Capital of the North

Fort Smith, population 300, is the seat of government for 2,250,000 square miles of Canada’s vast northern hinterland

LESLIE ROBERTS August 1 1936

Capital of the North

Fort Smith, population 300, is the seat of government for 2,250,000 square miles of Canada’s vast northern hinterland

LESLIE ROBERTS August 1 1936

Capital of the North

Fort Smith, population 300, is the seat of government for 2,250,000 square miles of Canada’s vast northern hinterland


IN CANADA there is a capital city which has no bonded indebtedness and no overdraft at the bank. In its confines unemployment is unknown. The word "dole" has never been included in its vocabulary. The nearest politician who has any control over the deportment of its inhabitants is almost 3,000 miles away. It has never heard of the hit-and-run driver, night clubs or department stores. Parking tickets, smoke consumption by-laws, communism, strikes and traffic lights are meaningless terms to its residents. Yet it is the seat of government for an area two and one-quarter million square miles in extent.

It is also an extremely pleasant community in which to reside, provided you can get along without talkies, sidewalk hogs and luncheon clubs. In fact it might even be said to ¡x)ssess most of the good points of the civilized life and lew of the better-known urban horrors. I am not speaking of Toronto.

Where is it, this paragon among towns?

1 first came upon it from the air, which is the accepted mode of entry to its hospitable doors, for its residents accept the aerial Pullman with all the sang-froid which Ottawans accord to sleeping cars newly arrived from Vancouver. For better than three hours our ship had been tossed around in a gale which, taking a running start from the Arctic Circle, was bent on going places and wanted no interference from a fly with an engine in its nose. But not even the vagaries of the aerial roadbed could destroy the thrill of travel, for we were riding an all-important highway, the gateway to a new empire which may hold the key to Canada’s future wealth.

Approaching Fort Smith

FIRST we had traversed the lower reaches of the Athabaska River, losing its sprawling streak near Chipewyan to buffet our way across the huge delta formed by the confluence of that river and its inland sea, while herds of migrating caribou moved across the flats beneath us. Bumping and rocking our way over fifty miles of frozen streams and rivulets fashioned like the pattern of a madman’s dream, we picked up the icy Peace River where it merges with the waters which flow north from Athabaska to become the Slave River. Now on almost every swale black dots appeared, each dot showing a slight bulge on the side nearest to our undercarriage, which, visualized from a height of 200 feet, turned out to be a gently-rising spinal hump, situated about the neck line, and placed there, no doubt, to identify its proprietor as a buffalo.

Twenty thousand of these gangling creatures, each urgently needing the services of a tonsorial specialist, roam a Government preserve 16,500 square miles in extent between the Peace and Nyarling Rivers, west of the Slave. The eminences were raised on their spines, I am credibly informed, by one of our far-seeing Liberal administrations, to save the buffalo the ignominy of being mistaken :or overgrown moose and taken home for purposes of larder replenishment. A lot of huntsmen wear red windbreakers for the same reason. But we digress . . .

Next came Fitzgerald, wdth white water showing through the ice on the river. On the west bank of the Slave the sharp streak of a motor road stood like a line pencilled through the bush. Over it, trucks portage thousands of tons ol freight every summer around the only reach of impassable water between the end of steel and the Arctic Sea; fifteen miles of rapids in a 2,000-mile water highway! A few simple aids to navigation will write off this problem as northbound traffic increases. Then ships will steam all the way from the steel’s end to Aklavik.

Another fifteen miles. The engine’s roar was muted. Brintnell circled the ship over a community the very pattern of which testified to the orderly quality of its life. Neat buildings stood in soldierly array behind picket fences. Roadways drove straight lines across the town. Union jacks flew from tall, slender flagpoles. Then skis crunched against snow and we raced to as smooth a landing as may be had in Edmonton or on Montreal’s swagger Saint Hubert field. Obviously hummocks could not be tolerated on such a community’s airport ! And so we came to Fort Smith, 550 miles north of Edmonton, 250 miles north of steel’s end at Waterways, Alberta, seat of government for the Northwest Territories, the City Which Had No Debts!

