For more than 20 years Farley Mowat has been regaling readers with amusing tales about life, particularly animal life (a goggles-wearing dog and a pair of rumble-seat-riding owls are among his classics), in the Canadian prairies. There was every prospect that a man as observant and witty as Mowat could mine this vein of humor for about as long as he chose, entertaining some more than others but offending no one.
However, at the same time that he was on his way to a niche somewhere between Gerald Durrell and Jean Shepherd, Mowat has also been an arctic and subarctic activist, a less funny and very angry writer. And in recent years he has become preoccupied with railing against what he considers to be environmental and social atrocities committed in the Canadian North by residents of Canada and the U.S.
Obviously, Mowat has come to feel that writing about injustices done to the North is more important than telling pretty stories about charming owls. He may well be right, but everything has its price. In this case, while they have gained a forceful polemicist, Mowat's longtime admirers have lost a first-rate humorist. Nevertheless, whether he is writing in anger or writing to amuse, Mowat seems incapable of being dull, even for a paragraph.
His most recent volume, The Great Betrayal: Arctic Canada Now (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $5.95, paperback), is an angry book, a summary of what he considers to be wretched messes and excesses. He examines conditions in seven different geographical zones in the Canadian North, a vast territory. "One of the most enduring misconceptions we have about our North," he writes, "is that it is all of a piece—or, at the most, of two pieces: a bleak expanse of frozen sea and a dreary wilderness of frozen forest and tundra." Such misconceptions exasperate Mowat and he is at his best in correcting them. One of the strongest sections of The Great Betrayal is his description of the beauties, diversity and resources of the vast interior Northern prairies, the half million or so square miles that have long and misleadingly been known as the Barren Lands.
Mowat says the Canadian North is a wondrous and valuable place (located, if you please, not on the geographical fringes of the world but at its center), but because it is mostly wilderness which few can understand or appreciate, it has been brutally exploited for short-term gain by get-the-goods-and-get-out residents of the southern portions of the continent. Mowat's pantheon of bad guys includes in situ developers, people and companies seeking to discover and extract reserves of oil, natural gas and coal, and the military. All these groups, he feels, are engaged in exploitative operations, and are aided and encouraged by federal bureaucrats who administer the North. Beyond the bureaucrats are the approving politicians, and beyond them are the Canadian voters who, out of ignorance, apathy or greed, elect this sort of politician. There are also the true outsiders, chiefly U.S. economic interests ( Mowat's anti-Americanism at times degenerates into a kind of consuming bigotry), who have come over the border and seduced and bribed the naive Canadians into selling out their Northern treasures for, figuratively, a handful of beads.
While this unholy combine has caused environmental havoc, says Mowat, he is as much alarmed and incensed by what the exploiters have done to the native people, the Indians and the Eskimos—the Dene and the Inuit, He says they have been callously reduced in numbers, degraded, and dispossessed of their resources and rights. And this, he says, is not only a flaming injustice but stupidity as well, because these are the people who are the most knowledgeable and capable when it comes to living in harmony with the Northern environment.
Such forceful opinions have made the sometimes amiable writer of funny stories one of the most controversial characters in the North. A dependable way to get in a brawl in what Mowat calls "redneck" bars in that enormous if thinly populated area of Canada is to suggest that Farley Mowat may have some good points. Among the printable names he is called are publicity seeker, muckraker and Hardly Knowit.
Yet it is difficult to dispute Mowat's fundamental thesis—that both Canada and the U.S. have used these Northern lands as natural warehouses to be exploited as needed. The argument now is not whether this has occurred but whether it should continue. There are those who claim the North is a fine place for extractive operations because it is not good for much else. If we need to rip up the countryside for pipelines and petroleum products, the argument goes, it is better to do so in the Mackenzie River Valley, where only a few trees, scrubby plants, suspicious wolves and unproductive natives will be disturbed, than, say, in the Mississippi Valley, which is chock full of cities, towns, farms, consumers and voters.
Farley Mowat feels otherwise and he feels so passionately, and he makes a spirited and pugnacious argument for his outspoken views in The Great Betrayal.