The Royal Canadian Corps of Signals In The North: How
It All Began.
the early days of the fur trade industry in the North, news and messages
were almost entirely verbal affairs, carried from trading posts to
cabins, and cabins to camps, by word-of-mouth-and often transferred
from individual to individual enroute. And as the travellers were,
for most part, mocassin-clad, then this informal message relay system
became known as the "mocassin telegraph". Where urgency
was not a factor, this served admirably - ack of alternates was also
a consideration, of course. The need for something more efficient
became apparent, however, when the early aircraft made their first
exploratory flights into the north during the 1920s.
Imperial Oil Co. flights of 1921, with the present-day Norman Wells
as a goal, were the first airborne venture "north of 60°.
Their misadventures were well-publicized as was the extreme isolation
of the entire NWT during the winter months. Many people in other parts
of Canada were realizing, for the first time, that vast areas of our
Dominion were completely out-of-touch with civilization for much of
During the period of the Twenties (and for a couple of centuries prior
to that) the north was fur trade country - nothing else mattered.
Surface communications were provided by the boats of the Hudson's
Bay Co. in summer and by the occasional dog team in winter. Law &
order was the responsibility of the RCMP, from widely scattered posts
across the north. The only other Federal Government representatives
were doctors, four in number, provided because of treaty agreements
with the native bands. Sovereignty was also a factor. The earlier
presence of the American whaling fleet, based at Herschel Island,
was a long-standing concern of Ottawa's. Herschel was presumed to
be in Canadian territory but we had only a lone (and usually out-of-touch)
RCMP Detachment to enforce our claim. Communications between Ottawa
and their representatives in the north were confined to the brief,
open-water period of the summer.
as a result of the publicity generated by the IOL flights, plus their
own obvious needs, the Federal Government then took action. A chain
of radio transmitting/receiving stations was planned, to link Edmonton
with the small settlements along the length of the Mackenzie River
System. But this was the mid-Twenties- radio transmission by voice
was in its infancy. The electronics needed for the transmission of
text and morse-coded messages were less demanding, however, both as
to cost and power requirements. Such equipment had been developed
for commercial applications and was readily available. The program
started in 1924 with the construction of stations at Edmonton, Ft.
Smith (the then capital of the NWT) and Ft. Simpson. The following
year saw the addition of Aklavik, thus completing the year-round communications
link between Government Administrative Offices in Edmonton and their
counterparts in the north. Problems were experienced however in reliably
bridging the roughly 800 mile gap between Aklavik and Ft. Simpson.
An additional relay station was needed-Ft. Norman was then added in
Air exploration of the NWT by mining companies began in the summer
of 1927, to be followed by commercial flying down the Mackenzie the
following year. Winter flying began in 1929-the first winter airmail
flight left McMurray on January 27 with mail for Ft. Simpson and intermediate
points. Problems soon appeared, however, emphasizing the need for
better communications. On Jan.29 this same aircraft suffered structural
damage while landing at Ft. Resolution. Repairs and assistance were
needed from Edmonton but the nearest radio station was at Ft. Smith,
far to the south. The mocassin telegraph then came to the rescue-in
the form of a man on snowshoes. I'll quote now from other sources:
Word of the plane's mishap had to be sent out. The nearest wireless
was at Ft. Smith, some 180 miles away through bush, muskeg and untravelled
wilderness. Jim Balsillie, a young northerner, took the message, travelling
through heavy snows in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. He travelled
the 180 miles in 50 hours-a record that will forever stand. The reply
came that night over Edmonton's CJCA radio broadcast: "Relief
plane enroute Thursday (signed) Western Canada Airways."
This was at a time when few aircraft existed-many Canadians had yet
to see this new form of travel. The drama of a damaged aircraft, somewhere
in the wilds of the north, and a rescue message delivered by snowshoe,
made headlines across Canada. That Government awareness of this need
was influenced by the publicity there can be little doubt. Approval
quickly came for another station - at Ft. Resolution.
The existence of the Signals Stations, at trading posts throughout
the NWT, had a considerable, and favourable, effect upon the everyday
life of the residents of those frontier settlements. The Operators
at the Stations provided a daily (though unofficial) news link with
the Outside. The physical needs of the stations (water, fuel plus
a measure of casual labour) added a few precious dollars to the meagre
local economies. And the local craft-ladies did a thriving business
in richly-ornamented mukluks & moccasins, mitts & parkas.
Most of all, though, the Operators, at all stations, became very much
a part of the local population. They became involved in whatever small-scale
social activities existed - making life more bearable, and enjoyable,
for the others who shared their lonely life.
aviation service in the north, and particularly for those of us who
provided it, received substantial assistance from the Signals operators.
