The moving of freight to our Saskatchewan posts was mainly done in the wintertime. All requisitions for a year's supply of merchandise had to be in district office by the end of September. There, the grocery orders were collated by our grocery buyer, Al Doer. This gave us a tremendous price leverage, as he could place an order out for bid of anything up to ten carloads of flour; seven or eight carloads of lard and several of sugar. Our local opposition at the various posts could not hope to compete with our costs as they were forced to purchase through local wholesalers.
For several years, freight for Brochet, Southend and Pelican Narrows was handled by Transport Ltd., The Pas who had a large freighting operation all over the north country.
As soon as weather conditions made travelling on the ice possible, they set out by cat-train, usually in early January. Each train was made up of several cat-swings -- a cat-swing consisting of a big Caterpillar tractor, several high-bunked sleighs covered by tarpaulins, and a caboose where the men ate and slept. It was a slow, difficult job...and cold! The cat drivers worked in four-hour shifts, day and night. The tractor had no cab to shelter the driver from the weather because, if the cat broke through the ice, he had to be able to jump clear immediately. Each cat-swing carried a number of large timber baulks. Many of the larger lakes, Reindeer Lake especially, were subject to pressure ridges -- long ridges of ice up to three feet high caused by air pressure from below -- forcing itself out. In such cases, the walls of ice had to be chopped down and a bridge laid across the crack with the timber baulks. The cat-train usually made the trip to Brochet first, later swinging south at Deep Bay to go to Southend. With the Reindeer River flowing from the south end of Reindeer Lake, the resulting current made the ice take a longer time to freeze to sufficient depth. Freight to Pelican Narrows was handled later on; there were quite a few rivers to cross on the way so the ice took longer to freeze to the required depth. About 1952, Transport Ltd. moved its whole operation to Lynn Lake. They continued to service our stores at Brochet and Southend but put me on to a good man, Johnny Highmoor, a freighter from The Pas who did a great job of handling our Pelican Narrows freight. When I first visited Brochet, I commented on the beautiful flagpole at the post to Bill Garbutt. 'It really is a lovely thing, isn't it?' he said. I tried to stretch my hands around its girth and couldn't. 'You'll never guess where it came from, Hugh, so I'll tell you. It's the mast from the old schooner Brochet. Its been around for a lot of years and I guess she still has a lot of life in her yet.' He gave the flagpole a fond pat.
At one time all freight for Montreal Lake, La Ronge, Stanley, Southend and Brochet was handled out of Prince Albert by a firm called R.D. Brookes. Everything was done by horse-drawn sleigh then. The Brochet freight was warehoused at Southend until summer; then the schooner Brochet went south to pick it up and sailed back to the post, supplying several temporary outposts or 'camp trades' as we used to call them, along the way. Of course there was now a good highway running from Prince Albert to La Ronge paved as far as Waskesiu, and the freight to Montreal Lake and La Ronge was trucked on a weekly basis by Saskatchewan Government Transport which also hauled our Stanley freight as far as La Ronge each fall. From there it was taken by cat-train to Stanley by a local contractor, Henry Heglund, whose wife was the local postmistress.
Up the west side of the province the bulk of our freight, including all the winter annual supplies, was handled by Waite Fisheries Ltd. They employed heavy-duty trucks rather than cat-trains, and travelled a good gravel road right up to Fort Black and then across the ice to Patuanak, Ile-a-la-Crosse, Buffalo Narrows, Dillon and Portage La Loche. The trucks moved in convoy and each truck had a snowplow attached in front to keep a good ice road plowed across the lakes. This was good business for Waite Fisheries; the trucks would be going up to Buffalo Narrows empty anyway to bring back fish. With a good load going both ways, they were able to give us a competitive freight rate. The truck drivers were a hardy breed. They didn't bother about maximum load weights. Broken rear axles were a common occurrence and each truck carried a couple of spares. There was also a weekly truck service from Meadow Lake to Ile-a-la-Crosse operated by the Brander Brothers, Hugh and Leigh. They had a contract to carry the mail on a weekly basis and usually brought in loads of bread, fresh fruit and vegetables and fresh meat. In the winter, they drove straight to Ile-a-la-Crosse and Buffalo Narrows but in the summer they stopped at Fort Black and took the mail and freight by boat to these two points. About five years later, the road was extended from just south of Beauval right up to Buffalo Narrows with a ferry to cross the Narrows in summer.
