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May 23, 2014

A Special Canadian, May 12, 1921 - May 7, 2014

Dr. Judith Maclean Miller

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Farley Mowat. His name is almost synonymous with "Canadian." He died this past week at the age of nearly 93, and he leaves a remarkable legacy. It is a privilege to write about him.

Mowat cultivated the image of the rogue Scot, who wore his kilt anywhere he felt like wearing it, who flipped it over his head, revealing a bare back side in the face of what he saw as pomposity.  Although it is true that he had little sympathy for cant or for pretentiousness, behind that image were other personae.

For many years, Farley Mowat was an affectionate friend to his wife, Claire, and generous to the many others who crossed his path. He was supportive of fellow writers and understood their struggles.  He despaired of man’s inhumanity to man, to other animals, to the planet. 

A hard-working writer, Farley produced some 40 books.  They introduced Canada to the world. In Moscow, on the street, Mowat was a celebrity.  His books were translated into 52 languages, making him a citizen of the world. He was part of a tribe of writers that included Pierre Berton, W.O. Mitchell, Edna Staebler, Harold Horwood. They took pleasure in the well-told tale, with interesting characters, a sense of the absurd, and underneath it all, a pride in the country they loved.

It has not always been fashionable to care about the North and its people, about the environment, about the whales, wild animals, birds, and insects--about what Farley Mowat called “the Others.” He was among the first to draw these places and their residents to our attention. No sentimentalist, he faced hard truths head on, and he expected his readers to stay with him as he did.

One of the most impressive things about Farley Mowat was his sheer energy. He came back terribly scarred by “the black horror” of the Second World War. So-called civilization seemed hollow and empty to him, after his experiences in the Italian campaign. He turned to those Others--the birds, the insects, the animals, the wilderness, where he found healing.

In his books, Mowat shares that sense of the healing strength of the natural world, which we are so close to losing altogether. Through his stories, compelling as they are, and in his memoir, Otherwise, Farley Mowat shows the reader what is at stake and what is fast disappearing.  His books are a rallying cry for the best of human nature.

It is hard to imagine such energy and mischief stilled, such a voice gone silent. It seems important for us to take up Farley Mowat’s work, to read and re-read his books so that these Canadian classics do not get lost, and to put our own energies to work as he did, to try to leave things a little better than we found them--or have made them.  He did tell us, “Inaction will cause a man to sink into the slough of despond and vanish without a trace."

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