Voice Over the Arctic

"Northern Messenger," Canada's weekly broadcast of family tidings, is Godsend to lonely outpost dwellers

LLOYD ROBERTS January 15 1937

Voice Over the Arctic

"Northern Messenger," Canada's weekly broadcast of family tidings, is Godsend to lonely outpost dwellers

LLOYD ROBERTS January 15 1937

Voice Over the Arctic


"Northern Messenger," Canada's weekly broadcast of family tidings, is Godsend to lonely outpost dwellers


IT IS Christmas week in the Far North, as elsewhere throughout Christendom, and the two white men in their wooden shack at the base of the mountain are acutely aware of it. The memory of the supply ship Nascopie’s fleeting visit seems little more than a dream in an interminable night of dreams and swirling snow. Beyond the frail walls are roaring darkness, ice-welded bay, smoking cliffs, searing cold. Within, the big iron stove is splotched and panting with heat; lamplight gleams on the backs of books, dishes, gun-barrels; odors of coal oil, seal oil and tobacco blend in the familiar atmosphere of an Arctic home. Two or three members of the Mounted Police—unpolicelike in sealskin boots and flannel shirts— lounge on bunk and chair with half-closed eyes and expectant features. A clear, resonant voice fills the room :

“Twins have finished cutting their teeth. Mary has come home to spend the holidays with us. We’ll be toasting you. Love and kisses. Nell.” A pause. “To Bruce Campbell, Port Harrison: How are you, friend? Think of me when you carve the goose. Am writing as promised. Cheerio. Bobs. . . To Leo Manning, Povungnetuk. . . To Reverend Mr. Neilson, Lake Harbor. . .”

The Voice, swinging back and forth like a beam of light through the dark immensity, is drawing nearer to the top of the world. It comes at last:

“And here’s a message for Corporal Paddy Hamilton, Craig Harbor: Thanks for letters. They were great. All very disappointed that you did not come out. Sorry you won’t have Christmas box. We can make up for that next year. Glad you and Mac are so happy together. Good luck to you both. Anne and Pete. . . And here’s another for Corporal MacWhirter away up on the same roof: Letters received via Denmark. Many thanks. Hope you received box. Glad you are well. Many happy returns of November 5. Love and best wishes from all the family. Father and Mother.”

The Voice continues, talking to Arctic Bay, Fort Good Hope, Herschel Island, like some modem Santa Claus freighted with heart-throbs in lieu of gifts, but the two Mounties no longer hear it. Each is recalling his message word by word, pondering its significance, revelling in its comfort, while beloved faces and scenes rise mistily before his eyes.

TT REQUIRES little imagination to realize, at least in part, what the Northern Messenger—as the Saturday night radio broadcasting to the Far North is known—must mean to men and women under such conditions. Only if the voices of loved ones themselves were being heard could it be more effective. The next best thing is the knowing

that the words were written only a few hours before, and that in many cases the writer is listening in to the broadcast and actually sharing in the joy of the recipient.

But it was some time after the service was inaugurated before the Canadian Radio Commission could be sure of all this, or even if the messages were being received. Unlike every other Commission program, it brought no telephone calls or fan mail from those it was designed to please. This was not only an unseen audience but also an inarticulate audience, through necessity. So Major D. L. McKeand of the Lands, Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch of the Department of the Interior, going north on the R.ALS. Nascopie in charge of the Government’s annual Eastern Arctic Patrol, offered to carry copies of the messages that had been broadcast the previous winter to posts along his route. In this way over 800 letters were delivered to officials in posts about Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait and north to Ellesmere Island, with the request that they have the addressees acknowledge receipt of the messages, report on reception, and make suggestions whereby the service might be improved. Major McKeand collected the reports on his return journey and turned them over to the Commission.

The results exceeded the most sanguine expectations. Out of 933 messages transmitted to the Eastern Arctic and sub-Arctic during the 1934-35 period, 466 had been correctly received. Of the remaining 467 messages, fourteen had not been heard at all, while the others had been identified with some difficulty due to atmospheric conditions. In short, there had been fifty per cent perfect coverage and about seventy-five per cent fair—more than justifying the continuance of the program on technical grounds alone.

The appreciation of the recipients, verbal and written, registered 100 per cent. The only serious criticism was in regard to there being but thirty minutes in half an hour, and to the speed of delivery which made it difficult to transpose the words to paper. Both of these faults have since been eliminated by setting back the broadcast period from 11.30 to 11 p.m., Eastern standard time, each Saturday night, so as to allow a full hour, by cutting out the weekly summary of world news, and by the announcers, Sydney Brown and Bob Anderson, speaking with more deliberation. The new management is even contemplating going on the Northern air on Sunday night also if the number of messages warrant it.

International Recognition

HP HE NORTHERN MESSENGER, which has awakened response all over the continent and in distant parts of the world, was originated in the fall of 1933, shortly after a British naval expedition, studying magnetic changes along the Northeastern coast, established a base at Nain, labrador. The commander of the expedition went to Halifax seeking the co-operation of Major W. C. Borrett, of radio station CI INS, in transmitting certain communications to members of the expedition. The latter referred the matter to Lieutenant-Colonel W. Arthur Steel, then commissioner and chief of the technical department of the Canadian Radio Commission. Colonel Steel not only arranged a satisfactory wireless service with Nain but, familiar with the northland as a former officer of the

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Canadian Corps of Signals, he realized the possibilities of extending the service to include all similarly isolated points throughout the North. That same year the Northern Messenger was launched, and people with friends and relatives beyond mail, telegraph and telephone communication were invited to forward messages to the Commission for broadcasting over longand short-wave stations. At the same time, the thinly scattered population of the North who possessed radios were advised to tune in with Ottawa on Saturday nights, if they wished to hear news of very particular interest to themselves.