This was of particular importance during the long, dark months of
winter when so many of our flights operated under the most difficult
of winter conditions. The official duties of the operators consisted
only of the transmission of commercial messages, but the duties they
performed went far beyond that. They provided an unofficial safety-net
for our day-to-day operations. Our early aircraft were not equipped
with 2-way radio facilities but, though lacking these contacts, the
Signals boys made it their personal business to keep track of our
movements. They passed along the word, from station to station, of
our planned destinations, our enroute stops at smaller posts or trappers
cabins, and the approximate arrival time at our destination. It was
always comforting to know that an alert would quickly be sounded if
our aircraft failed to arrive - if we were forced down due to weather
or mechanical problems.
can well-remember a typical incident that took place in the winter
of 1937. We were southbound from Ft. Norman, caught in bad weather
and forced-landed, off-course and far to the east of Ft. Simpson.
We had our tent and emergency rations. Oerations such as this were
not uncommon in the Thirties. We did carry tiny, battery-operated
radio transmitter/receivers, for emergency use. During the evening
I strung-up an antenna and switched on the set. Using a hand-key I
sent a brief message on our fixed-frequency, advising of our location
& situation. I repeated this several times, hoping that some station
might hear our tiny, weak signal. I did not expect a reply as the
RCCS transmitters were on long-wave, far above our frequency. Much
to my surprise I received a reply from Simpson. They acknowledged
our message, advised of their weather conditions - and they would
pass the word of our situation along to the other stations. We reached
Simpson in the morning without incident, gassed-up and proceeded southbound.
I never did determine the source of the Ft. Simpson transmission,
and I have since learned that the transmitters in use in 1937 might
have been tune-able to our frequency. There is also the possibility
that the Simpson operators might have constructed a "ham"
transmitter, crystal-controlled, to our frequency.
retrospect our situation was far from ideal. We were a considerable
distance off the "beaten-path" - that being the Mackenzie
River. Our fuel supply was marginal. If the weather was "down"-and
we burned extra fuel by "wandering"... well, the "wandering"
might become walking. I
will never forget the warm feelings that message exchange gave me
- that the Simpson boys would spend the evening, glued to their set,
wondering and worrying about us. And I have no doubt that this situation
was repeated at Ft. Norman and Ft. Resolution - that operators at
those stations were also listening on our frequency, on the off-chance
that our weak signal might be picked up. And as a final (and most
important) comment: hotels were few & far between in those early
days in the north. We were always welcome guests at any of the Signals
speak now of Aklavik. Because of its key location-adjacent to the
Arctic Coast and near the mouth of the great Mackenzie River, the
trading post of Aklavik was of key importance, both for transportation
and for communications. A considerable number of traders and trappers,
both white and native, populated the vast delta of the Mackenzie.
This included the posts at Ft. McPherson, farther upstream on the
Peel River, and Arctic Red River Post, south on the Mackenzie. The
tiny settlements at Herschel Island, and Tuktoyaktuk on the near Arctic
Coast, were also dependant upon Aklavik for support, summer and winter.
was important as the distribution point for all cargo along the Arctic
Coast by boat in summer. There was only a single winter exchange of
first-class mail along the coast each winter. These were carried out
by members of the RCMP Detachments, with the Cambridge Bay detachment
making the round-trip one year and Aklavik performing the duty the
following year. Battery-operated radio receivers were then on the
market and the Signals staff at Aklavik constructed and operated a
small broadcasting station. This provided a news and message service
to the trading posts, to RCMP detachments, to the boats in summer,
and to isolated posts along the coast of the Western Arctic, summer
& winter. The life of the residents of the Mackenzie Delta was
immeasurably brightened, and often made safer, by the presence and
actions of the RCCS staff at Aklavik.
of it's prominence as the largest settlement in the western Canadian
Arctic, Aklavik attracted a number of notable visitors. Celebrities
such as such the Lindbergs stopped by during the flight that provided
the material for Anne Lindberg's book, North to the Orient.
The famous duo of Wiley Post, of round-the-world flying fame, and
the well-loved American humorist, Will Rogers, spent a few days at
Aklavik. Though none would have realized it, their farewells at Aklavik
were final. They were killed in a crash later on the day of their
departure. The search for the Russian Trans-Polar flier, Levanevsky,
was centered at Aklavik for part of one summer and all of the following
winter. One of our Governor-Generals, Lord Tweedsmuir, also included
Aklavik in his schedule. With little in the way of hotel accommodation
at Aklavik, the Signals Station also played host to some of those
illustrious visitors. This function was unplanned but greatly appreciated,
both by the recipients and the hosts. A few photos are included to
serve as a partial, though typical, record of the life of the Signals
operators at Aklavik in the Thirties. These have been posted in this
website under the Aklavik Station heading.
the records I should add a few words concerning my own past experiences
- to validate, as it were, some of the statements that I have made.
My folks were Hudson's Bay people and I grew up in the Ft. McMurray
area. After learning the craft of an aircraft mechanic (Air Engineer
Licence # 1106) I was then employed by Canadian Airways Ltd. Working
from our operational base at Ft. McMurray we provided service to all
of the trading posts in the NWT and the Western Arctic, winter and
summer. I had many interesting experiences during those several years
and still retain warm memories of the Signals operators we knew. They
were always concerned for our safety and welfare - ever ready to lend
a helping hand. Wish we could go back and do it all over again, chaps!