CanLit Canon Review #13: Farley Mowat’s People of the Deer

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

People of the Deer, Farley Mowat’s first book, was published in 1952. At the time, the story was already old, but the way in which Mowat told it was new.

It’s the story of white people disrupting and ruining Indigenous culture. What Mowat changed was the setting, the approach, and the tone: he was in the North, he was living with the ruined culture, and he was berating the white people who ruined it.

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that the authenticity of this non-fiction story has been routinely questioned and there have been damning fact-checks published in reputable magazines. As a result, Farley Mowat’s nickname in the North is “Hardly Know It.” Regardless, this is the book that introduced the North to the Canadian imagination, so it remains central to the canon, and Mowat remains an icon, at least in the South.

The book starts with Mowat, a former soldier and trained biologist, traveling north beyond the treeline to live with the Ihalmiut, the only known group of Inuit who do not live on the coast but in the barrenlands, in the “imponderable void” of the Arctic plains.

Mowat finds the Ihalmiut suffering, and he learns how the intervention of, and subsequent abandonment by, the “White Man” nearly destroyed a civilization of people, turning them from sustenance deer hunters to freelance middlemen in the fur trade. When the market for wolf furs became unprofitable, the white traders left, and the Ihalmiut, who no longer knew how to hunt without guns, lost their source of ammunition.

One Ihalmiut man explained the situation to Mowat: “Some of those who survived tried to return to the old way of living given us by Tuktu the deer, but it was found that we did not have the old skills we needed. Some hoped and believed the white man would return and so, stubbornly clung to their fox traps. These are gone. Only those remained who tried to return to the deer, and few of these are still alive.”

People of the Deer is fascinating, but not artistically engaging. Throughout, Mowat proselytizes and hectors, and while it could be argued the material forces him into that position, it’s a tedious tone to endure for 300 pages. He is at his best when he gets out of the way, as he does early in the book, during his trip to the North: “It was a soft white nightmare that we were flying over. An undulating monotony of white that covered all shapes and all colors. The land, with its low sweeping hills, its lakes and its rivers, simply did not exist for our eyes. The anonymity was quite unbroken even by living things, for the few beasts that winter here are also white, and so they are no more than shadows on the snow.”

Although People of the Deer is tainted by the allegations of Mowat’s misrepresentations, what is special about it remains: it is an old story in a new setting, told with a New Journalism approach, and it opened the eyes of Canadians to the North, and the Aboriginal plight.