Some of the most intriguing, notable personalities in Canadian history were false identities. From disguising as a man to make it in the fur trade to masquerading as a naval trauma surgeon, we round up six of the most famous imposters from the past, with a Canadian connection. Get acquainted with these wild stories of assumed identities, then watch investigative documentary Looking For Mike online.

1. Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney)

Archibald Belaney fine-tuned his First Nations identity as Archibald Belaney fine-tuned his First Nations identity as "Grey Owl". (Photo Credit: Topical Press Agency / Stringer / Getty Images)

He was one of Canada’s greatest conservationists and also one of the country’s most famous imposters. In the 1920s, Englishman Archibald Belaney passed himself off as a notable First Nations man named Grey Owl, who is often referred to as one of the "most effective apostles of the wilderness.”

From his childhood, Belaney had a fascination with learning about all things First Nations. At 17, Belaney left England for native Canada, strove to eradicate his English accent, and fine-tuned his First Nations identity. He even dyed his hair black and coloured his skin with henna.

He had a deep concern for the shrinking forests of the North and the disappearing beaver. He gave lectures around the world and published best-selling books. Grey Owl was an international superstar and despite his deception and bizarre racial appropriation, his legacy of conservation continues.

2. Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (Sylvester Clark Long)

Was he a black man? Was he a white man? Or was he a Blackfoot chief, as he claimed? Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance wanted to prove that none of that mattered. He was a spokesman for First Nations causes during the early 1900s, who wrote and appeared in several Canadian publications.

But Long Lance’s identity wasn’t revealed until 50 years after his suicide. He was actually Sylvester Clark Long, a North Carolina man of African, Caucasian, and Native mixed heritage. Long Lance concealed his identity because he believed that the racial divisions in the United States meant that he had better chance to be heard as an American Indian than as a Black American. Unfortunately, the world was not ready for that message and historians described him as a fraud. However, through his ruse, Long Lance showed society the folly of judging a person by their ethnicity.

3. Cassie Chadwick (Elizabeth Bigley)

Cassie ChadwickCon artist Elizabeth Bigley took on the false identity of Cassie Chadwick, also known as "The Lost Carnegie". (Photo Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth Bigley graduated from crimes as a teen in 19th century Ontario, to defrauding several banks out of millions of dollars by claiming to be the illegitimate daughter and heiress of industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

As Cassie Chadwick, she pulled off the Carnegie Con for eight years and obtained loans that eventually totalled between $10 and $20 million. Chadwick guessed no one would ask Carnegie about an illegitimate daughter for fear of embarrassing one of the world’s richest men.

The jig was up in 1904 when her promissory notes were revealed as forgeries. Chadwick went to prison, where she died in 1907.

4. William Townsend

Acting skills sure come in handy when you don’t want to admit your true identity. William Townsend was an actor who turned to crime and led the notorious Townsend Gang. The group was allegedly involved in an 1854 Port Robinson, Ont., robbery, which led to the shooting of Constable Charles Richards. The incident is known today because Charles Richards was the first officer killed in the line of duty in the Niagara region, and the third oldest recorded officer killed in Canada.

After this, Townsend fled to the United States and changed his name. When he was eventually brought back to face two trials, he tapped into his experience as an actor, gave the performance of his life, and claimed he wasn't Townsend. At one trial, 36 witnesses said he was Townsend and 54 said he wasn't. He was acquitted in both cases.

5. Joseph Cyr (Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr.)

Ferdinand Waldo Demara is known as Ferdinand Waldo Demara is known as "The Great Impostor" for masquerading as many people — from monks, to prison wardens, to surgeons. (Photo credit: CP Photo / Canadian Press)

Joseph Cyr was a master deceiver who remains one of the most intriguing figures in Canada's naval history. His real name was Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., and he was neither a sailor nor a Canadian citizen. He was an American who masqueraded as many people — from monks to surgeons to prison wardens — and joined the Royal Canadian Navy in March 1951.

He worked as a trauma surgeon aboard a destroyer during the Korean War, managed to improvise successful major surgeries, and fend off infection with generous amounts of penicillin. Demara allegedly had a photographic memory and high IQ, so he would disappear into his room and speed-read a textbook on general surgery before performing various procedures (including major chest surgery). None of the combat casualties Demara treated died as a direct result of his surgeries. When Demara’s true identity was revealed, the Canadian Navy chose not to press charges, and Demara returned to the United States. Demara was the subject of the 1961 movie The Great Impostor in which he was played by Tony Curtis.

6. John Fubbister (Isabel Gunn)

John Fubbister wasn’t best known for being a Scottish labourer for Hudson’s Bay Company. Instead, he was best known for later being revealed as a woman. Isabel Gunn disguised herself as a man in 1806 for a modest £8 per year ($15 CAD) contract with HBC — more than what she could have made as a woman then, and especially because HBC forbade the employment of European women at the time.

How was she discovered? She was staying at the home of fur trader Alexander Henry the Younger, who found her one-morning giving birth to a baby boy. After being found out, Gunn became known as Mary Fubbister and was no longer allowed to work with the men. She was eventually returned to Scotland in 1809, where she lived in poverty, working as a stocking and mitten maker until her death in 1861.

Since Isabel was the first European woman to travel to Rupert's Land, she has been considered a pioneer of feminism.

Watch the documentary Looking For Mike about a man who pieces together the false identity of his best friend Mike after he’s found dead.

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