Catholic school board pulls teaching material that failed to say Grey Owl pretended to be Indigenous

London District Catholic School Board has pulled from its curriculum teaching materials that failed to mention that writer and conservationist Grey Owl had falsely claimed to be of Indigenous descent.

Indigenous parent complained about biographical information presented to Grade 6 class

Grey Owl was born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney in Hastings, England. He moved to Canada at age 17 and went on to become a famous writer and conservationist adopting the name Grey Owl while falsely claiming to be Indigenous. (The Canadian Press)

It only takes a Google search to learn that Grey Owl was a white man from England who came to Canada and pretended to be Indigenous as he rose to fame for his writing and conservation work before his death in 1938.

However, the fact he was a fraud wasn't mentioned in biographical material about Grey Owl that was presented to a Grade 6 class in London, Ont., during an online learning session last fall.

It took a complaint by an outraged Indigenous parent and the work of the London District Catholic School Board's Indigenous education lead Tammy Denomme to flag the material as missing key information and context. As a result, it's been pulled from the school curriculum with the publisher who produced the material promising to add the correct context.

"It's kind of the ultimate example of cultural appropriation," said Denomme, who is not Indigenous, about Grey Owl's legacy. "This material lionized this man. He passed himself off as something that he wasn't and it didn't say anything about that in this article."

Grey Owl: Saskatchewan trapper, conservationist, author, fraud

51 years ago
Duration 10:27
He captivated the world with his impassioned speeches about conservation. But very few knew the true Grey Owl: Englishman Archie Belaney.

The material about Grey Owl used in the class included a biographical information sheet for use on an overhead projector and an entry in the teachers guide. Both have now been pulled from the curriculum and won't be used in future teaching material, according to the school board and Nelson Publishing, the Toronto company that produced the material. A clip from this Heritage Minutes segment about Grey Owl's life has also been pulled from the digital teaching materials used in the curriculum. 

CBC News was unable to reach the parent of the Grade 5 student whose complaint triggered the change.

Amanda Myers is an educator of Metis and Anishinaabe heritage and director of the Indigenous Student Centre at Western University. 

She said presenting material to students about Grey Owl without mentioning that he falsely passed himself off as Indigenous is a significant oversight, by both the London District Catholic School Board and by Nelson Publishing. 

"When something like this comes up, as an Indigenous person it can be very triggering for people struggling with their own connection to identity," she said. "[Grey Owl's fraud] has been known about for a long time, this isn't a recent discovery. I mean, thank goodness a parent brought that forward, otherwise students would continue to celebrate Grey Owl." 

Grey Owl was born Archie Belaney in southwest England in 1888. He moved to Canada as a 17-year-old enthralled with stories about Indigenous people of North America. He would go on to immerse himself in Ojibway culture, learn to trap and canoe and adopt the name Grey Owl. 

Grey Owl learned to trap and canoe while living in the Canadian wilderness and went on lecture tours while falsely claiming to be of Indigenous descent. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

In 1931 under the Grey Owl name he published The Men of the Last Frontier, a popular book that vividly describes the Canadian wilderness and the threats against it. The book's forward also falsely described Belaney as having an Apache mother and Scottish father. 

He went on lecture tours in Europe and the United States wearing braided hair. He even dyed his hair black and coloured his skin brown. His true heritage wasn't fully revealed until after his death.

Myers, who has created curriculum material for schools that addresses issues surrounding First Nations identity, said failing to mention that Grey Owl was a fraud is a missed opportunity to talk about the ongoing problem of cultural appropriation of Indigenous culture by people of European descent. 

"During the time that he was appropriating our culture, it was illegal for us to practise our culture," she said. 

Kathy Furlong is the superintendent of education for London and District and Catholic School Board. She agrees the material should have included the full context of who Grey Owl was. She said the board and the Education Ministry are working to update teaching material and correct errors and omissions.

"We are looking at things with a different lens and we are uncovering things that should be uncovered and looking more closely," she said. "When we hear concerns from our community we listen and respond, we are all learning together."

The London District Catholic School Board has now pulled the teaching materials that failed to mention that Grey Owl had rose to fame while falsely claiming to be part Indigenous. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

The material about Grey Owl was produced at least 12 years ago, and predates a more stringent vetting process of curriculum material, a process that now includes consultation with Indigenous groups, said Lenore Brooks, the executive director of product solutions at Nelson Education. 

"It's really important that our resources are accurate," she said. "As our Indigenous colleagues and educators and elders are collaborating more, we are able to identify gaps in knowledge that we can share with our teachers and students."