We’re in Reindeer Now

"Thirty years hence the housewives of this Dominion may be much more interested in the price of reindeer meat than the price of beef”

A. G. DEXTER December 15 1929

We’re in Reindeer Now

"Thirty years hence the housewives of this Dominion may be much more interested in the price of reindeer meat than the price of beef”

A. G. DEXTER December 15 1929

We’re in Reindeer Now

"Thirty years hence the housewives of this Dominion may be much more interested in the price of reindeer meat than the price of beef”


THE Canadian Arctic for years has been the cradle of romance and adventure. Even to think of the far north today is to envision dauntless scientists and explorers clad in furs, or aviators soaring through northern skies on long flights across endless leagues of unpopulated barren lands.

This, indeed, is the historic setting of the Northland. It is the natural heritage of a country which swallowed Franklin and his men like a sepulchre: which stilled the beat of many a valorous heart and which, for long years, repelled every effort of man to reach the North Pole— that ultimate bourne of human voyaging.

It is a sad thought, yet nevertheless true, that the

days of romance in the Northland are numbered. As surely as the great western prairies passed from the frontier days when Buffalo hunting and mustang creasing were the chief pleasures of the day, to become the “granary of the Empire”—just as surely is the Northland fated to shed its magic cloak of unknown horizons and to become a vast ranching paradise for reindeer.

This may seem a foolish statement, but the basis upon which it rests is solid fact and solid achievements in Northlands other than our own.

How long the change will be in coming is difficult to tell, but it seems more than probable that thirty years hence the housewives of this Dominion may be much more interested in the price of reindeer meat than of beef. In fact, it seems certain that in the course of a few decades a fundamental change will have taken place in the food supply of this continent, and that the northern plateau of Canada will have proved itself to be an inexhaustible producer of what is, in the final analysis, one of the prime necessities of human life—meat.

For years scientists and explorers have been advocating the development of the Northland as a source of food supply. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the great Canadian explorer, has written a book about it. Other

explorers have stated, times out of number, that Canada’s northern hinterland is a wilderness only because Canadians have not developed it. Royal Commissions—the last one in 1919—have confirmed these opinions.

A Personally Conducted Migration

NOW, at last, the Dominion Government has taken action. In August, 1929, an order-in-council, proposed by the Hon. Charles Stewart, Minister of the Interior, was passed at Ottawa, committing this country to an experiment in reindeer breeding which may well prove to be the most important economic development of our time.

Mr. Stewart, on behalf of the Government, entered into a contract to purchase 3,000 head of reindeer. The animals were bought from the Lomen Reindeer Corporation of Nome, Alaska, and early in October a trained band of herdsmen began the task of piloting them across 1,600 miles of mountainous territory between Nome and the Mackenzie River delta.

Seldom before has the supervision of such a migration of animals been undertaken by man. The reindeer are being herded slowly across the Arctic tundras by herdsmen on foot. The wives and children of these herdsmen, together with necessary household equipment, are following in the rear of the march, in sleighs drawn by domesticated reindeer. An airplane, flown by a skilled northern pilot from Alaska and carrying the chief herdsman as passenger, soars overhead, directing the route of march and selecting grazing areas where halts will be called to rest and feed the animals. Back in Nome, Mr. Lomen, the head of the corporation, will keep in close

touch with the herd by his private airplane. Even after the journey is half completed next summer, he will be able to close his desk, get into his plane, fly out and confer with his herdsmen, and be home again before


The journey will require eighteen months to complete, and in the spring of 1931 the Canadian Government will take delivery of the reindeer on the east bank of the Mackenzie, and the task of reindeer breeding in northern Canada will begin in earnest. The area marked out as the future home of these animals is in the far north, along the Arctic sea, in the heart of the so-called “barren lands.”

A Revolution in Meat Supply

TT IS popularly supposed that writers of magazine

articles delight in exaggeration. Therefore, it is just possible that many readers already are becoming impatient with the mere suggestion that reindeer meat may one day be a staple food of the citizens of Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.

Here are a few facts for the sceptical to ponder. Thirty years ago, 1,200 reindeer were brought by the United States Government from the steppes of Siberia to Alaska. Today, more than 500,000 reindeer, the progeny of the original band, graze the wide valleys of Alaska, and in recent years upward of 300,000 head have been slaughtered annually. The reindeer-meat industry promises to outstrip in monetary value the production of precious metals. Vessels now sail on regular schedules from Nome, deep laden with reindeer meat, to the great cities of the Republic, and the palates of New Yorkers have become accustomed to the rare flavor and succulence of this food. Indeed, it continues to be sold at a premium over beef even now, long after the novelty has worn off.

