The Role of the Espaniels in the Making of Grey Owl

by Andy Thomson on November 29, 2011

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Possibly the most renowned person connected to Lake Pogamasing was Jack Miner, the famed conservationist, who was known for his protection of the Canada goose. Because of his important work he was judged to be one of the five most influential persons in North America in the 1920’s. Miner came to Pog because he was looking for a good lake for his son Jasper to fish, and once he came to Pog he liked it so much they built a camp on the lake.

Pog has a connection to another famed conservationist who had an equally strong leadership for the conservation of animals. Archie Belaney, or Grey Owl, as he is better known, did not have a camp on Pog, and he may never have visited the lake, but he was strongly influenced by a family that had strong ties to Pogamasing. 

That family was headed by Alex Espaniel who was born on Pog on Christmas day of 1870. He learned the Anishnabe way of living and his trapping skills from his father, Louis Espagnol, a chief of a Spanish River band and the manager of the Hudsons’ Bay post on Pogamasing. His father wanted Alex to have an education and sent him off to school in Montreal for a year where he learned the French language. He returned to Pogamasing and soon after married Annie Noochai from the Whitefish Lake First Nation. She didn’t like the bush so they  moved to live in Biscotasing where he guided, prospected and in the winter, trapped on Indian Lake just south of Lake Biscotasing.

Annie and Alex Espaniel with children Bill, Jane (McKee) and Mary

Alex became acquainted with Archie Belaney, an Englishman who came to Canada in search of his childhood dream of becoming an Indian. To everyone in Biscotasing he was Archie, but to outsiders he was often viewed as an Indian as he dressed like one and he grew his hair long to give  himself the look of one.  However, his dream was dashed on the rocky shoal of alcohol, bad behaviour and several abandoned relationships. He was often better known in Bisco for his drunken binges and war dances than the person he later came to be. So how did he change for the better?

Belaney became involved with the Espaniels when he returned to Biscotasing after he was discharged from the Canadian Army due to a serious foot injury in 1918. Belaney became good friends with the Espaniel family, working with Alex’s son, Jim, as a fire ranger in the summer in the Mississagi Forest Reserve and trapping with Alex in the winter. The elder Espaniel was a generous man and, according to his daughter Jane, was always helping others by buying food or getting them medical help.  Belaney lived with the Espaniels during the winter as his trapline was on Lake Mohzabong, just south of Indian Lake where Espaniel trapped. Although Archie was considered to be a ‘sloppy’ trapper, it was his crude methods of trapping that disturbed the Espaniels. After Annie caught him in possession of blasting caps, a method he  used to blast open beaver lodges, Archie was kicked out of their home. However, he finally stopped his destructive ways and remained friends with the Espaniels. Belaney’s attachment to Alex was strong as Espaniel was really the first positive male role model he had ever experienced. According to Jim, Archie learned “the Indian way of doing things” which was to balance what a trapper harvested from his trapline so that the beavers could replenish their numbers the following year.

Perhaps the most telling comment of Belaney’s admiration for Alex was a hand written comment in his book “Pilgrims of the Wild’ . On the title page  he gave to Alex Espaniel he inscribed: ” To one whom I’m proud to call Dad and who taught me much of whatever I may know”.

Grey Owl left Biscotasing for Temagami in 1925 where he met Anahaeo who  influenced him to shun killing animals. Instead of trapping beavers he  allowed them to live with him in his cabin. Although Anahareo strongly influenced him, without the Espaniel foundation of living ‘the Indian way’ Grey Owl may never have attained his true calling. 

For more on Grey Owl see: Donald Smith, “From the Land of the Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl”, and  Armand Ruffo, “Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney”. Ruffo is also a great grandson of Louis Espagnol.

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