In the Saskatchewan provincial elections of 1944, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party, under the leadership of T.C. Douglas, swept into power completely ousting the Liberals who had held the reins for a very long time. Many years later, when they became a federal party, the name was changed to the New Democratic Party (NDP). The CCF was completely socialistic and held the view that all natural resources of the province belonged to the people and should be administered by the government for the people. In their view, capitalism was not to be tolerated and therefore, the Hudson's Bay company was high on their list.
I understand that soon after they came to power, they wrote to the Company in Winnipeg offering to buy out our Saskatchewan stores. The offer was gracefully refused by the Managing Director who said, 'We are quite prepared to take our chances against any competition.' I was not much interested in politics but could see that in their four years of being in power, they had done a great deal of good for the northern part of Saskatchewan, the area that interested me most.
In 1946, they took over bus services in the province, made them into a government corporation, the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, and put Bill Bunn in as manager. They organized the commercial fishermen at Reindeer Lake, Wollaston Lake and Snake lake -- which they promptly renamed Pinehouse Lake, for obvious reasons -- into co-operatives marketing the fish under the name Saskatchewan Fish Marketing Service.
In the same year the CCF introduced the Saskatchewan Fur Marketing Service and held their own auction sales in Regina. The plan was for the trappers to turn in their fur, on a voluntary basis, to the local field officer of the Department of Natural Resources who gave them an initial payment of 50 percent of the estimated value, and then forwarded the fur to Regina for sale at auction. Several months later, when the furs were sold and the auction's selling commission was deducted, a final payment, was mailed to the trapper. Although the service was patronized by farmers and part-time southern trappers and by local fur dealers, the native and half-breed trappers in the north turned it hands down. Dealing day-by-day with the native people, we understood how they felt about tomorrow. It might never come. If they were employed weekly, they were paid by the day. They might be dead tomorrow and money wouldn't be any good to them if they could not spend it. So the new CCF Fur Marketing Service was of no use to the northern trappers. They preferred the Company's system of giving them a trapping advance which they paid in full when they traded in their fur. And for the twenty years that the CCF party was in power, the two northern constituencies regularly returned Liberal representatives.
J.L. (Joe) Phelps, Minister of Natural Resources and a rabid socialist simply could not understand their attitude and he regularly criticized what he called 'the Hudson's Bay Company policy of keeping the natives enthralled in debt.' When he lost his seat in the 1948 provincial election, I found his successor J.L. Brockelbank much more understanding and easier to get along with.
In addition to their Fish Marketing Service, the government started is the Saskatchewan Government Trading Company with initial stores at Wollaston Lake and Pinehouse Lake, followed by stores at La Ronge and Stanley. Later on, they went into business on the west side, opening stores at Ile-a-la-Crosse, Buffalo Narrows and Portage La Loche.
The government took over M & C (Mason & Campbell) Aviation Company in 1947. It was a local company providing a flying service to all parts of the north from Prince Albert. Now it was called Saskatchewan Government Airways and they completed a landing strip at La Ronge where they had their main floatbase. An Anson aircraft on wheels flew a regular schedule from Prince Albert to La Ronge, then north to Uranium City. From La Ronge a weekly service operated to Ile-a-la-Crosse, Buffalo Narrows and Portage La Loche. Another weekly schedule went east to Stanley, Pelican narrows and Flin Flon with a twice a month diversion to Southend and Brochet.
It had been the custom for the district manager of Saskatchewan to make a courtesy trip to Regina once a year to pay his respects to the government, so in mid-September, after I had taken my holidays, I decided to make the trip. I went via Prince Albert and Big River to keep an appointment with Len Waite, owner of Waite Fisheries. In Prince Albert I met Floyd Glass, the northern administrator. Part of his job was to act as liaison between the cabinet and, in particular, the Minister of Natural Resources in Regina and the various operations in the north. I liked him right from the start. He was a pilot and flew his government aircraft around the north. In the years ahead, I often hitched a ride with him.
Mr. Glass explained that the weekly load to Ile-a-la-Crosse and Buffalo Narrows was getting bigger and bigger now that they had obtained the post office mail contract. He wanted to put in a landing strip at Buffalo Narrows and Ile-a-la-Crosse so that the trip could be flown by Anson. Buffalo presented no difficulties but the only ground he could find at Ile-a-la-Crosse was partly within Hudson's Bay Company property. Taking out a large-scale map of the area, he showed me the exact proposed site of the strip. It was obvious that only a small part of the Company's land was required but without it, there could be no airstrip.
