Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: March 2017

Voyageurs performed superhuman feats of endurance

Hudson’s Bay Company servant Peter Fidler probably shook his head in amazement.

On June 29, 1796, while stationed at Cumberland House, Fidler greeted four North West Company canoes that had left Great Slave Lake only six weeks earlier. Then, on Aug. 19, he welcomed another brigade, this one headed inland in a race against freeze-up, that had covered the distance from Lac la Pluie in northwestern Ontario (near Fort Frances) in just 17 days.

These travel feats were part of the NWC lore — how the Montreal-based fur trade company was the proverbial hare in the race against the HBC tortoise.

But such speeds were possible only because of the regularity with which the NWC moved goods and furs in and out of the western interior in the late 18th century. Indeed, the dependability of the company’s transportation system was nothing short of miraculous, especially given the short open-water season. In the constant search for efficiencies, no detail was too trivial if it gave the NWC the advantage over the rival HBC.

Nor’Wester Alexander Mackenzie reckoned that it was almost 3,000 miles from Montreal to Lake Athabasca (straddling present-day northwestern Saskatchewan and northeastern Alberta). These miles were not simply clicked over on the odometer, but were conquered by the superhuman energy of voyageurs over an endless series of lakes, rivers, and portages.

Voyageurs (engagés) were generally illiterate, French-Catholic men, recruited from the Montreal and Trois Rivières areas for a fixed term or engagement contract. They numbered around 500 in the early 1780s, but as the fur trade pushed into the far northwest in the next decade, their ranks swelled.

Those who worked between Montreal and the provisioning depot at Grand Portage at the western end of Lake Superior were known as mangeurs du lard or “porkeaters” because of their diet.

Those, on the other hand, who manned the brigades in the interior, spending their winters in the pays d’en haut, were hommes du nord (northmen) or hivernant.

A further distinction was given to those voyageurs who worked northwest of Methye Portage (Portage de la Loche). These Athabasca men were the toughest, most experienced, and most revered — qualities that set them above all others in a culture that valued manliness.

Voyageurs could be an unruly lot. The Scottish and English managers (bourgeois) and clerks often engaged in a battle of wills with their servants, who, once inland, tried to renegotiate their contracts or at least offered a different “reading” of their responsibilities, such as how many 90-pound packs (pièces) they could reasonably be expected to carry at portages.

But there was also a certain order to voyageur working lives.

They sang, for example, as they paddled, measuring mileage in pipes (the distance between smoking breaks).

They also mapped their world by marking or recognizing important geographical boundaries. As they entered a new region — the shield country along the Ottawa River, the height of land beyond Lake Superior, and Methye Portage — the voyageurs insisted on performing a mock baptism of anyone who was passing that threshold into the interior for the first time. Even masters did not escape this ritual, but were forced to participate and thereafter expected to be fair in their dealings with their men.

The NWC placed incredible expectations on the voyageurs who manned the 300-pound, 25-foot North canoe in the interior.

To maintain any speed, especially since the canoe carried about two tons of cargo, the crew paddled at a continuous rate of forty strokes per minute for up to 12 hours. These long working days were intended to take advantage of the equally long hours of daylight and the fact that the wind was often down during the early morning.

And the brigades, as Fidler witnessed at Cumberland House, covered great distances in remarkable time. But the pace and load, week after week, strained the health of the voyageurs; the caloric deficit alone resulted in small, undernourished bodies.

Portaging was an added burden. Two men carried the canoe upright on their shoulders, while the others were loaded down with two 90-pound packs — more than their own body weight. Because the stress often led to skeletal damage and odd bone spurs, some voyageurs must have lived with painful chronic injuries.

It is little wonder, then, why some voyageurs never returned to Montreal but chose to seek a living in the North-West and intermarry with the indigenous population.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The North West Company had to carry freight by canoe over great distances into and out of the western interior. 

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Prince Albert National Park wardens go hunting … for elk

Parks Canada is celebrating the country’s 150th birthday by giving away Discovery Passes to Canada’s network of national parks and national historic sites.

It’s a popular program that’s likely to result in a spike of visitors to Canada’s special places, especially the mountain parks. There are already concerns about whether the parks can handle the stress on their ecosystems and wildlife.

Almost 60 years ago, Prince Albert National Park faced a completely different problem — animals ranging outside the park and feeding on farmers’ crops.

The culprit was the elk, a so-called “good” animal that enjoyed a welcome sanctuary within the park boundaries.

In the 1950s, though, a growing number of animals wandered out of the park in search of forage.

Part of the explanation was the loss of grazing habitat when the park boundaries were reduced in 1947. Then, in the mid-1950s, the park discontinued its spring burning program and meadows were gradually swallowed up by brush.

Outside the park, the elk would often feed on the crops of the local farmers. This damage was generally accepted with a certain degree of resignation — if only because the offending animals often ended up on the dinner table.

In 1959, however, the fall was unusually wet and crops were left standing in the fields over the winter. The temptation proved too much for the elk and they simply helped themselves. Farmers worried that they would have nothing to harvest in the spring.

N.L. Horley, the secretary of the Shellbrook Rural Municipality, complained about the crop loss to John Diefenbaker, the Conservative Member of Parliament for the area and prime minister since 1957, and suggested that local farmers be compensated. He also wondered if a fence could be erected along the southern park boundary to prevent a reoccurrence of the problem.

The Horley letter received immediate attention.

On Dec. 14, 1959, the executive assistant to the prime minister called on senior bureaucrats within the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources to deal with the matter “promptly and effectively.”

That same day, national parks officials decided that compensation would create a dangerous precedent and that the best way to stop elk depredation outside the park was to reduce the herd.

Ottawa immediately ordered the Prince Albert superintendent to organize the park wardens — they were going hunting. A press release insisted, “This program is intended to reduce the herds to the carrying capacity of the feed areas within that section of the park.”

The culling of the elk commenced on the morning of Dec. 16, 1959 — less than 48 hours after the prime minister’s office had demanded action.

Everyone involved on the ground described it as a slaughter. And slaughter it was. There was no limit on the number of elk to be shot, and all animals were considered expendable.

Three days after the killing had started, local residents, including farmers, asked that it be stopped. They did not believe that reducing the herd was a solution; they felt the problem would persist as long as elk could leave the park in search of food.

Ottawa officials remained convinced, however, that the shooting of the elk was “the only right course.”

By the time the shooting stopped, on March 6, 1960, the toll was 105 elk, including 25 yearling. Ninety per cent of the 60 adult females were pregnant. Local farmers who had been issued a special permit to hunt over the winter took a further 100 animals. When these figures are combined with the 210 animals shot during the regular fall hunting season in the district, a total of 415 elk were destroyed.

It was apparently not enough.

The cull continued the following winter. This time, though, only 22 animals were shot over a three-month period. The comments in the official report on the organized hunt were telling: “elk were very scattered and wild” and “large herds were not encountered.”

It was a numbing experience for the park wardens — one they never forgot.

One of the participants later reflected on the sorry affair at a wildlife management meeting. After wondering when the elk would recover, the warden bitterly observed, “it now appears to have been a monumental blunder … by someone completely ignorant of any conservation concepts.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:In December 1959, Prince Albert National Park embarked on an elk reduction program.
Credit: John Perret

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers