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May 19, 2006

Lives of Two Native Women Celebrated in Mattawa and North Bay

The powerful stories of the lives of Angele Egwuna an Ojibwa woman from Bear Island and the Mattawa Iroquois woman Gertrude Bernard later known as Ahanareo are linked irrevocably.  They were the two women who helped make author, conservationist, lecturer and personality Archie Belaney what he became – Grey Owl “the best known author and lecturer of his day” in the 1930’s. 

In a remarkable coincidence the lives of these women are being recognized and celebrated in two separate events that were planned independently but happen at the same time in June. 


Gertrude Bernard known as Gertie or Pony by her friends left her family in Mattawa in the summer of 1925 at age 19 to work at Camp Wabikon on Lake Temagami.  She was a liberated woman before her time – independent, intelligent, strong willed and stunningly attractive. 

 Anahareo & Dawn c. 1936 – Ontario Archives c273 Vol.37 14625.  c 1936.

She grew up with her grandmother, aunt and uncle, and father after her mother’s death.  Her native background is outlined at some length in her 1972 book Devil in Deerskins.  Her great grandmother who was not native was captured in a Six Nation victory and she married and stayed with her captors.  Gertrude was proud of her Mohawk blood and her native background.  She was bored in school and often skipped.  As a tomboy she ran with the local boys, playing and enjoyed life.  She even had a small cabin retreat that was an abandoned logger shanty beside the Mattawa River near where she lived.  She learned about the bush from her father who was a bush worker and carpenter.  She made maple syrup and was familiar with the bush. 

While at Camp Wabikon in1925 wealthy American guests offered to pay her way to Loretto Academy in Toronto to further her education.  Also while at Camp Wabikon she visited Bear Island where Angele Egwuna lived with her teenage daughter Agnes and Agnes & Gertrude became friends.  Coincidentally Archie Belaney after many years away from Bear Island except for the occasional visit to see Angele returned in the summer of 1925 and worked as a guide.  Archie got to know his daughter Agnes again and Angele bore his second daughter Flora with him in 1926. 

Gertrude beside all of the other characteristics mentioned above was also quite romantic and fell in love with her “Jessie James”, Archie Belaney almost double her age. 

Gertrude had to leave Wabikon early on family business but Archie followed and briefly visited Mattawa spending most of his time with her father.  He wrote Gertrude regularly and headed into Quebec to trap that winter.  Temagami was trapped out and only aboriginals were allowed to hunt and trap. 

About 40 miles from Forsythe, Quebec Archie set up camp in the bush, building a small separate cabin nearby called Pony Hall on speculation that she would come.  He talked Gertrude into coming for a week’s visit and they were together for eleven years.  She was often away exercising her curiosity and working at prospecting and other work.  With poor trapping, poor health and Gertrude’s abhorrence of trapping Archie began to write and lecture.  He became Grey Owl and she became Anahareo.  The story is told in the 45 million dollar Grey Owl movie shot in 1999 and in their books and other movies. 

In a future article I will tell more about her and profile the exciting daylong event on Saturday June 17 on Explorer’s Point in Mattawa celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth on June 18th, 1906.  Coincidentally it is also a memorial since she died exactly 20 years ago on June 17, 1986.  To find out more now check out the website for the event at www.culturalgathering.com


When Archie left Angele, who he married in 1910, she turned to the bush for survival and was a remarkably capable bush woman and mother.  She took their daughter Agnes with her hunting, trapping, fishing, selling berries and making crafts for sale.  Agnes did not attend school but like her mother was a hard worker, intelligent and generous. 

Angele & Agnes – centre and centre right c.1913 Frank Speck photo

They lived in a wigwam most of the time at Austin Bay in south Lake Temagami and at Bear Island when they were not itinerant.  They eventually built their own small log house.  Angele had a son Ben from a local relationship and later had Archie’s daughter Flora all of whom she raised with care. 

Angele was married to Willie Turner for the eleven years prior to her death in 1955.  She received a regular portion of Grey Owl’s estate that later went to Agnes.  Agnes married Romeo Lalonde and had four children and many grandchildren.  Now 67 years after Grey Owl’s death the family has expanded and prospered – a living memorial to Archie Belaney. 

An exhibition at the W.K.P. Kennedy Gallery in North Bay will celebrate the lives of Angele’s family and her relationship with Archie Belaney who she never stopped loving and who she taught the native language and way of life.  The exhibition runs from June 10 (the opening is at 2 p.m.) and runs until July 13th overlapping the Mattawa event.  There will be an artist and historical talk on Sunday the 11th (2 p.m.), an author’s night with “Hap” Wilson and Grey Owl biographer Armand Ruffo (June 15 7-9 p.m.) and a showing of the Grey Owl movie, etc.  For further information log on to www.kennedygallery.org and check on future exhibitions for full details.  I will give more details closer to the event. 

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