Canadian author Farley Mowat, a master storyteller and tireless defender of nature and wildlife, has died at age 92, his assistant confirmed Wednesday.
From the time he was 13, Mowat was fiercely dedicated to writing about the natural world. As a young teen he started a magazine called Nature Lore and had a column in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
He went on to write some 40 books, many based on his own adventures and travels. He said he was lucky to be able to combine his two passions: writing and nature, calling it “the only subject I really want to write about.”
Throughout his life, Mowat was adamant that humans learn to live in harmony with the natural world.
“It’s a matter of survival,” he told The Canadian Press in a 2006 interview. “Either we learn to do this, or we cease to exist. We have no God-given right to survive forever. We have screwed up so badly in so many ways so obviously that only utterly stupid species would consider that we have much of a future, as things stand.
“Only by recognizing how far off-track we’ve gone, are we likely to be able to recover our footing and carry on?”
One of his most famous books, Never Cry Wolf, is said to have changed the way people saw wolves; after the Russian version was published, the government there even banned the killings of one of Mowat’s favourite creatures.
But the book, based on Mowat’s own experiences studying wolves in the North, was not without controversy.
The May 1996 issue of now-defunct Saturday Night magazine featured an article by John Goddard titled A Real Whopper, accusing Mowat of exaggerating key facts in the book, such as how long he actually spent studying wolves in the North and if he visited an Inuit camp.
Mowat later issued a retort, saying Goddard “consistently misses the truth behind these facts.’”
Mowat was born in Belleville, Ont., in 1921. The son of a librarian, he grew up in Windsor and Saskatoon. He studied at the University of Toronto. His novels and other non-fiction works have been translated into more than 20 languages.
A remarkable storyteller, Mowat said the pleasure he got from writing was paramount.
“My motives have been selfish in a peculiar way,” he said, “not to attempt to gain recognition, fame, to become an icon, to become a Conrad Black or somebody like that, but simply to satisfy my own appetite for good stories.”
Never one to shy away from controversy, Mowat was outspoken about many environmental and social issues.
He called Canada’s treatment of aboriginals “abominable,” said the seal hunt was, “perhaps the most atrocious single trespass by human beings against the living world that’s taking place today,” and said hunts in general were “symbolic of the massive destruction that we’ve visited upon life.”
Although Mowat felt the struggle to preserve nature and wildlife was an ongoing one, he said: “I could honestly say I’ve fought the good fight.”
He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal in 1956, the Governor General’s Award for Lost in the Barrens in 1956, the Leacock Medal for Humour for The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float in 1970, the Order of Canada in 1981 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2003.
“Every book is a total experience in itself,” he said. “It’s a world in itself and when you finish the book you’re moving on to another world.”
Reaction to the death was immediate. In Ottawa, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the author was “a family friend” from childhood.
“He came up to Harrington Lake a few times … ah, got along great with my father,” said Trudeau. “He gave us a Labrador retriever who we called Farley who had a penchant for running after porcupines as I remember.”
He added: “Mr. Mowat obviously was a passionate Canadian who shaped a lot of my generation growing up with his books and he will be sorely missed.”
Barbara Stephenson, the former chief librarian and CEO of the Port Hope Public Library, told CityNews that Mowat was “an incredibly warm and generous person.”
She said he came to the library on a number of occasions and “was very generous with his time.”
Stephenson said she fell in love with Mowat’s work when she first read Owls in the Family, a children’s novel that was first published in 1962.
She met the author in 2002 when she was the chief librarian and said she was “awestruck to meet him.”
Stephenson said Mowat was a very genuine person and told her not to call him a literary icon.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper today issued the following statement after learning that celebrated Canadian author Farley Mowat had passed away:
“On behalf of the entire country, I extend my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Farley Mowat, who passed away recently at the age of 92.
“Mr. Mowat was a celebrated author, environmentalist, activist and Second World War Veteran, having served throughout Europe. One of Canada’s most widely read authors, he was a natural storyteller with a real gift for sharing personal anecdotes in a witty and endearing way. His literary works almost always reflected his deep love of nature and of animals.
“For his contributions to Canadian arts and culture, he was awarded many honours, including being made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1981, in addition to receiving the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals.
“Mr. Mowat will be remembered as a passionate Canadian. His legacy will live on in the treasure of Canadian literature he leaves behind, which will remain a joy to both new and old fans around the world.”