H. NAPIER MOORE
If it's nation-building you’re interested in, the Westerner is a good source of inspiration
BELOW, the long, hard-surfaced runways of the airport at Grande Prairie, on the Northwest Staging Route, lay like rulers across the checkerboard plain. The C. P. air liner, bound for Whitehorse, circled, banked away and landed—in a yellow grass field.
It was a good landing and, while a bit soggy, it wasn’t a bad field. In fact it was Grande Prairie’s original airport. But with a $1^ millions piece of stripwork close by, it seemed rat her an odd touchdown.
With two or three passengers who were going no farther I got out to wait until a mud-spattered car loped from the airport to pick us up. The captain got out too. I asked him, “Don’t you like that nice airport us taxpayers built for you?”
“I couldn’t risk landing on the strip,” he said. “It’s a cross wind.”
In Grande Prairie I casually mentioned to some Old-Timers that it must have been an unusual wind that evening; that I’d landed on the old field.
“Hell, no,” said one. “That’s the prevailing wind direction. It’s a long time since anybody set down in the field. They generally make the strip. But the runways are built in the wrong direction. The Ottawa department boys got their wind dope from the Dominion Experimental Farm at Beaver Lodge. That’s 18 miles away. Those hills in between do tricks with the breeze. The old bush pilots who flew this route for years—could do it blindfolded—told the Ottawa boys they were doing it wrong. But oh no! They had to do it as the plans said to. Now they’re rebuilding u runway to angle the wind. Makes me sick.”
The other Old-Timers nodded their assent. Later I talked with some New-Timers. They fly. A little more cautiously they said the same thing.
• • •
Grande Prairie, with citylike electric light standards jutting from its plank sidewalks and its unpaved main street, as I saw it, churned by autumn rains into thick, juicy, gumbo mud (Dawson Creek folk boast that compared with their mud the Grande Prairie variety is sissy stuff), is a place of colorful contrasts and people. Saturday night; A loud-speaker blaring music from the movie house; the lights of the stores and Chinese cafés glinting on the puddles; the clump of feet on wood; RCAF and U. S. Army Air Force uniforms; laughing, healthy-looking girls; farmers, their wives and kids, in to shop and see the pictures; jeeps, cars and trucks, sloshing their way along the
black, rutted road which leads to the airport and beyond to the Alaska Highway; the hum of a plane heading north to Fairbanks, thence, maybe, to Russia.
Picking his way to his office is tall, lean, grey Percy Tooley. English-born he trekked up from Edmonton by oxcart before the days of the Edson Trail. From a homestead he visualized a community; the town for which, as its mayor, he was to argue for and get a water supply. His imagination kindled as he talked with pioneer bush pilots, his eyes turned to the north, he dreamed of a day when transport and passenger planes would travel to the Yukon and Alaska in a few hours—over Grande Prairie. Incessantly he preached airport, airport; aroused interest and action. Came the grass landing field. McConachie and other northern fliers found it good.
Today Percy Tooley, who travelled north by oxcart, is local agent for C. P. Air Lines. On his white-painted frame office a sign proclaims that he also is interested in real estate and insurance. My guess is that such things aren’t permitted to interfere with matters pertaining to the Highways of the Sky. Around town you’ll hear him referred to as “Air Commodore Percy.” But it’s good-natured ribbing. The folks of Grande Prairie will tell you that through thick and thin Tooley has been a booster for the North; that he saw what other men couldn’t see; that he’s a Number One Priority citizen.
• • •
There is what must be one of t he most unusual radio stations in the world—CFGP.
It heralds itself as “The Voice of the Mighty Peace.” Actually it is. It is the only station in the Peace River area. Salt Lake City, Seattle and Vancouver are heard occasionally, but it’s CFGP that is constantly on the job; picking up and rebroadcasting the news, feeding the special U. S. service programs to the northern camps, and on Sundays broadcasting church services.
It does something else. There aren’t any telephones or mail deliveries in the isolated farm areas of that gigantic territory. So for one hour every
week-day afternoon CFGP turns its mike over for use as a family communication medium. Joe Doakes steps up to it and, clearing his throat, tells young Amy, back on the farm, that she’s got a baby sister and mummy is fine. And not to forget to get George to milk the cow. When her turn comes, Mrs. Flanagan tells Dad, out on the homestead, that his youngster’s tonsils are safely out and that she’ll be home day after tomorrow. It’s a family service institution, is Radio Station CFGP, the Voice of the Mighty Peace.
