Walt's Canadian Connections

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Walt Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois. However, Canadians often claim him as one of their own because his father was born a Canadian, Walt's father's family lived in Canada, and because of Walt's obvious affection for the country.

In fact, because of a technicality in the law that was later resolved decades later, Walt's dad was legally a Canadian when Walt was born.

As a 15-year-old, Walt had planned to cross the border with his friend Russell Maas and enlist in the Canadian army, which accepted younger recruits than the United States during World War I. The plot was discovered by their mothers and they eventually ended up volunteering for the Red Cross American Ambulance Corps. If it hadn't been for Russell's mother's suspicions, Walt might have spent the tail end of World War I in the Canadian army.

Several Disney live-action films were made in Canada.

One of the last of Disney's True-Life Adventures films, White Wilderness (1958), was filmed in Alberta and Manitoba, Canada over a three year period depicting the struggles of animals like wolves, walruses, whales, caribou, grizzly and polar bears and more in the arctic area.

The film became infamous for perpetuating the myth that lemmings commit suicide en masse by leaping into the sea in a scene staged by one of the cinematographers. White Wilderness, with its stunning visual depiction of the region, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, plus a nomination for the musical score by Oliver Wallace.

Native American trappers and Eskimo guides led photographers, by foot, plane and dogteam, into areas including the Foxe Channel off Southampton Island, Brooks Range, La Paz and the Thelon River. Hundreds of thousands of feet of 16mm film were compiled, then edited and transferred to 35mm.

In addition, in the early 1960s, Walt produced three live-action entertainment feature films in Canada: Nikki, Wild Dog of the North; Big Red; and The Incredible Journey.

Nikki, Wild Dog of the North, released in July 1961, tells the story of a trapper and his wolf dog, Nikki. Two Canadian film units (one headed by Jack Couffer, who had worked on earlier True-Life Adventures films) were hired by Walt to try and capture the scenes detailed in the original book, Nomads of the North by James Oliver Curwood.

Set in the Canadian province of Quebec, Big Red, released in June 1962, is about an Irish Setter who would rather run through the woods than be the perfectly trained and groomed show dog his sportsman owner wants. Most of the exteriors were shot in the Canadian province of Quebec, near the village of La Malbaie on the St. Lawrence River. The Disney crew stayed at the Manoir Richelieu, which had quite a strict dress code — and often after a dirty day of shooting, the staff would usher the film crew and performers in through the back door.

The Incredible Journey was released October 1963. A family going away for the summer leaves their three pets (a bull terrier, a Labrador retriever and a Siamese cat) with a friend who lives 250 miles away. The pets misunderstand what is going on and take off, clear across Canada, and encounter many adventures before being reunited with their owners.

Walt's family had strong family roots in Canada. Walt's great-grandfather Arundel Disney and his brother Robert sailed with their families in September 1834 from Liverpool, England, to begin a new life in America. Once they arrived, Robert went to the Midwest and began farming. Arundel traveled to the Canadian frontier in the Goderich Township, Ontario.

Arundel built a mill beside the Maitland River and found success grinding wheat and sawing timber.

In February 1859, Walt's father Elias was born to Arundel's eldest son Keeple on Jamestown Road near Bluevale. Bluevale was not too far from Goderich.

In 1856 the central school, now part of the Huron County Museum, was erected. It was actually Elias Disney who attended school here, not Walt as often claimed. The building became a museum in 1951.

"We received our education in the public school of Bluevale and attended Wesleyan Methodist Church and Sunday School," Elias recalled in a 1939 interview. "Our life and work were such as comes to boys and girls brought up on the farm – a pure and wholesome atmosphere, both physically and morally."

In 1877, Elias left Huron County with his father, who hated the Canadian winters, for the California gold rush, but they never made it there, as his father was convinced by a member of the Union Pacific Railroad to purchase a plot of land of about 200 acres in Ellis, Kansas. Elias, who was 18 years old at the time, and Robert (Walt's uncle who later helped Walt in California) accompanied their father, Kepple Disney.

In the 1930s, when Elias Disney was in his 70s, he discovered he was not an American but still a Canadian. His voting status had been challenged when he was living in Portland, Oregon, and it was discovered that when his family had moved from Canada to Kansas, his father had taken out naturalization papers in 1879.

