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December 23, 2005

How Archie and Gerty Made Christmas

How We Made Christmas is a key chapter in one of Grey Owl’s four classic books on the Canadian North.  The chapter describes how Archie Belaney and Mattawa’s Gertrude Bernard (AKA Gerty, Pony & Anahareo) began the transformation that made them into one of Canada’s classic star-crossed love stories and the development of 2 famous conservationists.  Richard Attenborough’s 40 million dollar Grey Owl movie, numerous books, articles, plays and movies attest to this powerful story of transformation and reformation. 

Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) & Gertrude Bernard (Anahareo)’s cabin in Quebec.

Archie Belaney fled Ontario for Quebec because of the over trapping of beaver in Ontario and ironically because he was not native and could not legally trap.  He was joined by Gertrude Bernard and, partly because she hated killing animals and partly because Archie could not make a living trapping, they built careers around beavers and conservation.  They became 2 of Canada’s best known personalities of the 1930’s and beyond as Archie wrote and talked about their life and their philosophy. 

The Christmas chapter in the book Pilgrims in the Wild describes among other things how Archie and Gertrude were alone and in love in a small cabin 40 miles in the bush on Birch Lake 60km NE of Cabano Quebec in the winter of 1928-29.  Archie writes about how he saw animals having intelligence and personality and describes the lives of 2 squirrels, whisky jacks, deer, muskrats and their 2 pet beaver kits McInnis and McGinty. 

Without trapping Archie says that “In spite of all these distractions the days were … long!” and he began to write.  He sent in an article and it was published for much more than his $15 a month war pension.  His writing was formal and it was only later that he began to write in a more colloquial style as an “Indian” called Grey Owl.  One a trip back from town just before Christmas where he sent away his first article he carried some Christmas goodies and gifts for Gertrude and the beaver kits. 

Archie arrived in a blizzard at the snug cabin where Gertrude was completing the crocheting of borders on curtains made from sugar bags.  Archie painted some Indian designs on some boards and placed them around the cabin windows.  They were in the Christmas spirit and added painted hanging ornaments with tribal emblems.  Archie made a war bonnet from some leather and feathers and chipped out a wooden block face for it to set on and painted a Friendship Sign on it “in case we had a guest”.  They added candles and hung a Japanese lantern in the rafters. 

Gertrude decided that something needed to be done for the 2 Macs in their pen in the corner of the cabin.  While Archie lit the candles and the lantern, put the fruit and nuts out, and tended the saddle of deer meat beside the factory-made Christmas pudding on the stove Gertrude went out for a Christmas tree. 

Gertrude Bernard with one of the pet beavers.

The balsam fir was wedged into a crevice in the pole floor and candies, pieces of apple and other small delicacies were hung by string on the tree.  They let the beavers out and began their own meal.  In a little drama that totally absorbed them Archie and Gertrude were entertained as the beaver ate, climbed, wrestled, screeched and chattered and eventually dragged the tree around the room. 

The beaver eventually went to bed contented and full.  Gertrude stoked the fire and Archie brought out the bottle of New Year’s wine and drank a toast to the beaver, the muskrat, whiskey jacks and even the Frenchman that had supplied the wine, and as Archie wrote later “we pledged each other with the last toast and declared that never was there such a Christmas anywhere in the Province of Quebec or at least never on this lake before.” 

Grey Owl feeding a beaver kit.

Archie soon had an offer to write a book which he did with complete abandon and Gertrude bored and restless began to look at prospecting and other work and the struggle between them began.  They were together regularly and worked together as rangers in the Prince Albert Park, where Gertrude supported him in his transformation and had their daughter Dawn in 1932 before going her separate way after 11 years in 1936.  She later wrote a couple of books about her life with Archie and was involved in conservation work until her death in 1986 at age 80, 48 years after Grey Owl’s death.  She received the Order of Canada in 1983 and has a display in the Mattawa Museum. 

Archie, Gertrude and Dawn are buried together in Prince Albert Provincial Park in Saskatchewan.  Gertrude’s life will be celebrated on the 100th anniversary of her birth June 18 1906 this summer in Mattawa.  Archie’s life at Bear Island in Temagami with his first wife Angele Egwuna will be celebrated at the W.K.P. Kennedy Gallery in North Bay in a Major exhibition in the month of June 2006. 

May your Christmas be as memorable as Archie and Gerty’s 77 years ago in a small cabin in the woods with their animal friends. 

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