• • •
To get a horselaugh anywhere in the area adjacent to the southern end of the Alaska Highway, you merely mention that you read an official Washington denial that there was unwarranted waste when the highway construction camps closed down. An engineer told me he had witnessed great piles of canned goods, beds, mattresses, sleeping bags burned up; that he knew of at least one $15,000 bulldozer turned over into the mud and buried. Another construction worker was willing to take oath that he had seen three pianos hacked to bits with axes. A woman said frankly that she and her neighbors had cooking utensils they had taken from a heap of bashed and holed articles, still usable when the inflicted dents had been straightened out. It is still a matter for indignant comment, this destruction. People say, “Maybe it was done to protect the local merchants. Maybe it came in duty free and couldn’t be sold in Canada without all kinds of complications; maybe it was cheaper to burn the stuff than ship it back to the States. But when you think of the use that could have been made of all that equipment by people to whom it would have been a godsend, you get kinda sore.”
• • •
From Dawson Creek to Edmonton by air the journey takes about two hours. From Dawson Creek, the end of steel, to Edmonton by train takes 24 hours and sometimes more. Passengers on the Northern Alberta Railway, jointly operated by the CNR and CPR, tell you that its route is what it is because its original builder, McArthur, was mainly concerned about timber and laid his tracks in whatever direction timber was to be found. The train goes backward over the five miles from Rycroft to Spirit River because it can’t turn round. It crosses the Smoky River by descending the long incline from the high plateau to an almost water level bridge and then pants up the other bank in the opposite direction to which it came down. It’s a rough, swaying, bouncing trip, but it’s the vital communication link for people in an immense area. It’s a jolly companionable trip. Men and women coming out from the far North. Surveyors who have spent the summer among unnamed mountains Prospectors exhibiting pieces of streaked rock. The Dawson Creek dentist who said he had just about worn out his drills on Alaska Highway construc-
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tion workers. Some of the construction workers. Farmers. And also soldiers, sailors and airmen returning from leave spent in tiny settlements or on the farm whereon they were born. Everybody cheery. Everybody interested in the other fellow. Everybody anxious to talk.
In the crowded dining car a farmer in overalls announces to another farmer, who looks like a banker in his well-tailored double-breasted business suit, that the best prime minister this country ever had was R. B. Bennett. He says it loudly. From the far end of the car comes an infuriated bellow. “Damn it, I just won’t stand for that. Who was it got you 17-cent wheat?” The overalled one slams down his knife. “You never got less than 19 cents and you know it. And who did more for—” Back comes the roar: “Mackenzie King.” “Oho!” And they’re off. Other diners applaud, boo, are convulsed with laughter. You are so engrossed that you don’t notice that your neighbor, who believes in the co-operative moment, has absentmindedly taken your pat of butter.
• • •
He came from Chicago, this American. His job on the Alaska Highway finished, he was working on the Gargantuan U. & northern air staging centre in Edmonton. We were discussing what is going to happen when the war is over and Uncle Sam’s forces move out. “It’s this way with me, pal,” he said. “I’m staying right here in Edmonton. I like it, see? I’ve got my wife and kids here. They like it. The kids like the school. We like the people and the sort of life they live. So I’m going to get me a permanent job, and a house, and this is where I stay.”
There are a good many others like him. The rush and bustle of the highway construction days are over. Hundreds of workers have departed. But the population of Edmonton is increasing. The housing problem still is a major headache; will be for some time to come. Nine hundred new homes are under construction (not one under the Dominion Housing Act) and the city, which in the bleak days of 1911-12 took over 98% of its vacant land for unpaid taxes, is selling lots daily. But the Chamber of Commerce, which handles emergency housing problems, has 2,000 people in its “pool” for whom it is
striving to find adequate accommodation. Meanwhile they are living, doubled-up, in rooms and motor courts and makeshift quarters.
Incidentally, this Edmonton Chamber of Commerce is a lively organization. In its election of the chamber’s council, 69 of the city’s businessmen ran as candidates for nine seats.
Edmonton is optimistic about the future. It sees itself as the expanding distributing centre for the vast territories of the North. It is more airminded than any city I know. But it has its feet on the ground. It discounts the Alaska Highway as a tourist attraction; knows that the average vacation period is two weeks—too short for the distance involved; that an enormous amount of road improvement between Edmonton and the highway’s entrance will be needed; that the cost of maintaining the highway itself will be such as to make it a doubtful peacetime investment.
• • •
Walking across the magnificent bridge which leads to Regina’s stately, domed legislative building, I had to rub my eyes. Rounding the point which juts into the capital’s famous artificial lake there came a naval cutter, or a longboat with sails on—or whatever it’s nautical name is— manned by smart-looking ratings and a natty sublieutenant in the stern. It seemed odd, this touch of Halifax or Esquimalt on a man-made pond dug out of the bald face of the prairie. Odd to me, but not to the people of Regina, to whom H.M.C.S. Queen, the naval barracks, has become part and parcel of the community.
