HBC Montage.

Office Manager

Logo. Logo.

The winter of 1955-56 was extremely mild, with lots of snow in the northeast side of the province Winter freight to Brochet and Southend was very late in being delivered. The ice was totally unpredictable that year; an aircraft owned by Hank Parsons of Parsons Airways in The Pas flew into Pelican Narrows and the pilot parked his plane in front of the store overnight. When he came out the next morning, it was gone. It had sunk through the ice. Mechanics flew in, raised it and, after overhauling the motor, flew it out again. The ice at the south end of Reindeer Lake takes a long time to freeze over solidly enough to carry cat-swings, as the whole lake narrows flows out to the Reindeer River and there is always a strong current. Flying down from Brochet which had finally received its annual supplies, I noticed that there were no cat-swing tracks leading to Southend. The post was running short of several basic food lines. I wired La Ronge to fly in several Norseman loads of lard, tea and other supplies to tide Southend over until their annual cat-swing arrived a couple of weeks later. Bill Cobb (left) with Store Manager Bill Garbutt. Bill Cobb (left) with store manager Bill Garbutt.
Photo courtesy Rosemary Gilliat.
Pelican Narrows had a different problem. There were several swift-flowing rivers between the post and The Pas and Johnny Highmoor, our freighter, could not get through. He tried breaking new roads to the north of the regular route but always ran up against an insurmountable obstacle - open water. In the end, he gave up completely and I couldn't blame him. Fortunately, Pelican Narrows was well stocked and didn't run short of any supplies. As soon as open water came, I chartered a Canso aircraft from Lamb Airways in The Pas to fly in our freight. The pilot of the Canso wasn't too pleased. It was a short hop of one hundred miles or so from The Pas to Pelican Narrows and he complained that no sooner had he taken off and gained altitude than it was time to land again. He much preferred his regular run of long-distance trips with supplies to points on the Dew line.

We got all our supplies in eventually. As soon as the aircraft beached on the sandy bay in front of the store, a crowd of natives were waiting to unload and carry the freight up to the warehouse. Even kerosene and gasoline were brought in the outer wing tanks of the plane and transferred by a pump to empty barrels at the post.

The fly-in operation was very expensive, but in conformance with Company policy, the increased costs were not passed on to the customers. Goods were priced at the basic winter freight rate and the excess air freight costs were charged against post operating expenses for the year.

I spent the whole time at Pelican Narrows supervising the operation. I thought it would be too much for David La Riviere to handle alone. David was having a difficult time of it as a post manager. He had a feeling that, because he was a half-breed, he was not fully accepted by the white population - the school teachers, nurses, the DNR officer and the sub-Indian agent. He believed that even his native customers were unwilling to accept his position as the store manager. On top of that, he was having trouble with his books and couldn't get them to balance. It took me several days to check them all over for the previous two months and rectify the errors. All in all, David felt that he was not able to handle the management of a post and asked if I would transfer him back to being an assistant at Green Lake. I agreed and within a month he was replaced by Bev Lacelle, a younger manager from another district.

In December 1955, Mr Ritchie Calder, C.B.E.. a well-known Scottish author made a trip through our posts in Saskatchewan before going to Arctic Canada, gathering material for a book. His previous books included:

Men Against the Desert.

Men Against the Jungle.

and his forthcoming book was to be entitled: Men Against the Frozen North.

The arrangements for his trip had been made through the Winnipeg office. When I met him at La Ronge he was accompanied by Bill Cobb and Rosemary Gilliat, a photographer from Ottawa. Cliff Labey piloted the Saskatchewan Government Airways Beaver.

Going up the west side of the province first, we ran into foul weather and were delayed by snowstorms for three days at Portage la Loche. I felt sorry for Mrs Roy Simpson. She was stuck with preparing food for five more people, in addition to her husband and a clerk, for three days but she responded magnificently.

When we got down to Buffalo Narrows I had a raging fever and flu and Mrs Preweda promptly got me bedded down and called in the local nurse. Between the nurse shooting me full of antibiotics and Mrs Preweda's ministrations, I recovered after six days. The rest of the party had gone on with their trip which I really didn't mind. I found Mr Calder boring and rather full of his own self-importance.

The Fur Trade Department was divided into four different types of posts: the arctic posts, catering to the Eskimo; the inland posts with exclusively Indian trade; and the line posts which were a mixture of both native and white trade; and the line posts - so-called because they were on the railway line and catered almost exclusively to white trade.

But there was an additional division called, at various times, Small Stores, Interior Stores and finally, Bay Stores. Since World War II, the Bay Stores Division had been expanding rapidly due to the Company's policy of opening stores in mining and lumbering towns and taking over stores from the Abitibi Timber Company and the Manitoba Hydro Company. So the Bay Stores Division was demanding more and more attention.

Finally, in January 1953, Hugh Sutherland was appointed Assistant General Manager, Fur Trade Department and from then on, to all intents and purposes, he was in charge of the Fur Trade while Mr Chesshire devoted his attention to the Bay Stores.

Hugh Sutherland had joined the Company as a trainee accountant in the Canadian Committee office in January 1940; later that year he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.

In January 1946, he returned from the service with the rank of Wing Commander and rejoined the Company as an accountant with the Fur Trade Department. In November 1947, he was appointed Controller. From 1954 to 1956, he was in Montreal in charge of the Department's eastern operation. Returning to Winnipeg in 1956, he was later appointed General Manager, Fur Trade Department in 1958. Mr Chesshire became General Manager, Bay Stores Department.

