distributed flour, lard, tea, sugar and powered milk to the men. Afterwards, he gave out the stoves, axes, and other equipment. “I distributed the loot to the Huskies,” he says. Later that month he reported to Ottawa: “All the men that we have seen seem to be in good shape, and there are no reports of any recent epidemics or contagious diseases.”

Another discrepancy in Mowat’s versions of the June 4 encounter further explains what he means by “subjective nonfiction.” A letter from Mowat to Ottawa, now in the McMaster collection, tells of being notified that 3,600 rounds of ammunition had been delivered to the Inuit group the previous fall. In the same letter, Mowat speculates that some hunters might be hoarding the ammunition rather than sharing it because of divisions within the group. In his books, however, Mowat says that the Inuit possessed almost no ammunition owing to government neglect.

He says that he gave Ohoto and Owliktuk ten boxes of bullets each, a handout nowhere mentioned in the journal. Mowat describes the men’s guns in the books as so old and useless that the hunters “would have been lucky to have made one kill for every ten shots fired.” Interestingly, the complaints are identical to those that Mowat had voiced against the Canadian government during the war. “Even our guns were wearing out,” he recalls in My Father’s Son, an edited collection of war letters published in 1992. “Soon we would find ourselves short of ammunition.”

Other discrepancies appear between his public and private accounts of the summer. Where the books show Mowat calling for government relief for the Inuit, his journal shows him fed up with handouts. “Gave Halo a going over,” he writes on June 24, “and made it quite clear that from now on we give out tea etc. only when the Inuit produce something in return — be it only a ground squirrel tail. The happy days of milking the Kabluna [white person] [are] over…”

Where the books show Mowat admiring the Inuit for being at one with nature, his journal shows him angry at the one Inuk he actually goes hunting with. “The deer were within range and [Ohoto] fired 3 times killing 3 does,” Mowat says in an entry of July 31. “His oft repeated boast that he never shot does and fawns went up the spout in the face of (a) his craving for meat, and (b) his basic urge to kill deer whenever possible.” Farther down in the same entry, Mowat writes, “We had trouble convincing Ohoto that when he shoots a deer he doesn’t just cut off a few pounds of meat and leave the rest, trusting to shoot another on the morrow. Made him cut it all up.”

Where the books show Mowat singularly concerned with others, the journal shows him preoccupied with his own loneliness. The more the summer dragged on, the more intensely Mowat longed for Fran. He teetered constantly on depression, able to communicate only sporadically with her through government radio messages and letters.

His condition worsened on July 1, when a plane dropping fuel for a trip north also brought the first batch of mail. Fed up with distances herself, Fran was threatening to end the marriage.

“Won’t go into this but to bed and to lie awake till dawn after tramping the hills for a while,” Mowat writes that evening.

Throughout the journal entries of early July, Mowat’s concern over Inuit starvation grows in direct proportion to his hunger for Fran. He complains constantly of black moods and an inability to sleep, and on July 2, the day after reading Fran’s letters, he describes trying to fix a canoe “to see if a little manual labour would relieve me” of depression. The same night, Ohoto, a frequent visitor, arrived at Nueltin Lake. “He without food three days and reports near-starvation at Inuit [camp],” Mowat notes briefly. “Sent him to bed at last.”

By morning, Mowat was taking the starvation report seriously. Instead of working on the canoe that day, he threw himself into an Inuit-relief effort. He and Lawrie set aside 300 pounds of food for the group, keeping enough for themselves for several weeks, and wrote to Ottawa asking to be resupplied. “Decided today to give all possible grub on hand to the Eskimo and briefed Ohoto to act as a runner to camp,” he writes in the journal. “Snapped me out of it for a while — as A. intended it to!”

Ottawa later arranged new supplies for the researchers, and ordered an RCMP patrol to the Kazan River Inuit camp, a patrol that was to find claims of starvation to be exaggerated. In the meantime, however, unable to relieve his anguish over Fran, Mowat continued his campaign to relieve the Inuit.

July 9: “No sleep this night till 0400.”

July 12-18: “Wire from Fran on the 13th did little to calm my fears, sounded both stilted and far away.”

July 19, a surprising twist: “Got a few pages down on the starvation story, it may turn out well. Think I shall try Atlantic Monthly with it.”

On July 20, a plane arrived to take the researchers north to the Barrenlands. The day Mowat had been looking forward to since fighting in Italy had finally arrived. The plane also brought two more letters from Fran, however, plunging him even deeper into despair.

“Is it all over?” he asks himself. “Looks that way… It’s your marriage as much as mine darling, and if you want to jettison it, I doubt if I can, or would, stop you.”

For the next four weeks, Mowat and Lawrie surveyed a vast, open territory by motorized canoe. It was a pioneering journey that yielded valuable data about the caribou but which for Mowat brought only further agony. “No peace in all this peaceful land for me,” he writes in his journal of a personal misery, which in his books turns into a horror for the Inuit.

Old tent markers detailed in his journal appear in his first book, People of the Deer, as ruins of a huge Inuit encampment from which everybody fled in panic. Well-built burial sites form various time periods become in the book a field of plots so hastily constructed and crowded together that they resemble one mass grave. “I counted thirty-seven [bodies] in one place,” Mowat writes vividly in the book. “Whole families had perished at one time.” White explorers carrying disease wiped out the whole tribe, Mowat goes on to speculate, referring to the sickness as “the Great Pain” — a perfect label for his own afflictions at the time.