'Do you think the Company would entertain the idea of selling us this bit of land,' asked Floyd, 'and if so, how much? I need to know rather quickly so I can prepare proper estimates and I would appreciate your assistance very much.'
I studied the map carefully, then said, 'Who owns these vacant properties alongside the Department of Natural Resources office, the Indian Department and the Mounted Police? And this piece at the north end next to the settlement?' Floyd checked it over.
'That's all provincial government land,' he stated emphatically. 'What's running around in that canny Scot's brain of yours?'
'Floyd, maybe we can make a deal that won't cost you any money. We don't have official title to the land at several of our posts. Now...if you are willing to give the Company official title to the lands occupied by our stores at Dillon, Patuanak and Southend, plus this particular lot at Ile-a-la-Crosse, then I think I can arrange for you to have title to that piece of land for your airstrip.' And I sat back and watched the wheels turning in Floyd's head as he pondered my proposal.
'It's a deal,' he announced, pumping my hand strenuously. 'I can't believe it. As easy as that. I was afraid you might try to hold me up for an impossible price.'
'You realize that Winnipeg office will have to approve it first, but it's a good deal for both of us and I don't anticipate any difficulty.'
Mr Chesshire agreed and in the spring of 1950, I had the pleasure of flying from La Ronge to Ile-a-la-Crosse in the first Anson flight on wheels with Rene Baudais, pilot and Lefty MacLeod as co-pilot.
John Ross, the manager of our raw furs department agency in Prince Albert drove me across to Big River, a small town at the end of a branch railway line from Prince Albert and built at the south end of long narrow Cowan Lake. At one time Big River had been a major timber town but now most of the good timber in the area was cut and the local sawmill, not very busy. The main industry was commercial fishing dominated by Waite Fisheries who also owned the local electricity generating plant and half the town besides. I found Mr Waite to be a most able businessman -- he had to be to control this empire -- and very easy to get along with. I often wondered why the government hadn't taken over his fishing business as part of their Fish Marketing Service. Either it was too large for them to swallow or Len had a great deal of political clout, I never asked him. It was none of my business.
The first item for discussion was our freight contract for the coming winter season. Naturally Len wanted an increase in rates and I, just as strongly, wished them to remain the same. Actually the freight deal was of great advantage to him. Without our loads of merchandise going north, his trucks would have run up empty to Buffalo Narrows to collect fish. With our freight, he had a payload both ways all winter. Financially he profited. As each post shipped out a load of fish, it was invoiced to him through our Winnipeg district office -- the price actually paid plus our handling commission of 2 cents per pound. Per contra -- his invoices for our freight were credited to his account as they were received. At the end of each year, there was usually a fair debit balance when we would receive a cheque in full before May 31st, the end of our fiscal year. So, Waite Fisheries was getting large quantities of fish bought and paid for by the Hudson's Bay Company without his having to go to the bank to borrow and pay interest. Conversely, it was also a good deal for us. We got our freight taken in at a lower rate than other stores paid and increased business from fish buying. After some discussion on freight rates, Len laughed and said, 'Okay, same as last year', and from my 'travelling district office bag', I pulled out the contract which I had prepared for his signature.
During the following days we had long discussions about fish. When I told him our expectations for Ile-a-la-Crosse and Patuanak and showed him the figures Bill Watt had prepared, he was quite impressed. 'These,' I emphasized, 'are minimum figures. We believe that we can do much better. There's another lake about thirty miles north of Patuanak called Porter Lake and the natives say that it is full of trout. With a Bombardier, we could develop a nice fresh trout production each spring.'
Len Laughed. 'Go on. Tell me where you are going to get a Bombardier.'
'You're catching on, Len...but I want two Bombardiers, not one. We'll need one at Ile-a-la-Crosse and another at Patuanak.' As I outlined the plan Bill Watt and I had come up with, Len shook his head from side to side, smiling all the while. 'Look,' I said, 'we'll purchase the necessary extra tracks and spare parts and supply the driver and gas. All you have to do is to adjust your tariff for the various types of fish and you'll recover the cost of the Bombardiers in a couple of years.'
