The Through Veterans Eyes projects has uncovered new evidence on one of Canada’s most unique soldiers of the Great War: that of Archie Belaney, who is more commonly known in Canadian popular culture as Grey Owl.
The name Archie Belaney may have been easy to glance over as just another soldier applying for a pension, but what makes this file so recognizable is the addition of the second name in parenthesis, Grey Owl, and the file later explains why. First however, the file reveals that Belaney was to be given $150 per annum, starting December 1st 1917, accounting for the 25% disability he obtained during the war. Belaney received a gunshot wound to his right foot sometime in the April of 1916, creating a slight, but permanent disability. Later Belaney’s disability would be decrease to 20%, granting him an allowance of $120 per annum. Upon receiving news of his initial pension, Belaney sent a letter to Veterans Affair’s asking for the money to be collected for him until the fall when he would return from his time in the backwoods of Saskatchewan. At that time he stated he would be close enough to a central office to sign the pension. Belaney had already begun his post war life as a guide and conservationist, which would provide many opportunities for him, but he did not want to lose his pension, and would later make an appearance before a Board of Medical Officers to maintain his status. Later updates on Belaney would describe him guiding tours and giving talks, and exhibiting a tame beaver.
As Belaney built his career as a conservationist, he assumed a First Nations identity and adopted the name Grey Owl to support this identity. In September 1932, Veteran Affair’s received a letter from post master Richard G. Madden in Waskesiu Lake, Saskatchewan, asking them to address any further correspondence to both Archie Belaney and Grey Owl, as the first name was generally not used or known in that region. Later in October 1935, Belaney wrote and requested himself that pension cheques be addressed to “Archie Belaney (Grey Owl)” rather than “Archibald Belaney” officially changing his Christian name.
Another complexity in Belaney’s file is the relationships with his family and many wives. In September of 1918, Belaney’s mother Kathleen Scott-Brown wrote to Veterans Affair’s requesting the address of her son, as well as an evaluation into her own circumstance regarding an allowance, as Belaney’s younger brother and father were unable to support her due to their own injuries received during the war. Belaney also wrote to Veterans Affair’s regarding his common-law wife and their eight-month old daughter, whom he supported, though they would receive no allowance for their dependence on him. Angele, Belaney’s first wife, married August 1910, with the help of lawyers also wrote to Veterans Affairs regarding a pension, after Belaney’s death in 1938. The letter states that Angele and Belaney lived together for only a few months after his return from the war, before he left her, and though their marriage was proved, and she received monthly payments from the estate of her late husband, she remained in poor circumstances and was requesting his pension. The file does not reveal if Angele did receive her late husband’s pension.
Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) died on April 13, 1938, as a result of pneumonia, which was not related to his military service. His pension file states that he left no dependents and an unpaid balance of $6.50. Finally, as a final nod to his shifting identity, Belaney’s death certificate certifies the death of “Grey Owl (Archie McNeil)”. Though it is unknown as to why the name McNeil would be on the certificate, the surprising name change furthers the sentiment of name changing and a life of uncertain identity.