Of course these results were not achieved without much effort and many disappointments. At the outset the United States Government had no thought of building up a reserve meat supply for the Republic. The whole purpose of the experiment was to do something for the Eskimo population of Alaska—to place this ancient people on a firm footing of economic independence. The first disappointment came when the Eskimos declined to tend the reindeer. As soon as the animals were turned over to them, they were slain. The natives were not husbandmen; they were hunters and killers. It became necessary to teach them how to look after reindeer. In fact, the whole problem was to change them from nomads and wasters into conserves and husbandmen. The task was not easy, and finally the United States Government decided to try the effect of example. A

number of Laplanders were imported into Alaska and the reindeer were placed under their charge. Gradually the Eskimo learned, and today there are plenty of skilful and faithful herdsmen among them.

The rate of increase in the herd was slow at first, but became more rapid as the years passed, until the present time when 300,000 animals are slaughtered annually without diminishing the strength of the herd. This splendid result was achieved in a period of thirty years.

The Canadian Government will start out with a parent herd more than twice as large as the original herd in Alaska, and in less than thirty years there may be available for consumption in this Dominion 500,000 carcasses of reindeer annually.

Just what would that mean? It would mean an increase in the food supplies of the Dominion of not less than 270,000,000 pounds of meat per year, or about thirty pounds per head of population. The annual consumption of beef in Canada today is sixty-eight pounds per head. It should not be necessary to say more than this to indicate the potential importance of the reindeer experiment in the far north.

Unquestionably the success of the United States Government was an important factor in the decision of the Canadian Government last August. For one thing, the reindeer in Alaska proved that the northern fringe of the North American continent, as a general rule, is suitable for reindeer raising. The animals feed in summer on the rich grasses and moss which abound on the treeless prairies. In winter they find adequate sustenance on the lichens, which are easily bared of snow. Production figures, kept by the United States Government in Alaska, prove that the cost of raising reindeer is about two dollars per head.

However, before entering upon the reindeer experiment, Mr. Stewart, the Minister responsible for the administration of the Northland, made exhaustive enquiries. Two experts in reindeer raising, A. E. and R. T. Porsild, of Greenland, were engaged to make a survey of the area to the east of the Mackenzie River delta. The Porsilds left Ottawa in May, 1926, and spent two years in travelling over this territory. In all they covered more than 10,000 miles, using dog teams in winter and canoes in summer. Late in 1928 they reported to Mr. Stewart that there was a territory of 1,500 square miles, lying in the corner between the Arctic Ocean and the Mackenzie River, which was suited in every way to reindeer raising. They estimated that there was ample food there to support 250,000 animals. Furthermore, they had no reason to believe that this suitable territory did not extend to the east and south.

Immediately upon receipt of this report, plans for the importation of reindeer were made, with the result that a contract for the purchase of 3,000 head was signed. These animals were bought at sixty dollars per head, but before they are safely in the possession of the Government in Canadian territory, the total cost will approximate $250,000.

Rescuing the Eskimos

TN FAIRNESS to the Government,

however, it should be stated that the chief reason for embarking upon this experiment was not that of founding a meat industry which might, within fifty years, supply the needs of the country. Of course that may be the outcome, but the Government, in order to justify the expenditure of $250,000 did not require to look so far into the future. The immediate reason for the bringing of reindeer into the Canadian Northland was that the Eskimo population, in recent years, has suffered acutely from food shortage. The Eskimos are a primitive race, and are the wards of the State. Therefore a condition of famine in the far north is a matter of some importance to the Canadian people. Such a condition has prevailed for months at a time in recent years and may recur in the immediate future. In fact, the officials of the Northwest Territories branch, who are directly responsible for the administration of the far north, are fearful that a critical food shortage may develop in the Northland before the new reindeer herd has increased to the point where an adequate supply of meat is assured. It will require, perhaps, five years or more to achieve success from a

local point of view, and in the meantime many hundreds of Eskimos may perish from sheer lack of food.

The Unaccountable Caribou

(^\NLY in recent years have the government officials gained a real appreciation of the problems confronting human life within the Arctic circle. The Eskimos, since time immemorial, have lived on caribou and the fresh meat they could obtain by trapping. The caribou at one time roamed the north in herds of tens of thousands; they darkened the plains of the Barren Lands. To the east of the Mackenzie River delta a range of high hills runs parallel to the sea coast, and twice yearly the caribou in their migrations passed through the narrow rocky passes of these hills.

