Acclaimed Canadian author and outspoken environmentalist Farley Mowat died Tuesday at 92 — only days shy of his 93rd birthday.
His family has not issued a statement, but his brother John requested privacy for the family, while the author’s website noted: “To allow for Farley’s family and friends to mourn, book sales will be suspended until further notice.”
The author, whose famous books on nature such as Never Cry Wolf delighted readers for five decades, was still active in campaigns to protect nature in his beloved country right up to the end. In fact he was recently quoted on CBC’s The Current, complaining in his trademark indignant and energetic manner about a plan to increase Wi-Fi service in Canada’s national parks.
“My thoughts can be expressed quite simply. I think it is a disastrous, quite stupid, idiotic concept and should be eliminated immediately,” he said.
“I have very strong feelings that national parks, provincial parks, any kind of parks, that are theoretically set up to provide for the protection of nature, in some form or another, should be respected absolutely and ultimately, and human beings should be kept out of them as much as possible.”
Mowat was never one to back away from controversy — or the work he loved.
A 2012 Star profile of the author of 45 books — from People of the Deer (1952), to his memoirs Otherwise (2008) and Eastern Passage(2010) — described him as still rising at 6:30 a.m. to walk his dog and then get down to writing after enjoying breakfast with his wife, Claire.
“By 8 he’s writing, driven by the passion, the hot blood, the rage and the awe of the wonders of the natural world that have always enlivened Mowat’s adventure yarns,” late Star journalist Greg Quill wrote.
Mowat’s friends, authors Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, told the Star in an email: “We are deeply sorry to hear this sad news. Farley was a great and iconic Canadian who understood our environmental problems decades before others did. He loved this country with a passion and threw himself into the fray — in wartime as well, also with a passion. He was so good-natured and down to earth. We will miss him very much.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Wednesday on Parliament Hill: “I’d like to start by reflecting on the sad news that we just learned that Farley Mowat has just passed away. He was a family friend from my childhood; he came up to Harrington Lake a few times. He got along great with my father. And actually, he gave us a Labrador retriever we called Farley, who had a penchant for running after porcupines, as I remember.
“But Mr. Mowat was obviously a passionate Canadian, who shaped a lot of my generation growing up with his books and he will be sorely missed.”
Mowat was also godfather to Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s 22-year-old daughter, Victoria Cate.
“He was family,” May said as she absorbed the news of his death, which came as a surprise to her. She had been planning to call Mowat on Monday to wish him a happy 93rd birthday.
The two old friends spoke about a month ago, and May said Mowat was still brimming with energy and ideas — and his usual outrage against the Conservative government.
Mowat was born in Belleville, Ont., in 1921, the son of a librarian, and grew up in Belleville, Richmond Hill, Trenton, Windsor, Saskatoon and Toronto. At the age of 13 the budding environmentalist founded a newsletter, Nature Lore, and wrote a weekly column on birds for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.
He served in the Second World War from 1940 to 1945, taking part in the invasion of Sicily and later mainland Italy before working as an intelligence officer in the Netherlands in 1945.
Through his writing about nature and animals, he became an ardent environmentalist.
“For the last 25 years he’s been the international chair of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and I’ve been on the board of the Farley Mowat Foundation,” Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, told the Star by phone.
The society even named a ship after Farley.
Watson, who last spoke to Mowat two weeks ago, was astonished at the news of his death. “He was upbeat. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with him. It’s very sudden.”
He said thousands of people around the world have become environmental activists through reading Mowat’s books. “He was a very close friend.”
Mowat’s books have sold more than 14 million copies in 20 languages in 60-plus countries.
They have “defined the Canadian wilderness for readers all over the world — the landscape, the isolation, the weather, animal and native life — with a heightened sense of reality no other writer has achieved over the past six decades,” Quill wrote after visiting Mowat at his Port Hope home.
Mowat won many awards for his writing over the decades: 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.
Five of his books were turned into feature or TV movies: The Snow Walker (2003), Lost in the Barrens (1990), Lost in the Barrens II: The Curse of the Viking Grave (1992), Never Cry Wolf (1983) and A Whale for the Killing (1981).
While he was much loved, he also had his critics. The now defunct Saturday Night magazine published a 1996 exposé, “A Real Whopper,” about him written by former Star writer John Goddard, questioning the authenticity of Mowat’s stories.
“For years I felt the Toronto media were out to bury me alive,” Mowat told the Star in 2012, referring to latter-day efforts in the literary community to reassess his work according to journalistic standards of accuracy and truth.
“That was never my game,” he said. “I took some pride in having it known that I never let facts get in the way of a good story. I was writing subjective non-fiction all along.”
Despite the criticism, Ronald Wright, a historian, novelist and essayist who has studied Mowat’s works, told the Star in 2012, “he has always gone his own way, a powerful defender of the oppressed and mistreated — from Canada’s native peoples to the many other beings with which we share this Earth. . . . Like the literary reportage of George Orwell and Ryszard Kapuscinski, which has drawn similar attacks, Farley Mowat’s work is loved worldwide and will outlive its critics.”
Mowat’s immense archives — they take up 350 boxes — are housed at McMaster University. Rick Stapleton, an archivist who worked closely with Mowat, was also shocked by the writer’s sudden death.
“He was in good spirits when I talked to him last week,” Stapleton said. “He said he had a clean bill of health and was heading down to his summer home in Cape Breton for the summer.”
Stapleton said the archives hold at least 100 letters from children thanking him for his books.
Mowat leaves behind his wife of 56 years, Claire, a novelist, memoirist and author of illustrated children’s books, and two children, David and Sandy.
With a file from Susan Delacourt