Shirley Dawn Belaney

August 23, 1932 - June 3, 1984

About Dawn

The following biography is based drawn from three sources: Anahareo's book, Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl; Kristen Gleeson's book, Anahareo: A Wilderness Spirit; and Bob Richardson's book, A Face Beside the Fire: Memories of Dawn Grey Owl Richardson.

"As I walked along along, I saw an old wooden dock that protruded out into the water. I visualized a canoe being pulled up on shore by a tall, thin man, smiling as he did so at a dark-skinned young Indian girl, with almond-shaped eyes, sitting in the canoe. The man held out his hand to her and, at the moment their fingers touched, the picture disappeared; my throat burned and I started to cry. It was the closest moment I have ever had to both of my parents at the same time. I was feeling sorry that some time had not been given to us to be together. I felt an overwhelming joy because I was at Lake Simon."

~ Excerpt from Dawn's diary, reproduced in A Face Beside the Fire: Memories of Dawn Grey Owl Richardson

Anahareo and Dawn, 1932. Courtesy of Margaret Charko (Winters).
Anahareo and Dawn, 1932. Courtesy of Margaret Charko (Winters).

In the Fall of 1926, when Anahareo was spending long, solitary days in the cabin on the Jumping Caribou River while Grey Owl was out on the trapline, she began to fantasize about a dream bungalow that she and Archie would build together on the shore of Atik Lake. When Grey Owl admitted that the idea of a “permanent establishment” made him feel suffocated, Anahareo developed a new notion: she wanted to have a baby.

Grey Owl’s answer was an emphatic, “No.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Anahareo was convinced that she had contracted tuberculosis when, in early 1932, she suddenly began vomiting. In fact, she was pregnant.

Shirley Dawn – whom Anahareo initially named Rita Ellen – was born on August 23, 1932. When Grey Owl was presented with his infant daughter, he famously proclaimed “Holy mackerel, she looks like a maggot!” It quickly became apparent, however, that this was a term of endearment and as Anahareo herself observed, the “maggot” soon had her father twisted around her little finger.

Unfortunately, Anahareo and Grey Owl’s living arrangements were far from ideal for a newborn. Although a new cabin was duly constructed and furnished for Anahareo and Dawn, his need to remain undisturbed while writing made for a lonely existence for the new mother. Furthermore, the cabin’s remoteness meant that Anahareo and Dawn had to leave before Spring, when the thaw would have made it impossible to travel – a possibly fatal situation for Dawn should she have fallen ill.

Anahareo and Dawn therefore went to stay with the Winters family in Prince Albert. This was not the first time they had lived there, of course: Ettie Winters had also stepped in shortly after Dawn was born to teach Anahareo about baby care. As Anahareo wryly observed, “I must have thought babies came equipped with a layette, bassinette, etc., for Shirley Dawn didn’t have even a diaper she could call her own.”

As a 26-year-old new mother, Anahareo was still young and yearning for adventure; within a month, the lure of prospecting had pulled her away from home. Though her yearning for Dawn brought her back to Prince Albert a week after her initial departure, the next year she stayed away for over a year – due in part to a quarrel with Grey Owl over whether or not she would, in fact, be welcomed home. She finally returned when Grey Owl asked her to watch the beavers while he went on his lecture tour of England and, to Anahareo’s great delight, Dawn still remembered her clearly.

Although Anahareo’s difficult circumstances following her split with Grey Owl and Dawn’s illness with diabetes meant that the two spent long periods apart from one another, they remained in close contact throughout their lives. In 1954, Dawn married La Verne McKay, with whom she had two children, Sandra and Glaze. Dawn later married Arthur Bruce.

Dawn in Spain, 1984. Courtesy of Bob Richardson.
Dawn in Spain, 1984. Courtesy of Bob Richardson.

Dawn was recently divorced and living in Kamloops when she met Bob Richardson in 1973. Both had leased space in an old CPR Office building that had been converted to an Artisan Gallery -- Bob for his paintings and Dawn for books and photos related to her parents. The two quickly became close, and were married in 1979.

Throughout her adult life, Dawn was staunchly dedicated to the her parents' conservationist ideals, and to the rehabilitation and preservation of her father's image. Dawn tirelessly campaigned to keep her father's work in print, was quick to correct any misinformation about him when it was brought to her attention, and spoke about his life and his message at schools and exhibitions. In particular, Dawn felt passionately that wolves inaccurately had a reputation for viciousness and were cruelly trapped and killed as a result. This became the basis of her novel, Smoke.

Throughout their time together, Bob and Dawn traveled extensively, especially to places that had been meaningful to her parents. In May of 1984, Bob and Dawn traveled to Hastings, where, in conjunction with the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, they had arranged to organize an exhibit of photos and painting related to Grey Owl. Unfortunately, Dawn fell ill during this trip and passed away on June 3, in the city of her father's birth.

"Bob, Dawn, and Grey looking out." Bob Richardson, 1982. Photo courtesy of Bob Richardson.
"Bob, Dawn, and Grey looking out." Bob Richardson, 1982. Photo courtesy of Bob Richardson.

In his book dedicated to her memory, Bob observed, "I was proud of her and aware of how pleased she was to have the opportunity to follow the footprints of her father. Perhaps she felt she was part of his final chapter as a conservationist. His message continues to grow with every decade, as we see the pollution and poison spread throughout the planet. 'We belong to Nature; not it to us,' she'd say, speaking with the conviction that her father had spoken many years earlier."

Dawn was laid to rest beside her father and mother in a small graveyard overlooking Ajawaan Lake, next to the cabin where she once lived.