The response was immediate and enthusiastic. Messages began to pile in from all parts of Canada and Newfoundland, and later from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, United States, Japan, New Zealand and several other countries. The Commission saw that it had started something unique and of more than national importance in the realm of broadcasting, and that plans must be made for its fullest expansion. During the first winter-spring period, twenty-four broadcasts handled 1,754 messages; during the second, twentyeight broadcasts sent out 2,854 messages; and last winter the same number of broadcasts sent 6,250 messages. This year the Northern Messenger service opened on November 7. Weeks before that date messages began arriving at headquarters, and it is confidently expected that before the service closes in May, 1937, the season’s output will have outnumbered the combined output of the three previous periods of nearly 11,000 messages.

The new Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (successors to the Canadian Radio Commission) are utilizing experience and advice to improve the service wherever possible. Because the long-wave or normal broadcast band has been found to be more consistent than the short-wave transmission, and because in the North there are more long-wave than short-wave sets, the programs will largely cater to the former. Announcers will speak slowly enough to permit friends at the posts to write the messages down for the benefit of absentees.

IIow to Send Messages

THE CORPORATION has sent out instructions aimed to assist senders and receivers alike. The Northern Messenger service will be carried by stations on the Corporation’s national network on their normal channels, as well as by the following short-wave stations:

Winnipeg, CJRO—6150 kilocycles. Winnipeg, CJRX—11720 Toronto, CRCX—6090 Montreal, VE9DN -6005 In order to give the same service to all listeners, all messages are arranged alphabetically, announcement beginning at the first of the alphabet on November 7 and at the last on November 14, and alternating in this way right throughout the schedule. Messages for transmission are to be sent to any Corporation station or to the headquarters of the Corporation, Sussex Street. Ottawa, Canada, and will be transmitted whenever possible during the first program period following their receipt at Ottawa.

* The following rules should be observed in preparing messages for transmission: 1. All messages must be of a purely personal nature and must be written in plain language, in either English or French.

2. Code messages will not be transmitted under any circumstances.

3. Messages should be as brief as possible and the Corporation reserves the right to strike out words or phrases should the volume of traffic be heavy.

4. In order to serve the greatest number of Northern listeners, the Corporation will

limit the number of messages for any one person in any one broadcast to a maximum of three, whenever the traffic is sufficiently heavy to warrant this action.

5. Messages cannot be accepted for transmission to any point which is already served by any recognized wire communication system now operating in Canada.

As explained by the Corporation, the Northern Messenger is intended primarily to serve Government agents and officials, R.C.M.P. detachments, traders, trappers, settlers, miners, missionaries, and all others in Northern Canada and throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions in Canada. But of course there is “free air” everywhere and just try to keep other people out! As in the case of party telephones, those “rung up” constitute a small minority of the listeners-in. Not only newsstarved Northern neighbors within a few thousand miles radius, but also hundreds of thousands of city and country folk of this and other lands, gather eagerly about their receiving sets on Saturday nights to hear the latest gossip of the North.

And who can blame them ! Here is one program that plays upon every string of the human heart—tragedy and comedy, sorrow and happiness, fortitude,adventure, romance—and the stranger, no matter how far removed from the scene, can enter vicariously into the intimate emotions of the actors, sharing their joys and perhaps lightening their vicissitudes with his thought waves of sympathy and encouragement.

He may recall hearing the Northern Messenger informing a Government engineer at Fort Smith that his father in Cornwall had only a short time to live, and perhaps he read afterward in the newspapers how the son received the message in time to return before his father’s death. He will also remember some cheery messages in the form of rhymes.

A wider field was touched when the Messenger delivered a message from Edward Shackleton (son of the great explorer) to Robert Bentham, member of the Oxford University Ellesmere Land Expedition, at Craig Harbor.

Anyone who has ever pitched his tent north of “53” will eagerly listen for news of post managers, old-timers, guides and prospectors, and other men of the North with whom he has broken bannock and carved a caribou steak. He may intercept a greeting to Ungulalik, the Eskimo of Perry River, Queen Maud Gulf, who not only possesses a radio but also the King’s Jubilee Medal ; or a message to old Solomon Ford, the Herbert Hall trader at Sugluk who has not been 100 yards from his store during the past ten years and until recently had never heard of a radio. He will smell wood smoke and seal oil, he will hear the clink of shod canoe poles and the crack of dog whips, he will see the lingering sunsets over the barrens and the sea fog rolling up the fjords. . .

And so it goes. The Great Lone Land has lost much of its loneliness; the Lost Legion are no longer lost either to the outside world or to each other, no longer entirely dependent on their own courage and resourcefulness for health of mind and body, no longer eagerly and perhaps fearfully awaiting the winter or the summer mail for news of loved ones—now that there is a Voice.


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