Administrative Centre of the North

SEVERAL features are likely to occur to the casual wayfarer in this town of some 3(X) residents as impressive. One is paint. Another is the picket fence, used locally with all the abandon with which a shopkeeper utilizes string. In Fort Smith the picket fence is the wrapping medium. It encircles homes, the Hudson’s Bay Company establishment and vegetable gardens. There must be miles of it around the abiding place of the Mounted Police. Another intriguing phenomenon is garbage, of which there is a complete lack, so far as visible truck is concerned a condition which I find more important than the immediate presence of a neighbor hood movie house. To these assets must be added silver birches, scattered throughout the townsite in pleasant groves as pnxff that !>eople of gentle tastes dwell in these environs.

Such items, of course, are probably not the things to which the local gentry point with pride in boasting of their possessions. They, being human, will probably talk of the number of buffalo in the park, the freight tonnage handled last year on the portage, and the number of mining claims recorded. It may be that when your observer came there he suffered the optical biliousness caused by remaining too long in frontier communities of strictly utilitarian outlook; where paint is merely a surface saver, used as sparingly as possible. Nevertheless the items noted constitute the alpha and omega of this capital and the essence of its dignified existence. This place has poise.

The principal preoccupation of its male residents is to govern the Northwest Territoriesa feat which does not involve any of the histrionics prevalent in our other capitals. The practice of assembling large groups of legislators in extremely expensive buildings to make fatuous speeches has never percolated through to these parts. In one principal office building you will find the chief administrative officer, A. L. Cumming, General Superintendent of the Buffalo Park, Mining Recorder and virtually everything else of import in the way of signature. Mr. Cumming is the man to see if you have business involving anything from mining claims to schemes for selling electric fans to the Eskimos in the vicinity of Coronation Gulf. Associated with him as assistants are the Messrs. Trudel, Taylor and Champagne. Among them, this quartette contrives to administer the affairs of these two and a quarter million square miles without fuss or fury.

Numerous assistant officers are scattered here and there through the country, of course. There is a mining recorder, a Mr. Meikle. at Hottah Lake, immediately south of Great Bear Lake, for example. If you stake claims north ol Hottah you see Meikle about them; otherwise you go to Fort Smith and see Cumming. There are also Indian agents, Mounted Police officers, radio operators and other Dominion officials, but Smith is the place where a man can get a decision. What is more, he can get it without becoming entangled in rolls of reel tape. Frankly, after watching its machinery at work, I have come to the conclusion that pages should be torn from Fort Smith’s lxx>k of operations and that their contents should lx; mailed, or even wired, to Ottawa and our numerous provincial capitals. Here Government officers are at the citizen’s disjxisal when he comes to town on business bent. Nobody appears to have thought of installing the brilliant system of going out to lunch while visitors cool their heels in the outer hall.

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The gentlemen of Fort Smith have bosses in Ottawa, of course, for in the final analysis they are employees of the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch of the Department of Interior. But 2,500 miles is a considerable distance, with the result that civil servants in Forth Smith are not constantly badgered by the member for Dogtooth Crossing, who insists that something will have to be done pronto about finding a job for a brother of the fellow who controls all the votes in Poll 55. In other words, this capital runs like a business institution, which is probably what the founders had in mind when they gave the democracy its start.

Businesslike Mountles

r"PHEN THERE are the Mounted Police* -L 1 have never been one of those who go in a big way for what might be called the Rose Marie school of police work, because in my considerable travels 1 have yet to encounter a member of the Mounted who possesses what I would consider a firstclass tenor voice. This, it seems, has never been counted one of the primary qualifications for enlistment. Nor are members of the force trained in the fine art of tossing a lady face downward across the hump of a saddle and galloping off into the sunset. Many of them would look with favor on the idea, I am sure, but unfortunately their time is filled with more prosaic things which entail travelling long distances in a state of discomfort in the interests of law and order. The Mounted still remains the Law’s chief bulwark in the North, no matter what ideas you may have picked up from the talkies and from your lighter reading. Its members are scattered about the country, usually in mobile units of one, and the speed and dispatch with which they can contrive to be present on the scene of illegal activity is something to delight the senses of a railway timetable’s author.