'You certainly aren't asking for much,' he said. 'Do you know what Bombardiers cost?'
'Len, I know they're expensive but check our figures and you'll find that it will pay you and us in the end.' After talking backwards and forwards for some time, he said, 'It's too late to do anything this year. I've already bought two new machines for my Buffalo Narrows plant.' He glanced down at the sheets again. 'Give me a couple of weeks to check your figures...and if your proposition still looks as good as it does on paper, I'll give you two Bombardiers next year.'
He was as good as his word. In the fall of 1949, new Bombardiers were shipped to Ile-a-la-Crosse and Patuanak and we were into the commercial fishing business in a big way. We hired local drivers who knew the country and the people thoroughly. They had to pass a test for a driver's license at Ile-a-la-Crosse. One interesting note is that the RCMP insisted that the Bombardiers must be licensed even though they were driven only on lakes and portages, not on the highway. 'Wherever you drive automatically becomes the 'King's Highway',' Pete Nightingale ruled. Fortunately the fish prices kept up and we both benefited greatly in the years to come. Len drove me back to Prince Albert and from there, I flew down to Regina.
My first visit was to Mr Bill Bunn, general manager of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company. They handled our freight from Prince Albert to Montreal Lake and to La Ronge. bill was a complete extrovert who always enjoyed the good things of life. He had been a commercial air pilot and was very proud of the low number on his commercial pilot's certificate. Our business didn't take long and our freight contract for the upcoming year was renewed. 'When you have finished your visitations,' he said, 'come back and see me before you leave.'
I had a short interview with the Premier, Tommy Douglas. The conversation was general and we did not touch on politics at all.
Next I went to see Mr Brockelbank, the minister of Natural Resources. New to this portfolio, he couldn't understand why the northern people were loath to accept his government's fish and fur marketing services and mentioned extending the number of government trading stores. I tried to explain to him the Company's position. Contrary to rumours, we did not over charge our customers, we kept our prices as reasonable as possible, we welcomed which gave the customers a chance to shop and compare prices, and we were quite prepared to meet competition from any stores -- government or otherwise. If we failed then it was our fault and the Company post would deserve to close. Mr. Brockelbank listened courteously to me but said he as not completely convinced and would be checking the whole set-up carefully.
I liked him very much. He was a most capable man. easy to get along with and prepared to hear the other side of any argument.
Mr E. 'Ernie' Paynter, the Provincial Game Commissioner, was next on my list of calls. He was easy-going in a general way, but woe betide anyone who dared to break his game laws. I don't think even his own grandmother would have been exempt. Part of his job was to supervise fisheries biologists who regularly tested all lakes being commercially fished. Each year, they set summer and winter quotas for different fish species in each lake. We became good friends and I always found him very fair-minded. He allowed me the privilege of purchasing a residents' fishing and gamebird license. As he said, 'You spend more damn time in Saskatchewan than you spend in Manitoba' -- a fact occasionally noted by my wife.
On completion of my rounds, I returned to Bill Bunn's home as requested. 'Are you a football fan?' he asked. When I replied in the affirmative, he said, 'Well, next year make sure that your visit to Regina is over Labour Day.' Labour Day in Regina was when and where the annual football game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers was played. 'We'll take in the game together and then you will stay with me at my cottage at Last Mountain Lake.' This Labour Day visit to Regina became a tradition.
On my return to Winnipeg, Mr Chesshire called me into his office.
'We are promoting Doug Johnson from Buffalo Narrows to take charge of Churchill,' he announced, 'which leaves me with a problem. All the summer holidays are finished and all planned transfers made so we don't have anyone here to take Johnson's place.' He stopped, rubbed his brow as if he had a headache and continued. 'Actually we do have one man here but he's not capable of handling a post as big as Buffalo Narrows.' As he talked about his predicament, my mind was running over the possibilities so when he said, 'Johnson has to be in Churchill as soon as possible. Have you any suggestions for a replacement?' I was able to give him an answer.
'Bob Middleton from Stanley can handled Buffalo Narrows and I'll promote young Jim Kirk from Patuanak to Stanley. If the man you have available can handle Patuanak which isn't too large a post, then I can get things going at once.' And I hurried back to my office and started sending telegrams in all directions. That afternoon, I met R.B. 'Bob' Urquhart who had been doing relief jobs all summer and now was heading for Patuanak. He had never done any commercial buying of fish and he confided to me that he was a bit worried. I thought about it a minute. 'We can fix that, I think. Young Carl Shappert has been at Ile-a-la-Crosse for the past year and has had a winter's fish buying experience. I'll exchange the clerk at Patuanak and Carl can be your assistant.' That evening Bob Urquhart left Winnipeg for his new posting.
