V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Canada is Mowat's favourite character

Published in The Toronto Star, September, 2010. Part 2 in a 5-part series on inaugural Canada's Walk of Fame Festival

Farley Mowat bristles at being called a conservationist or environmental advocate.

And he makes it clear he doesn't “espouse” any cause.

What he is, first and foremost, Mowat says, is a “journeyman,” a sagaman of the 21st century.

“When there's a good story, I will write it,” Mowat, 89, said from his summer home in Nova Scotia. “My primary purpose in life is to be a storyteller. I belong to that honourable fraternity of storytellers. That's all I am.”

It just so happens that many of his most commanding, forceful stories have been inspired by the natural world, whether it be debunking the mythology of wolves in Never Cry Wolf, weaving a harrowing tale of two boys trying to survive the Arctic in Lost in the Barrens, or chronicling the destruction of marine life in Sea of Slaughter.

For these and the other 40 literary works he's penned, Mowat is being honoured with a star on Canada's Walk of Fame, an honour he accepts with self-deprecating — and blistering — humour.

“I thought, ‘What the hell? I thought this was for music stars and hockey players.' What am I doing in this assembly of noble flesh?” he laughed. “I think they were scraping the barrel. That's the way I look at it.”

But generations of Mowat readers would beg to differ. Mowat's anthology of novels, memoirs, and children's books are often described as a cultural heritage, one that helped kick-start the contemporary Canadian literary landscape in the 1950s.

“There was a psychological moment, after WWII, when we realized that not all books are written in the U.S. and Britain,” he said. “That we had writers at home who were worthy of reading.”

Up until then, there was no Canadian literary scene, the stage unlit.

“I was so goddamn lucky. It was the one time the Gods were smiling down at me.”

Mowat's career is festooned with awards, honours and controversy. His debut novel, People of the Deer in 1952, was a searing indictment of the government's part in starving to death an Inuit Caribou band, the Ihalmiut, or “People from Beyond,” a group that had been largely ignored.

The book provoked an uproar in Parliament and stirred public debate, resulting in a shift in public policy and the band's relocation.

His follow-up novel Never Cry Wolf, which was turned into a film in 1983, is similarly fraught with controversy, and lambasted for being full of half-truths.

But one thing that can't be denied is the impact his work has had in romanticizing and highlighting this country's northernmost lands and people who inhabit them.

While much of his writing centres around Canada, Mowat's service in the Second World War also figures prominently in his work. It's also, perhaps, where his contempt toward the notion of nationalism and his frank disdain for the human species, began.

In conversation, Mowat frequently chastizes mankind for a gluttony that verges on villainous: we're “rapacious scoundrels” driven by nothing more than a base need for self-gratification.

It's the biggest story of all, he says, one “gigantic soap opera” about the survival — or self-destruction — of the human race.

But the theme has been all but ignored in modern literature by writers turned “umbilicus observers” — all hallmarks of our collective fear, he said.

“We're frightened animals. An indication of a frightened animal is becoming introspective. The trend has become that we're looking inward, not outward.”

Mowat's also a self-confessed luddite who shuns technology — he doesn't use email — and bemoans the loss of the written word.

His latest book, Eastern Passage, is to be his last, Mowat said, a result of deep disillusionment with the publishing world. But he's quick to add all is not lost.

“Here's the kicker. It is not the demise of the storyteller. It's always been with us. The storyteller has always been an integral part of us.”

Mowat rejects the idea of Canada as a nation. Instead, he prefers to think of Canada as one of his characters.

“Canada has been good to me, as good as I deserved,” he said. “I am fond of it. Not fond of it as an abstraction, but for the smell, feel and taste of it.”

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