When he achieved his citizenship, by an Act of Congress his minor children became citizens, as well. But, Elias who was the oldest had come of age before the process had been fully completed, so unknown to him and the rest of the Disney family, he legally remained a Canadian citizen. As a result, his wife Flora who had been born in Ohio was also considered an alien because of marriage.

Walt tried to comfort his father by presenting the argument that a Canadian was the closet thing there was to being an American. He father responded: "I raised my family here; this country has been good to me. I'm going to die an American citizen."

One of the the last Disney True-Life Adventure films was the Academy Award-winning White Wilderness, which was filmed over three years in Canada.

Elias and Flora spent long hours studying the Constitution and American history for their citizenship examinations, but when they appeared in court, the judge was so moved by their dedication and the work they had put in at their age that he decided they didn't need to go through the actual exam and they were naturalized.

In June 1956, Walt talked with writer Pete Martin about his life and shared the following:

"My father, you know, was born in Canada. He grew up in the Goderich area and my grandfather had a farm there and things. I was up there one time and visited a lot of my dad's cousins. He used to tell me a lot about it and I felt like I knew the country up there. He said when he was a little fellow about eight years old he ran the foot races on the Queen's birthday, a big day up there in Canada.

"My grandfather did some funny things. He was a driller and they were drilling for oil in Goderich and they struck salt and started the salt industry in Goderich. They needed salt there.

"My dad and I before he died, we'd always talk and I'd say 'Dad, let's go back up there. Go back and visit there'. So we were going to do it but we never got around to it before he died. He died unexpectedly when I was in South America in 1941.

"They have a cemetery in Goderich. They call it the Pioneer Cemetery and all my great grandfathers on both sides are there. The Disney side and the Richardson side. That was my grandmother's maiden name, Richardson.

"My dad whenever he was asked would say that he was born in Canada and naturalized an American by Act of Congress and for some fifty odd years he voted in every election. Someone in Portland, maybe he wasn't voting the way they wanted him to vote, challenged him. They found that by a technicality my dad was still considered an alien. That was a mean thing for anybody to do.

"He and my mother went through the whole procedure of learning the Constitution upside down and backwards and all of that and then he had to go to court and went through the whole routine. Then at a certain point the judge said, 'Mr. Disney, it won't be necessary for you to go through all this'. But I assure you, my dad was ready. And they were naturalized citizens in their 70s."

The Canadian Broadcasting Company introduced Telescope in 1963 as a 30-minute television program that would "examine, reflect and project the Canadian image" and for ten years, this half-hour documentary series covered a wide range of subjects pertaining to Canadians.

Generally, the show featured a personality profile of a Canadian (national figure, international celebrity, or notable unknown citizen). Since Walt's father, Elias, was born in Canada, Walt was invited to be interviewed by Fletcher Markle on September 25, 1963.

At the time, the affable Markle, who was born in Winnipeg, had just finished directing The Incredible Journey, which was filmed in Calgary, Canada. Walt apparently liked Fletcher and agreed to the interview.

Fletcher Markle: "Our Telescope viewers are naturally interested in your plans for Canada. They remember, of course, Nikki the Wild Dog of the North, which I think was your first Canadian production."

Walt Disney: "Yes, we did that between Calgary and Banff and we worked with the Canadian Wildlife … uh … what do you call it? Canadian Wildlife…".

FM: "Society, I guess."

WD: "Is it society? No, it's the government. [Canadian Wildlife Service] Anyway, they let us have an experimental station that they had … was abandoned … that they weren't using and we put a company there and they went right through the winter and we got some wonderful stuff on the film."

FM: "And coming up in the next few days, Canadians are going to be seeing your third Canadian production, The Incredible Journey."

WD: "That's Sheila Buford's best-selling story…one of my favorites. I think the animals in that are terrific. I hate to say that to you, Fletcher, because you directed the humans. [Walt laughs]. I'm always partial to animal actors, anyway."

FM: "Actually, the part of the Canadian story that interests me more than any other is the fact that your father was born in Canada and lived a good part of his life there before he moved to parts of the south and began producing sons."

WD: "Yes, he was born in a little town I think they call it Bluevale. It's right out of Goderich and the Disney family were Anglo-Irish and they migrated over there in the 1830s, which make me feel that the Disneys had foresight because it was 1840 when they had the potato famine in Ireland. But they were smart enough to get out before that.

