On the surface, post inspection would appear to be a simple routine task you drop into a post, take an inventory, check the cash, check this, check that, and then get into your little airplane and fly away to the next post to repeat the process.
Not so. Post managers are human beings and, especially if they are young, they are apt to make mistakes. Any idiot can go to a post and find something wrong if he looks hard enough, tear a strip off the poor manager who daren't answer back, and then leave the building thinking, 'By God, I sure told that fellow a thing or two,'
But I found that there was much more to it than that. I tried never to forget that I probably wouldn't see the man again for at least three months and, in the meantime, he was still fully responsible for the Company's vested capital in the post and for carrying out his trading duties to the best of his ability. If I left the post with the manager feeling lower than a snake's belly, he could get very discouraged, and say 'to hell with it'.
I always made it a point to discuss errors as we went along and tell or, in some instances, show the post manager the proper procedure. After all, I had been a post manager myself for many years. Before leaving, I made sure I found something positive to say, even if it was only to compliment him on the condition of the buildings and grounds. A 'well done' and a firm handshake was a practise that paid great dividends.
A manager of another district told of how he once arrived at a post which was a real mess. After spending a week cleaning up, he used his last morning there calling the post manager down for his failings. But, his scheduled plane didn't arrive due to weather conditions and for the next three days, the post manager barely spoke to him and his wife glared across the table at him during meals. In the evenings, they pretended he was invisible.
I also believed that if the post manager's wife was happy, then her husband would be content and if the husband was content, he would do a good job. So I always bent over backwards to keep the wives in my district feeling happy. Mostly this boiled down to furnishings and equipment which I made sure were kept up to snuff and replaced promptly when necessary.
Barbara Kirk, who had replaced Jessie Bacon as household furnishings expert, made a trip around the district with me in the summer of 1949. As a result, I was gradually able to replace all iceboxes with Servol kerosene-operated refrigerators.
The biggest complaint from the ladies was that, as the household furnishings were all standard and the interior walls were all painted in neutral tones, they always found the houses much the same no matter where they were transferred. Mrs Watt at Ile-a-la-Crosse solved the problem to her satisfaction by having a set of draperies and sofa covers made up. When she and her husband transferred from one post to another, she folded up the Company's draperies and covers, put them away and used her own instead.
Mrs McKinley at Pelican Narrows complained loud and long about the monotonous colours of the interior walls.
'Mrs McKinley, if you don't like the colours, why don't you order paint in the shades that suit you and charge it up to post expenses?' I suggested.
'Can I?' She asked. 'You mean any colour I want?' When I assured her that I meant just that, she was delighted. On my next trip to Pelican Narrows, I walked into the living room with a black ceiling; a foot-wide strip of white ran round the top of the walls and the rest of the walls were painted pink. It was, quite literally, stunning! But I never batted an eye. Those were the colours she wanted and she was happy with them. If and when they were transferred, it would only cost a few dollars to re-paint.
When Ed McLean and his wife came from Cumberland House to Montreal Lake in 1953, I was warned by his former district manager that I would have trouble with Mrs. McLean. According to him, she was a bear-cat -- always complaining about something. And sure enough, on my next trip to Montreal Lake, Mrs McLean started in about the bland and uninteresting design of all Company Houses -- everywhere.
'Why can't we decorate them the way we want? After all, we are the ones who have to live here. I've lived in Company houses for a long time and I'm sick of the standard colours. It's like living inside a scoop of vanilla ice cream,' she declared. Picking up a newly arrived magazine, she flipped through the pages showing me pictures of beautifully decorated living rooms.
'I realize this kind of thing is impractical but just once, I would like to live in a house that I could think of as mine -- my own colours, with curtains to match.' And she threw the magazine down on the table, disconsolately.
I knew only too well how she felt. Bea had frequently voiced the same feelings and I could sympathize with Mrs McLean. 'May I make a suggestion?' I asked. 'Why don't you and Eddie slip down to Prince Albert some half-day, go to a paint store and choose the colours you want. Look through your magazines again and find a design you like for curtains. Then send me the paint samples and the design and I'll get Mrs Kirk to find the curtains to match.' Her face brightened up immediately and she jumped up, offering me a cup of tea. 'Mind you, I'll expect you and Eddie to do the painting yourselves,' I added.
