Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 4: Vancouver 1925-1927

We have adopted a ritual for extending our brotherhood and for teaching the sacredness of game and the proper protection of it

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

When Cowan set out “unravelling the innermost secrets of the lives of mammals”  in Mammals of British Columbia, he probably wasn’t anticipating his own life being put under the same microscope. The background of the Brotherhood, however, provides an essential foundation for this task. Most of his ideas, his values, his contacts and the opportunities that opened up for him can be traced to one or other of the members of the ‘B’ that mentored him. To know them is to know Cowan. The founding members were a tribe. Each of them was an unassuming, practical and intensely spiritually driven man. They pledged to adopt and advocate what member Aldo Leopold (often described as the father of American wildlife ecology) coined for the group: a “conservation ethic,” later called the “land ethic.” Other US members included T. Gilbert Pearson, president of the Audubon Society and George B. Grinnell, naturalist, author and advocate for native cultures and the bison. 

The Cowan family house in North Vancouver (2014)

In the constitution of the ‘B,’ the conservation ethic is laid out very clearly. The rules of the ‘B’ were modelled on the English Charter of the Forest, established in 1299, which decrees that “No Waste… shall be made in Forests… Rangers shall make their Range in the Forest… Freemen may use his Land in the Forest… No nobleman may kill a Deer in the Forest.” Hoyes Lloyd identified winter solstice as the time they would hold their annual meetings, because “this was also the time for initiating younger members of the tribe who had reached into the proper age…and to teach them the tribal mysteries and the traditional “catechism” treating of all man needed to know of the world, visible and invisible.” It also happened to coincide with the timing of the annual North American Wildlife Conferences. 

Buffalo [American bison]

The key instigators of the ‘B’ in 1925 were Lloyd and Harkin. The year 1925 was a challenging time for conservation on many fronts – for politicians and scientists but most of all for bison, that archetypal North American symbol of the wild and conservation. The bison were a rallying point for the conservation movement, as their survival hung in the balance. That struggle continued to be a strong symbolic presence throughout Cowan’s career.

The election face-off between Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Conservative Arthur Meighen had heightened Canadians’ sensitivities – one of them being to the culling of the Plains Bison, which had outgrown the paltry reserve, Buffalo National Park in Wainwright, Alberta, set aside for them. A politically expedient proposal was to ship two thousand of the Plains Bison north to Wood Buffalo National Park, which had just been established for a completely different subspecies of bison. The Wood Bison themselves were only just recovering from perilously low numbers and were still near extinction. There was concern about the mixing of the two subspecies and the potential for disease. The advice of the government’s own scientists, Hoyes Lloyd and Harrison Lewis, had gone unheeded, so Lloyd, in his other capacity as president of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, all “young turks” like himself, blew the whistle.

American bison

When the bison issue flared up in 1925, Lloyd called on his friends to help. He asked an American colleague to pen a letter to the editor critical of the proposed transfer, which he printed in the February 1925 issue of The Canadian Field-Naturalist, his club’s journal. Then he took the bolder step of sending the letter and the journal issue directly to the Interior Minister, Charles Stewart, a former Alberta premier charged with looking after Alberta interests in the King cabinet.

On the front of the journal were the names of not just Lloyd and Lewis but many of Stewart’s own prominent scientists and civil servants: botanist William Macoun of the Department of Agriculture, J.P. Wright of the Geological Survey, Percy Taverner, R.M. Anderson of the National Museum and Francis Kermode in BC. The covering letter would have been signed by the president of the club, his “loyal” senior civil servant Hoyes Lloyd. Lloyd and journal editor Harrison Lewis were given clear instructions from their political masters to publicly dissociate themselves from the club immediately or be sacked. At the April 11, 1925, council meeting, held at Macoun’s house, Lewis and Lloyd announced their immediate resignations as directors with no recorded reason. They kept their jobs, Lloyd stayed on the board but their vocations went underground. In their own history, the ‘B’ reported that

After much thought and discussion, Hoyes Lloyd proposed a new approach to forestall the serious situation which threatened to damage the cause of wildlife conservation in United States and Canada. It called for banding together, in secret, a group of individuals who could be counted upon under all circumstances and who could be depended upon absolutely… With this concurrence a draft Constitution was prepared by Hoyes Lloyd.

The essays they read to one another at their meetings reflect the range of risks on the political and social landscape of the time. One risk certainly was clear: a fear of having their legitimacy undermined by the political forces encountered in the fight to preserve wildlife and public lands and the right to subsistence hunting. The bison and bird refuge issues were symptomatic of the continuing pressures that wildlife and wilderness had been experiencing all across North America since the late 19th century. The key to credibility for these men was to publicly emphasize the use of science and to educate people about it, whether assessing the impact of predator control on wildlife populations or introducing concepts of ecology or land use policy. 

Cowan was being recruited as one of the younger members of the tribe while the elders teaching the tribal mysteries and catechism were circling around him like Muskoxen defending their young. The ‘B’ had many other reasons to maintain their secrecy, as the greatest challenge to their group was looming over Europe, war. The wild provided members of the ‘B’ with freedom from the conventions of a society that ridiculed lovers of nature, scientists with spirituality or critics of capitalist values and war, a society that didn’t recognize damaged psyches. 

The experiences of the ‘B’ guided Cowan through his own life. Attacks on scientists had come from highly influential corporate interests for a century and were to continue for the rest of his life. His response would echo his mentors: work quietly through networks. The “unnecessary constraints” were any species, ecosystem or culture that may stand in the way of resource extraction. The exposure of any kind of emotional connection to the natural world was and continues to be the first line of attack by those interested in removing the obstacles to resources. The attacks on credibility were only too well known by traditional subsistence hunters as well. The desire by the ‘B’ to protect subsistence economies laid the groundwork for upholding constitutional rights of indigenous people to hunt.

Article II. The object of the Brotherhood shall be to advance wildlife knowledge and wildlife protection, and the spread of the ideals of sportsmanship through friendship, education and the reviving of the old art of the venery. Article III. Membership shall be open to those who are deemed to have advanced the objects of the Brotherhood by contributing constructively to the cause of conservation with particular reference to the woods, waters, and wilderness, and the inhabitants thereof, and whose friendly co-operative attitude toward others similarly engaged is an assurance of their worthiness as members of the Brotherhood of Venery.

– Lesson from the first volume of the “B” B. of V. "Some Lessons" Printed privately for the use of the Order by F. C. Walcott.

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