In Saskatoon, H.M.C.S. Unicorn, its new building snappy with fresh paint, fronts the broad street across from the city hall. There 150 keen prairie lads in navy blue are taking their basic training. Moreover, Saskatoon has 600 sea cadets. In the summer they train “on board” an island in the steeply banked Saskatchewan River. In the winter they salute the quarter-deck of Unicorn. And are they keen! There’s a kinship, somehow, between the prairie and the sea. Perhaps it’s the kinship of far horizons.
• • •
Also in Saskatoon the bicycle has become a Civic Responsibility. On the main streets, between the angled carparking strips in front of the stores and office buildings, there are yellowpainted wooden bicycle racks.
You will find the same accommodation in Winnipeg, but not to the same extent as in Saskatoon.
Two other impressive things in Saskatoon are its wide streets (main thoroughfares are 120 feet wide and many of the residential streets are 199 feet) and the fantastic memory feats of Dan Worden, night editor of the Star-Phoenix, who can reel off the residence and business telephone numbers of scores of prominent Montreal citizens and of institutions, learned 25 years ago when he was a reporter in that city.
• • •
In Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, university authorities stay up late at nights wondering how they are going to find accommodation for the returned men who will be wanting to finish or start on courses. With university buildings packed now, they are hoping that they will be able to take over air-training stations as they close down.
• • •
If it’s nation-building you’re interested in, the Westerner is a good source of inspiration. He will refer you to names in the local casualty lists from overseas—names you find difficulty in
pronouncing. He will tell you that the man working at the bench beside him, or helping with the harvest, may not be able to speak English very well. But his son won’t be coming home; he was an air gunner in the RCAF; or he was killed fighting in Italy; or in France. “So you see he is welded to this country and its future, just the same as I am. And those sons who do come back; those with the foreign names. They aren’t ‘new Canadians.’ They’re Canadians. They’ve fought for their country—This country— They’re us.” There isn’t much racial consciousness on the prairie.
There is appreciation of the achievements of foreigners who, fleeing from Hitler, came to this land and have made good; who sometimes have done better than the native Canadian succeeded in doing in some particular line.
There’s Fred Mendel in Saskatoon. He used to operate packing plants in Central Europe. When Hitler moved on Czechoslovakia, Mendel moved just a little faster; got out with some funds, arrived in western Canada, heard of an abandoned farm machinery factory in the outskirts of Saskatoon, bought it and went to work. It’s the Intercontinental Packing Company, Limited, now. It employs 400 people. It will soon employ more, for a modern refrigeration building is being added to the plant.
In Vancouver there are the Koerner Brothers. For generations the family had been in the lumber business in Czechoslovakia. They too saw the shadow of Hitler, abandoned everything, came to the Pacific coast. In New Westminster they bought a mill that had been closed down for some time. From the upper reaches of the Fraser River they began to bring down hemlock, which, according to many old-timers, was a crazy thing to do. They abhorred waste and dirt, did the Koerners. They installed modern machinery. They built broad concrete runways all over the yards so that carriers could run more efficiently and so that their sawn planks could be kept clean. They developed rigid inspection, perfect lengths, trade-mark standards. They built attractive canteens, recreation rooms, etc., for the employees. There are 400 employees. Not long ago they presented Leon Koerner with an
Award of Merit; a signed scroll, expressing their appreciation of company achievement and employerworker relationships. And the Koerner product, bringing good prices, is going daily to Britain and Australia and other parts of Canada. If you express some surprise at the cleanliness and efficiency of the mill, the Koerner Brothers will tell you, “But we have so much yet to do. There is still far too much waste.”
Of Mendel in Saskatoon, of the Koerners in Vancouver, men say, “We’re glad they are here. They have taught us something. And they are good Canadian citizens.”
• • •
For community spirit I can recommend the towns of the Okanagan Valley (Vernon, Penticton and Kelowna) where the stores were closed on Mondays and Thursdays so that the staffs might go to the orchards to pick fruit or to the packing plants. It was in Kelowna that in 1939 the growers decided on a central selling agency. Premises were needed for the newly formed B. C. Tree Fruits organization. There was a suitable building for which other negotiations were under way. If it was to be bought it had to be bought by 3 p.m. It was then 10 a.m. By 3 p.m. it was bought, with money subscribed by 25 or 30 citizens who hadn’t much reason to expect any return. They do things that way in Kelowna. They have a splendid hotel —the Royal Anne, named after a cherry—which is community owned. They have a lovely lake-front park, kept as trim as can be by civic pride. At the moment they are planning to hire a community counsellor to work with and help solve the future problems of the community’s youth.
• • •
From the eastern boundary of Manitoba to the west coast of Vancouver Island there is one question you can put with certainty of getting the same answer. You say, “If there’s a general election how will things go out here?” The answer is, “I wouldn’t bet a cent on the result. What’s going to happen in Ontario?”
P.S. Obviously the cartoonist never saw Grande Prairie, but he’s good, clean fun.