As we sipped our tea, she pulled out the magazines again, trying to decide on a colour scheme. The next time I went up to Montreal Lake, the interior was all done up in shades of mauve and yellow. Mrs McLean was chirping like a lark and I never did have any trouble with her.
When I first became a District Manager, I found that one of my annual jobs was to make out a rating report on each manager in my district and discuss it with him personally. I don't know when this all started. In all my years with the Company no one had ever discussed an evaluation report with me. I thought it an excellent idea, however, as a post manager's future depended entirely on the rating he received.
I took great care in making out the reports, writing them out by hand and then handing them personally to each manager. When he'd had a chance to read it and think about it, I asked if he agreed with my remarks or had any points he wished clarified. Occasionally someone would query my comments under the heading of accounting or merchandising or fur buying and we discussed the point fully. If the post manager put up a sound argument, I would amend the remarks; but if I felt certain of my evaluation I would say, 'No, you have a little way to go on that subject. Give it another year and then I'm sure I'll be able to make a more encouraging report.' By doing this, each post manager knew exactly how he stood with the Company and what his chances of promotion were.
As a result, I lost a few good men who were promoted to larger posts in other districts. I always took great pleasure in their promotions and there were always younger clerks coming up ready to take their place.
The arrival of mail was a big day at the posts. There were long-awaited letters from home to be read and enjoyed, and put away to be read again and again. But there were always the half-dozen or so buff envelopes from District Office crammed with circular letters and individual letters to the post manager. The circular letters were the bane of the post manager's life and covered any and all subjects under the sun. After a while, you glanced over them casually, muttering ' more bumff' and tossed them aside to be filed under their proper heading.
In his book The Men of the Hudson's Bay Company, District Manager N.M.W.J. MacKenzie (more commonly known as 'Alphabet MacKenzie) stated he had composed a complete series of circular letters numbered 1 to 40, which covered every aspect of the operation of a post. This was during the years 1910-11 when he was in charge of Lake Huron District with the district office in North Bay, Ontario. In 1912, he was stationed at Fort William in charge of Lake Superior District and he noted, 'I have been to every post in the district. To show the interest that many of them took in their work, some managers could repeat all my circulars from memory and give the date and number of any of them without hesitation -- and they received them at every post on an average of once a week.' He later stated, 'The system we inaugurated in Lake Huron District is now installed in every district in the country and has worked out with mathematical accuracy and convenience.' Mr Patterson, manager of Lac Seul Post, on being promoted to charge of Nelson River District, asked if he could take copies of the circulars with him. 'They are just cracker-jacks and good as a dictionary.'
The original circulars, designated as 'permanent circulars', were retained in a separate file for reference at all times. I ran into a set of them at Grassy Narrows post in 1935. They covered everything from a formula for mixing whitewash for the exterior building walls, to the proper method of cleaning stove pipes, to how to take annual inventory. The thought always kept running through my head: 'If these instructions are so good, why do we need an inspector or district manager to visit the post?'
Over the course of time, circular letters (non-permanent) became more and more rambling, covering two or three pages and including every cliche known to man. The usual ending was this: 'This is for your information and guidance. You will please, therefore, govern yourself accordingly.' In time, the district manager became more foxy. At the end of each circular was a tear-strip which had to be dated and signed by the post manager and returned to district office in the next outgoing mail. It read 'I beg to acknowledge receipt of your circular number...., dated....... and its contents have been read and thoroughly understood.'
Being a charitable man, I could understand that, in the old days, travelling by canoe and dogteam when districts contained twenty or more posts plus camp trades and outposts, it was difficult for a district manager to inspect each post more than once a year. When I was in charge of Grassy Narrows (1935-37), my post was inspected once. At Temagami (1937-41) I had two inspections. Hence the necessity for all the circular letters. In later years, when I wasn't quite so charitable in my thinking, I decided that the circulars were the district managers gift to posterity to show his excellent command of the English language, but I always held the nagging thought that they were an 'out' for the district manager. If a problem arose at a post, he could always point to a circular letter number....dated....in which he had covered the subject thoroughly and, therefore, could not be held responsible for the post manager's wrongdoing.
Individual letters to a post were better but still too long -- usually a page and a half at least. To my mind, one page should be sufficient to instruct a post manager to do this or that. In addition to being too wordy, they invariably concluded with the words 'use your own discretion'. Using his own discretion was what a post manager was paid to do and, in most cases, that was just what he did. So why write a letter telling him to do so?
