By Michael Harris
Jul 14, 2013
Farley Mowat and Mary Gorman (Credit: CineFocus Canada)
“I am on permanent call by God.”
That is how Farley Mowat at 92, bearded, blue-eyed, and bemused, describes his presence in the waiting-room of eternity.
This should be a time to make morning tea for his wife, Claire, listen to the bullfrogs harrumphing in the two ponds on his 200-acre sanctuary in River Bourgeois Cape Breton, and reflect on the closet-full of books in his study, all 44 of them, that he has written over an extraordinary life.
Instead, he has donned his literary armour and is riding out to face yet another dragon threatening the beauty and balance of nature – a proposed deep water oil-drilling operation in the heart of the Gulf of St. Lawrence – a project given the innocuous name “Old Harry.”
“I am doing this against my will in a way, getting involved at this time in life when I might get the Big Call tomorrow. But the bastards who have set this thing in motion are taking a perverse pleasure in doing it and must be opposed. They have decided to call their development “Old Harry”. The great swindle, you know, to give it a nice name that conjures up Uncle Harry. I suspect that they don’t know that in literature, ‘Old Harry’ is a synonym for the devil.”
Metaphysical resonances notwithstanding, the five provinces that border the proposed development would have hell to pay if there were ever a spill like the one that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico at BP’s Deep Water Horizon rig.
That’s because the channels and straits that make up the Gulf of St. Lawrence move in a counter-clockwise fashion, which means that the vast area is only flushed into the wider ocean once a year. Spilled oil would ride the mostly landlocked Gulf currents for a long time. That would put thousands of species, some of them already endangered, like the Blue Whale, at greater risk.
Making matters potentially worse, the site of the proposed development is the deep Laurentian Channel, the main artery in and out of the Gulf for 2,200 marine species – including Blue whale, Right whale and Leatherback turtle.
In Canada’s pending Gulf War, Farley Mowat, lone-wolf and single-handed crusader, has a strong ally this time. Mary Gorman, a lobster fisherman’s wife turned unpaid activist, has been battling to protect the Gulf of St. Lawrence for 25 years.
“I like her because she’s got guts,” Mowat says, “and I trust her instincts. Mary is a daughter of the Gulf, one of the animals who lives here. She senses what is coming”.
In 1988, Gorman led the Battle of Boat Harbour to stop a local mill from dumping 26 million gallons of effluent into the Northumberland Strait near Pictou Landing First Nations community.
“I like her because she’s got guts,” Mowat says, “and I trust her instincts. Mary is a daughter of the Gulf, one of the animals who lives here. She senses what is coming.”
With Elizabeth May, she co-founded the Save our Seas and Shoreline Coalition to challenge oil and gas leases that had been granted off the pristine shores of Cape Breton Island.
Gorman says that the federal government has literally passed responsibility for protecting marine habitat to the very people who favour development, virtually erasing the line between industry and government.
“How did the protection of marine habitat end up in the hands of the offshore petroleum industry?” Gorman asked. “As it stands now, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada have signed memorandum of understanding with offshore boards deferring DFO and EC’s marine protection to these boards.”
(In April 2011, Gorman was voted a Canadian Green Hero. A documentary produced by Cinefocus Canada and based on Gorman’s fight to protect the Gulf of St. Lawrence will air on TVO on July 16 at 7:30 pm and again on July 21 at 8:30 pm. Mowat appears in the film.)
As for Gorman’s question, Farley Mowat thinks he knows why government has abdicated protection of the environment to bodies representing the petroleum industry. Sipping his illicit glass of chardonnay (his doctor has forbidden it), he says something has gone wrong with our national fermentation process; instead of wine, we are now producing vinegar as a country.
“Under the current system, the environment and resource development cannot be reconciled. The ones in power just don’t think the right way. It’s as if we are being governed by an alien species. It’s as if something rises from the Ottawa River and affects them all. They become zombies.”
Nor does Mowat believe that the anti-environment phenomenon is exclusive to the Canadian government.
“Governments worldwide do their best to diminish it, belittle it, until it gradually melts away. The policy now is to crucify the environment. Peter Kent wasn’t even a good illusion of an environment minister.”
Our interview is put on hold with the arrival of Mark, who is in charge of maintenance at the local fishplant. Farley tells him about the electrical switch that needs fixing and the gaps around the upstairs windows that are letting the ants in. As they talk, I take a slow inventory of the room full of memories of the author’s life – shells, bones, a silver mermaid, and the light fixture in the living room which has a desiccated hornet’s nest where the light bulb should be. Before he leaves, Mark comments on Farley’s list of tasks.
“As you always tell me, this house is rotting from the top down.”
My puckish host returns seamlessly to the matter we had been discussing. To make his point about how governments work to discredit environmentalists, Mowat talks admiringly of his friend Paul Watson, who is now a fugitive from international justice. The author says the warrant against Watson from Costa Rica is trumped up with the connivance of Japan and countries like Canada.
“All he tried to do was keep the Japanese from whaling in protected areas. Now there is an Interpol red alert on Paul and he is a stateless person sailing on the high seas in the South Pacific. The only place he can land is deserted atolls inhabited by hermit crabs.”
But there was one other place he did land while he was being pursued and before he took to sea – the farmhouse looking out to sea from a hill on Grand Gulley Road at River Bourgeoise – the Mowat retreat.
We walk into his main-floor writing room (a stately Underwood manual typewriter commands the desk) and I stop in front of a faded wanted poster, front-on and in profile, of Farley Mowat hanging on the wall.
“No one in Canada knows this but I entertained Paul when the authorities were looking for him and didn’t know where he was. The same authorities, I might add, who used to listen to my phone calls when they saw me as a ‘left-wing rebel.’ I just laughed about it and said ‘Good morning chaps’ whenever I used the phone.”
We walk into his main-floor writing room (a stately Underwood manual typewriter commands the desk) and I stop in front of a faded wanted poster, front-on and in profile, of Farley Mowat hanging on the wall. He laughs and tells me that it was Jack McClelland’s idea after Mowat was prevented from entering the U.S. on a book tour.
“Oh yeah, Farley My Discovery of America! They let me into Siberia to talk about my work but not the United States. I wrote the thing in three weeks. Fastest book I ever wrote.”
There is a dinner of home-made quiche and a salad made from greens from the Mowats’ fenced garden on the hillside, and a little of the forbidden chardonnay. Sea-shell pink peonies pose lavishly in their vase. I mention the photograph of Pierre Trudeau and Mowat in the living room. There is always a story.
“You know Pierre and Margaret came to visit us in the Magdalen Islands. He was travelling quietly that day – showed up in an ice-breaker and came ashore by helicopter. Margaret was pregnant with Justin. Just before dinner, I asked Pierre if he wanted to walk the grounds. I had half an acre planted in hemp seeds given to me by the mayor of Port Hope. Trudeau knew what they were but made no comment until I asked him what he thought of the grounds. “It’s a fine garden, Farley, but isn’t it time you cut your grass?”
Before I left, my host asked simply “Care for something to read?” I was escorted back into his study, where he opened the closet door where his books stood in a long, lovely line. I chose And No Bird Sang, his reminisces of the war when Captain Mowat bedevilled authority.
The war goes on and he still does.
Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His eight books include Justice Denied, Unholy Orders, Rare ambition, Lament for an Ocean, and Con Game. His work has sparked four commissions of inquiry, and three of his books have been made into movies. He is currently working on a book about the Harper majority government to be published in the autumn of 2014 by Penguin Canada.