It had been quite apparent to me that Doug Johnson was ready for bigger things but I hadn't imagined that his transfer would take place so soon. In any event, he did a first class job at Churchill and eventually ended up as District Manager in Central Line District.
Next day, Mr Chesshire called me into his office again. 'Ross, I've just read your annual report and frankly, I don't think very much of it.'
As our year-end was May 31st and I had only been in charge of the district for one month, my annual report had been, of necessity, very sketchy. I started to explain this to Mr. Chesshire. 'I understand that,' he interrupted, 'but it is your merchandising that I am worried about. You state here that your stocks in the district are in good condition. Is that true?'
'That is what I have been led to believe,' I replied.
'Well, they are not. For the whole district, they work out at 80 percent current stock and 20 percent one year or even older. This just isn't good enough,' he pointed out emphatically. 'In a district like Saskatchewan, I expect the stock to be 90 percent current, just as I expect from a line district.' He looked up at me and said, 'What are you going to do about it?'
'I have already gone over the stocks at each post in the district and, in certain cases, have taken writedowns,' I replied. Then I asked him, 'Have the annual accounts for Saskatchewan for the last year been finally completed yet?'
'No, not yet. Why do you ask?'
'Well, Mr Chesshire, if you think that there is too much old stock on hand at the end of last year, then last year should bear the responsibility. I would like to go over each annual inventory and take the necessary depreciation before the accounts are completed.' I thought this a reasonable request, but nevertheless, I held my breath.
With the glint of a smile in his eyes, he said, 'All right, that sounds reasonable. See the district accountant and arrange it, but do it quickly.' For the rest of the week, I was busy going over inventory sheets with a sharp blue pencil, the results of which met with Mr Chesshire's approval.
Having completed that, I spent some time in checking over the annual requisitions received from the posts for the winter shipments. I remembered Bill Garbutt's complaints about the lack of colour in print goods, checked at other posts and found his opinion confirmed so I went to see Len Coote, manager of the drygoods section in the Winnipeg Depot. He sympathized with my predicament and showed me his stocks on hand. 'See for yourself,' he said. 'These are all ordered by the drygoods buyer and shipped from Montreal. We just don't get any bright printed material anymore.'
'Somebody must make it, Len. Isn't there any place in Winnipeg that we can get it?' I asked.
'Oh, I suppose so but we'll have to get the head buyer's consent first,' he warned.
'You know that old saying about "forewarned is forearmed". Let's just go and have a look first and see what we can find.' We spent the whole afternoon in the Winnipeg wholesale district and eventually found a supplier who had just the type of print we wanted. When we returned to the depot with some samples, the head buyer was not amused. 'Our prints are all ordered from the mills in the east by people who know their business. For your information, pastel colours are the latest thing and that's what the white trade wants and buys.'
'I quite agree with you. The white trade will buy these goods, but you try selling pastel prints to a Chipewyan woman at Brochet or Portage La Loche. And remember, most of our customers are native people.'
'But, if you buy materials locally, they'll cost you two or three cents a yard more,' said the baffled buyer.
'Look, you know your business. The buyers in Montreal know their business. But none of you know our customers. Two or three cents a yard more doesn't interest me too much. All I want to do is get merchandise that my customers want and are willing to buy. Whether it comes from Montreal or Winnipeg doesn't matter a damn to the women buying the goods. The design and colours do. Now, do I get my prints?' Reluctantly, he gave in and allowed me to have Len Coote place all my print orders with the Winnipeg supply house. And the Indian women snapped them up.
In October, I made a quick trip to Stanley, Patuanak and Buffalo Narrows to check that the new managers had settled in. Doug Johnson had already gone to Churchill and Bob Middleton was well established at Buffalo Narrows. Bob Urquhart and Jim Kirk were just completing the change of management inventory at Patuanak and Jim would be leaving for Stanley in a couple of days. The apprentice clerk at Stanley had been left temporarily in charge. On my way south, I took an inspection inventory at Beauval and Green Lake and then went on to Prince Albert.