As a district manager, I cut out a whole lot of the letter writing. One circular letter I sent out annually covered the issue of the fur-buying tariff. When the tariff was given to us by our fur expert, Charles Wilson, he also supplied technical notes explaining any difference in the purchase price for each variety of fur; this information was valuable, not only to me but also to the men on the spot buying the fur.
After informing my post managers that I would be making frequent visits each year, I supplied them with an inspection notebook to remind them of any questions they might wish to bring up. I did the same with my inspection book which I carried with me at all times. 'But remember,' I told them, 'if you run into any unexpected difficulties or have any problems that you think you can't handle yourself, write me or, if necessary, wire me and I'll be at your post within a week.'
I didn't get too many cries for help.
For the most part, I kept my letters short and to the point. Perhaps unconsciously, I aimed them at Jock Mathieson at Beauval with the underlying thought, 'If Jock can understand this, then everyone can.'
Up until my transfer out west in 1941, any letters I received from District Office had always started out, 'Dear Mr Ross'. At Waterways, however, letters began to arrive headed 'Dear Ross' -- an address that I did not like one little bit. Maybe my Scottishness was showing but to me this was an English affection along the lines of the English Public School 'old boy' system. After receiving a few from Bruce Clark headed 'Dear Ross', I addressed my reply, 'Dear Clark'. He got the message very quickly and thereafter I was Mr. Ross again.
As a district manager, I followed the same procedure. In public or in front of his staff, I referred to each post manager as Mr.....and received the same courtesy. The post manager was the Company's representative in each settlement and his dignity had to be maintained.
In the beginning, I had pow-wows with the natives at each post. They all wanted to meet the new Company 'big boss' and size him up. The meetings were formal, with the Chief and his councillors and an interpreter present. As we began to know each other better, the ceremonial aspects faded away. At Brochet, they discussed Bill Garbutt and the tenor of their talk was always 'he is a very strange man and we don't understand him,' followed quickly by 'but we like him and we don't want you to move him away.' I assured them that Bill could stay at Brochet as long as he wished.
The meeting at Portage La Loche was very different. A bunch of locals, headed by one Robbie Fontaine pushed forward insisting that they wanted a meeting with me immediately. I had known Robbie during my years as manager at Waterways when the Portage La Loche natives came down to work for the MacKenzie River Transport. I didn't think too highly of him.
'You're not the Chief here, are you Robbie?' I asked.
'No, he replied, 'but we all want to talk to you.' I invited them into the office and when they wee seated, I noticed that Mr Blackhall was not present and called him in.
'Oh no,' shouted Robbie. 'We don't want him in here. We just want to talk to you. It's him we have to talk about.'
'Robbie, Mr Blackhall is the post manager here. If you want to talk about him, it's only fair that he be present to hear what you are saying.' He stood up belligerently and started to interrupt but I held up my hand for silence. 'How would you like it if the band held a meeting to discuss you and you were kept out?' They grumbled a bit but Robbie backed down into his seat and I went out and invited the manager in.
Robbie made a long, complaining speech -- in English, on which I had insisted, as he was not the Chief of the band. 'Mr Blackhall is a very hard manager to get along with,' shouted Robbie. 'He doesn't treat us right and won't give us any debt.' He looked around at his friends who urged him on with nods and words of encouragement. 'We demand that you send him away and give us another manager that we can get along with.' With that ultimatum, he plunked himself down in his chair.
While I listened attentively to Robbies's ranting, I looked up his record in the customers' record book, and, placing it squarely on the desk where he couldn't help but see his name, I replied, 'What you are really complaining about, Robbie, is that Mr Blackhall will not give you any debt. When I look at the record book, I can understand why. Would you like me to read it out to all your friends here and let them know how often you have been given debt and never paid it?'
The other men leaned forward to get a better look. Carefully avoiding the eyes of his cronies, Robbie blustered that his record was private and wasn't anyone else's business.
'Robbie,' I said, 'you have gone about this thing the wrong way round. If you had told me that Mr Blackhall was a very easy man to get along with and gave you all the debt you wanted, I would move him away tomorrow. Instead, you say that he is a hard man and won't give you any debt. Let me tell you, if I was the post manager here, I would do exactly the same thing. Mr Blackhall will remain at this post as long as he wants.' It was a rather discomfited bunch that shuffled out of the office.