A further sign of Mowat’s despair came on August 15. When a plane brought the researchers southward again, Lawrie disembarked as scheduled at Nueltin Lake, but Mowat flew all the way to Churchill. In his books, he says that he flew south to take “direct action as a private individual” to save the Inuit. He did in fact round up some army rifles and surplus clothing for the hunters, but he fails to mention that he also took the first available government flight to Toronto to rescue his failing marriage after nearly three months away. When he rejoined Lawrie on September 9, Mowat had Fran with him.

For the remaining month at Nueltin Lake, Mowat devoted himself almost exclusively to the marriage-relief effort. He cancelled the planned resumption of his wolf study to clean a back room for a private bedroom. He patched the roof. He fixed the bed. He kept a stove burning all day to dry the place, and built a bathtub from an old canoe, but nothing he did could alleviate Fran of her steadfast unhappiness. The two were to stay together another twelve years and have two sons, but the journal shows that for an entire month, Fran rarely surfaced from a deep depression that is never fully explained.

September 30: “Fran rises not but lies in great pain and deathlike silence.”

October 10: “Fran took another dive into the dumps again.”

October 11-12: “Fran extremely low.”

On October 13, a plane landed to take the researchers to their winter quarters at Brochet. For Fran the flight could not have come too soon; Brochet at least offered the comforts of a small established community. For Lawrie, however, the departure seemed premature. The fall caribou migration was still in progress. He wanted to complete the count. Lawrie elected to stay behind until December, allowing Mowat and his wife to go without him. When word of the arrangement reached Ottawa, however, the deputy commissioner of the Northwest Territories, R.A. Gibson, raised concern with the head of the wildlife service.

“We have had employed since May on the caribou survey a chap named Mowatt who, while greatly interested in wildlife problems, does not possess the full academic qualification for the work that he has to do,” Gibson writes on October 28, 1948. “We were not much impressed with Mr. Mowatt when we met him, but in view of his evident enthusiasm, and because there was no one else in sight, we took him on.

“This man has cost the Northwest Territories Administration a considerable amount of money because he made erroneous reports about the Eskimos in the district. It is now evident that these reports were based on insufficient investigation. I am told that he left the area where the caribou were congregating in order that he might bed himself down in winter quarters. His associate remained on the job. Moreover, without notifying your office, he brought his wife from Toronto to the winter quarters and is now asking us to pay rental on a building because he cannot bunk with the Signal Corps on account of having his wife with him.

“While I have reasonable sympathy for those who undertake tasks of this kind in remote areas, it is evident that we should replace Mr. Mowatt… Please arrange to bring him out, sending in a more useful man.”

Mowat was fired effective December 31, to give him time to write his field reports. Early in the new year, he and Fran left Brochet for Palgrave, Ontario, near Toronto, where he began to write his Arctic tales.

Now, nearly fifty years later, Mowat admits to factual transgressions in the three Keewatin books. “People of the Deer is full of factual errors, lots of them, no argument about that,” he says over lunch in Toronto several days after the Port Hope session. “And full of elaborations. I didn’t have all the information so I elaborated on it, and produced what I perceived to be the proper version of the way it happened.” “On occasion,” he also says, “I have taken something that I have heard about and I have reworked it in my own mind until I was almost sure it had happened to me.”

Mowat justifies his approach by saying that it served a noble purpose. “As far as I’m concerned People of the Deer did nothing but good for individual people, the survivors” of the Kazan River group, he says. “Nobody was going to pay any attention to them unless their situation was dramatized, and I dramatized it.”

What Mowat may not realize is that by selling fiction as nonfiction, he has broken a trust with his public. By treating facts as arbitrary and subject to whim, he has not so much served a high purpose as muddled public debate on Inuit and wildlife issues for decades. Ultimately, the Keewatin books say less about the Canadian north than they do about Mowat himself.

But Mowat makes no apology. “If the same situation obtained tomorrow,” he says, “if I knew that a gross injustice had been done, and I didn’t have all the facts to prove it, conclusively, I would still write about it and fill in the facts as need be.”

3 comments for ““Farley Mowat proved to be about as trustworthy as Rob Ford and as distinguished a Canadian as Ben Johnson,” writes John Goddard

  1. dorrie
    May 9, 2014 at 5:27 PM

    The elite of literati is small in Canada and relies very much on silencing Canadians by putting forward this kind of prevaricator as a “typical Canadian”. Of course, we are not going to open our mouths if this is what kind of a jerk you have to be to get some kind of recognition for your point of view. I have heard praises of Mowat on the CBC, reminiscences, which extoll his rudeness and lack of regard for the sensibilities of others (dismissed as prudes or worse for expecting common courtesy). Of course, being he is one of the superior “elite with insight”, this just underscores the supposed ignorance of “canadians” who would find his type objectionable. After all, who are we, who don’t see “what’s really going on” (that is, facts getting in the way of embellishments and fantasies), to question someone who has been recognized as a “really good writer”.

  2. noah
    May 9, 2014 at 8:43 PM

    was he even in the army? those pictures looked staged

  3. Paul
    April 3, 2016 at 2:10 AM

    I can verify, on a personal level, his “rudeness”…

    When I was 11 or 12, I bought his book Virunga and went to a book signing at a local mall in London, Ontario. I remember nervously approaching the table where he sat signing his new book for a small lineup of people. I remember him being gruff, rude and condescending to me….in short, he was a dick

    Im 40 now and have my own children, and would never think of speaking to a young person the way he did to me that day….

    Do everyone a favour Mr. Mowat and stay in tht beige chair of yours

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