These fellows know everything. They find out who every traveller in the Territories may be, what his business is in the country, where he is going, whether or not he is carrying contraband fur, what financial resources the northbound voyager has at his command. If the visitor is not equipped satisfactorily for travel in the open spaces, they even point out this discrepancy and suggest firmly that he ought to return whence he came.

The policing job in the Territories, in fine, is not spectacular in the Hollywood sense, nor does it consist of a nice taste for romantic swashbuckling accomplished from inside a gaudy uniform. In the Far North the Police are doing a beautiful job of overseeing the movement of human activity. The service is under the supervision of Inspector Martin, who dwells with a sergeant and two constables behind the painted pickets of Fort Smith.

A Busy Metropolis

T IFF HERE, as already noted, holds a touch of gentle charm, for the place has the benefits which accrue from good living and permanence. Hard by the winter airport you will find the hospital founded by the Sisters of Charity in the year of Confederation, where gentle nuns nurse the halt and the blind and the lame who come to Fort Smith from a distance of 500 miles around. I have never enjoyed the good fortune to recover from a palsy in this institution, but friends have earnestly recommended the casual breaking of a leg as the “Open Sesame” to many gentle enjoyments in its environs.

Electric lights and running water are among the accepted good things of life hereabouts. A glittering bathtub may even be discovered in the Residence. Such perquisites are not things to which the inhabitant points with vocal pride, however, as is sometimes the case in the yearold mining camps. In Fort Smith such matters are accepted as part of the warp and woof of good living. The rawness of youth has been rubbed off the edges of this community.

It is an extremely busy place, not without its industrial occupations. In which regard let us ponder for a moment the item of the buffalo. The buffalo population of the district is descended from animals imported from the South after the war and during the ’twenties and is now estimated at 20,000. The extent of the grazing area, as already noted, is some 16,500 square miles, in which space Chief Warden Dempsey and his aides travel from point to point, sleeping in cabins established here and there in the country as overnight halts, keeping watch and ward over their ungainly charges. Perhaps the reader will be able to envisage the extent of the reserve from the statement that when Warden Dempsey finds it necessary to cross his park from his headquarters at the Hay Camp near Fort Smith, nine days are consumed in reaching Búllalo Lake, in its far northern comer, near the Nyarling River. So much for one of the eleventh capital’s primary industries.

During the brief weeks of the open water season, the community’s waterfront is a hive of bustle and excitement. To Fitzgerald, fifteen miles up river to the south, come craft from the end of the steel, after sinuous journeyings down the Athabaska and through the delta. From Fort Smith into the far North ply the bottoms which journey into Creat Slave Lake, whence they proceed down the Mackenzie to Simpson, Wrigley, Norman and Aklavik, or move eastward to Reliance, or cross the lake and sail its north arm into the Yellowknife and on to Fort Rae.

The year’s supplies for all this vast empire pass through the FitzgeraldFort Smith bottleneck between the end of May and the beginning of October; for which reason its fifteen miles of motor highway becomes an extremely busy avenue. Today, as the hunt for new gold is doubling and redoubling the population of the country, the call for supplies, machinery and equipment is constantly increasing in volume, with the result that the load placed on the carriers of the country is almost beyond description. From fifty to a hundred thousand tons of freight will pass through Fort Smith this summer.

Busy, but never excited, Fort Smith hugs its bank of the Slave River, calmly attending to man’s orderly progress in the vast empire of the North. To it, day by day, come prospectors to record their claims in newly opened districts. To it come promoters, geologists, engineers and all the colorful community associated with the essentially Canadian task of heaving back the frigid barriers of the North. To it come the trappers and those long associated with the gentle movement of the fur trade, slightly bewildered by all these goings-on. Things are happening in this dignified community, things which presage greater Dominion and new streams of wealth to buttress our national economy.

In point of population, it isn’t much of a city yet. In point of accessibility, it is far removed from the travelled trails of a busy world. In point of bustle and rush and excitement, it lacks much of the hey-hey of bigger towns which aren’t getting anything half so important done. But this community is going places in its dignified way. doing a job which is likely to lower the tax bill which other capitals can only raise.

This, then, is the capital city of Canada’s far-flung Northwestern Empire, seat of government for the new Land of Opportunity. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Fort Smith, the City Which Has No Debts. Se/ah!