The movements of the caribou were almost clock-like in their regularity. The animals would winter in the barren lands along the Mackenzie River basin and summer far out on the islands of the Arctic Ocean. In the springtime they would cross over to the islands just when the ice was rotting under the warm rays of the sun; in the autumn they only waited for the ice bridge to form before coming back to the mainland. While traversing the hilly passes, they were an easy prey for the Eskimo, who on each occasion had no difficulty in providing himself with food and clothing for the ensuing six months. Cured caribou meat and clothing made from caribou fur were

just as essential to life in the far north as cloth and beef are in southern Canada.

And then, all at once, the caribou disappeared. They came back from the islands in the autumn of 1925 and never returned. Hence the critical years for the Eskimos. The Federal Government, for the moment, was powerless to aid. Explorers were sent out to find the caribou, and after a year it was discovered that the animals, for some unknown reason, had decided to change their habitat and had come east into the central part of the continent. Now they summer on King William and Boothia Islands, due north of Manitoba.

The Reindeer, a Paragon

{'’YBVIOUSLY the Eskimo could not be left at the mercy of the whim of the caribou. There must be some sure and certain source of food. And the very best solution was the one adopted—the provision of reindeer meat and fur. Indeed, the reindeer is a much more valuable animal from the viewpoint of utility than is the caribou; in fact, there is no comparison between the two. The reindeer, it so happens, is one of those animals which approximates perfection—could scarcely be improved upon. It is easily domesticated, and with a little training will become as docile as a domestic cow. Its milk is nourishing and palatable. In ordinary ranching conditions it is never vicious, but becomes about as wild as a ranch steer. The animal is a good forager,

an excellent feeder, and is hardy and healthy. Breeding and raising the young present no difficulties. The caribou, of course, has none of these advantages. It is a wild animal, with the one virtue of being rather easy to kill.

These, however, are only a few of the good qualities of the reindeer. The reindeer’s fur might almost be considered to have been made expressly for use in the far north. The skin itself is waterproof and of great warmth, although quite thin and light. The fur is fairly long. Each hair is a tiny cylinder filled with air, and, for that reason, is like a thermos compartment. The resistance offered to cold and frost is so great that even arctic blizzards cease to hold terror for the man clad in reindeer fur.

Just why the hair of a reindeer should be air-filled is a mystery. Perhaps the animal at some time had to do a great deal of swimming. At any rate, it is a strange sight to observe a reindeer in the water. His hair causes his body to be more than half out of the water: swimming is scarcely light exercise for him. Years ago the hair was greatly prized as stuffing for life preservers, and is still used for this purpose. It is unsinkable.

Educating a People

rT"'HE problem of the food shortage of the Northland, however, will not be solved by the acquisition of 3,000 reindeer. In 1931, when the animals finally pass into the hands of the Canadian Government, the real work will have but begun. The services of the Porsild brothers will be retained indefinitely, and somehow the Eskimo has got to be taught to be a herdsman. The difficulties of reforming the character of a primitive people are very great, and it is just possible that they may be insuperable. The Eskimo by nature is a killer and not a conserver. As a rule he is not a waster, but the usual practice among Eskimos when game is plentiful is to kill until the needs of the immediate future are assured, and then to lay aside the implements of destruction and enjoy life. It is reasonably certain that if the Government were to parcel out the 3,000 reindeer among the natives, every last animal would be dead within six months. A system of tuition in reindeer raising will have to be worked out. Probably the Government will begin by taking the younger generation of the Eskimos and teaching them the business of raising and tending the animals.

For the present at least, all that is hoped of the experiment is that the immediate needs of the Northland will be met.

A decade hence, when the herd is well established and the Eskimos are in a fair way to become reindeer ranchers, it is hoped that the market for reindeer meat will be enlarged to include any mining developments which may take place in the far north.

Thereafter, so far as the Government is concerned, the future of the experiment is on the lap of the gods. Should the success equal that of the United States in Alaska, thirty years hence will see the Canadian Northland supporting herds of reindeer exceeding one million animals in number, and the obvious outlet for this cheap meat supply will be to the south, by the Mackenzie and Peace Rivers and out by rail through Edmonton. Or, if the industry spreads to the east, a more suitable outlet may be found on Hudson Bay.

All that really matters now is that the experiment has been started. The Canadian of 1961 will have to solve the innumerable economic questions Which may arise when meat which costs something less than one-quarter of a cent per pound to produce, is available in large quantities for the daily consumption of the Canadian people.