And my father was born there and he was raised there, went to school there. In fact, he went to school in Goderich. He was about 20 years old when my grandfather went to Kansas. He was an alien, of course, being a Canadian. And he had to buy his land. He couldn't homestead. He bought a section of railroad land and that property stayed with the Disney family until just a few years ago.

And my uncle had it and I told him, "Before you sell, let us know." And so finally he wanted to sell it and retire. And I went to my brother and said, 'Let's buy this. This virgin land that our ancestors acquired.' And he said, 'What do we want with farming land?' He wouldn't go with me so I didn't go ahead. I found out later that they struck gas and oil on it. [Walt laughs.]"

FM: "Tell me, Walt, have you been back to your father's homestead at all in recent years?"

WD: "My father and I had planned to go back 'cause as a boy, my father always told me about his boyhood in Canada. I always wanted to go up there with my father because as a youngster, you know, he told me about all these different things that he did. And the country. He thought it was the most beautiful country in the world and yet he came down here to live. And he died before we had a chance to do that."

FM: "Well, after your father's death, did you finally get a chance to get back up to the old homestead?"

WD: "Yes, I finally made it [in June 1947]. I took Mrs. Disney along and she's not too interested in ancestors and things, you know. We got up there and she really fell in love with the town of Goderich. It was a beautiful town and she was quite happy about it. But I wanted to find my homestead where my grandfather went out and cut the trees down and pulled the rocks apart, where my father was born.

So they gave me directions and everybody was trying to be helpful and everything and Mrs. Disney reluctantly went along and I found this old place and I said, 'This is it … there.' It was really deserted. There were cows running through the house and chickens around and I had my camera and I got out and photographed that thing from every angle.

When I got through I found out I had photographed the wrong homestead. [Walt laughs.] Ever since, Mrs. Disney has never forgotten. She tells that to everybody. About when Walt went up to Canada and he photographed the wrong homestead!"

In January 1971, Roy O. Disney asked Disney Archivist Dave Smith to create a genealogy of the Disney family. He told Disney Archivist Steven Vagnini in 2010 about his travels in Canada:

"Arundel Elias Disney, born in Ireland in 1801, made the daring journey from Liverpool to the New World aboard the New Jersey with his wife, Maria Swan and his family in 1834. Parting ways with his brother in New York and continuing north to the little town of Holmesville, Ontario, the Disneys settled on a tract of land along the banks of the Maitland River.

"Grandson Elias Disney [Walt and Roy's dad] remembered hearing stories of this heavily timbered wilderness: 'Wolves were numerous and a cause of much annoyance to the settlers with their young stock, and many a time I have sat and listened in amazement to the stories my father and others would tell of personal encounters.'

"Like many other pioneers settling this primitive landscape, Arundel had been lured into buying a plot of land through false promises – disgruntled settlers arrived in a territory that lacked roads and other vital infrastructure. Arundel managed to overcome his hardships. Cultivating the land and building a saw and grist mill, the family, which included sixteen children, eventually prospered along with the local community.

"With this exotic back story swirling through our heads, my sister and I arrived at Holmesville, Ontario. It was a cloudy August 3 when we found ourselves about 10 miles southeast of Goderich and due east of Lake Huron.

"I toured the site where Arundel built his grist mill, but there was nothing left except the Canadian wilderness he purchased. Not far off was an old cemetery in great disrepair. After jumping the fence, I found that a new-looking gravestone had been added, which listed the names of Robert Richardson and Ruth Lark, the parent's of Walt's paternal grandmother Mary Richardson.

"Mary was the wife of a real go-getter, Kepple Disney, the eldest of Arundel's sons. The couple became pioneer settlers in the new town of Bluevale, just north of Holmesville. Inside their home in 1859, the family welcomed their first son, Elias Disney.

"As part of a 1947 trip to Canada, Walt sought out, with the assistance of locals, the Bluevale home [and photographed the wrong house]. Determined to complete Walt's quest, I, too, searched for the elusive abode.

"With descriptions and coordinates in hand, I stumbled upon what I figured had to be the right location. Later on, however, I found picture of the house taken in 1949 and realized that like Walt, I'd photographed the wrong place! Upon closer inspection of one of my other Bluevale photos, there it was, off in the distance."