Hugh Sutherland made a point of inspecting all Fur Trade districts and in the early spring of 1957, accompanied by Charles Wilson and myself, made a trip through Saskatchewan District in the Company's Beaver, piloted by Art Atkinson. We flew via The Pas to Brochet and worked our way west from there. Everything went well until we got to the west side. The winter there had been mild and freight was late being delivered.

H.W. Sutherland with P.A.C. Nichols, 1962.
H.W. Sutherland (left) with P.A.C. Nichols, manager
Eastern Arctic District, at Povungnetuk 1962.
Photograph R. Phillips.

At Patuanak, the freight had just arrived and was all piled neatly in the warehouse waiting for the dry goods and hardware to be opened and marked. When we got to Dillon, the store was in shambles.

Sangster Jessiman, the manager, and his clerk were busy opening hardware cartons and the floor was littered with excelsior, metal strapping and empty cartons, and the counters were piled with pots, pans, and kettles waiting to be marked.

'My God,' exclaimed Mr Sutherland. 'I've never seen a mess like this in all my life.' The manager hastened to explain that his winter freight had just arrived and he was in the last stages of unpacking and marking his new supplies.

'Let me see your warehouse,' growled Mr Sutherland. So we all trooped out to the warehouse with me bringing up the rear, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Lo and behold! The warehouse was as neat and tidy as a new penny. All the flour, sugar and cases of groceries were piled high in neat rows with each case neatly marked with the outfit (year), cost in code and the selling price.

Mr Sutherland started to grin. 'You can thank your lucky stars, Sangster,' he said. 'If this warehouse had been in as bad shape as your store, I would have kicked you right up the backside. Now, if you could only get us a cup of coffee, we'll be on our way and leave you to get on with your work.' With that, he congratulated the post manager and slapped him on the back.

At Ile-a-la-Crosse, the last post to be visited in the district, Mr Sutherland took me to one side. 'We are flying straight from here to Winnipeg,' he said, 'but I think you had better go up to Patuanak and spend a few days helping out the post manager with his stock marking.' Then he added, 'By the way, as soon as you return to Winnipeg, I want to see you in my office.'

'Now what does that mean?' I wondered. But I waved goodbye and went on up to Patuanak by Bombardier, although I knew that everything would have already been made shipshape there and my services not needed.

It was with some trepidation that I went into Mr Sutherland's office for my appointment when I returned to Winnipeg. 'I have now inspected every district in the fur trade department. Your district was the last one.' He paused and I waited. 'I must say, Hugh, that never in any district have I found the staff morale as high as in Saskatchewan. To show my appreciation, I have a small cheque for you.' He handed me a cheque for $500.

I've often wondered if he knew just how high a compliment he was paying me and I thought to myself, 'Boy, if you make the same impression on all the other post managers and their wives as you did in Saskatchewan, you will have the fur trade department eating out of your hand.'

Hugh Sutherland went on to higher things. He became President of the Rupertsland Trading Company in 1963, and in October 1964 was promoted to Deputy Managing Director, Hudson's Bay Company. He also held the positions of Director of the Company; Chairman of the Board, Hudson's Bay and Anning's Fur Sales, London, England; and Chairman of the board, Hudson's Bay Wine and Spirits Company. He retired on February 1, 1976.

For the past year or so, I had been having medical troubles and regularly consulted the Company's doctor, Ian MacLean. In spite of all the pills, I was given - pills designed to calm me down or to pep me up - I was feeling no better. I'm afraid I snapped at Bea and the kids at home and was not the most pleasant man to live with. Finally, Dr MacLean said, 'Hugh, you are either going to have ulcers or a nervous breakdown if you don't change your job.' I was shocked. I knew that having the responsibility of staff and their families in my district was a great strain sometimes and that I was guilty of taking my worries home with me, but it never occurred to me to give up my position as District Manager.

'Let me go home and talk it over with my wife and I'll get back to you.' That night after the kids were in bed, Bea and I discussed the situation. 'I can't give up my job,' I said. 'It will probably mean going back to manage one of the bigger line posts. That's the most I can hope for. After all these years, it will be a step backwards.

'Hugh you don't realize what the children and I have been putting up with for the past two years,' said Bea. 'It's like living with a wounded bear, You're hardly ever home. The kids don't see you enough and neither do I. And when you are home, you're worrying about the posts. The only time I get out of the house is to Girl Guide meetings. We have no social life and quite frankly, I think you should do what the doctor says.' She sat down and started to cry.

Next day, I asked Dr MacLean to give me the necessary certificate and I wrote a letter to the General Manager. It had to go through the usual channels, which meant via the divisional manager and the personnel manager, requesting a change of job. Days and weeks went by and I had no reply. I was getting frustrated. Finally, Bea suggested I go directly to Mr Sutherland and talk to him about it. I made an appointment and explained my predicament to the boss. He listened intently and when I'd finished, he said, I haven't seen your letter, Hugh. Let me check on it and I'll call you.' I felt much better now that Mr Sutherland had all the details. Later, he called me in and my letter was lying in front of him.

'First, let me assure you that I have not seen this letter until today.' He was most sympathetic. He mentioned the burning of the La Ronge store, the loss of John Marshall, and later of the Woodard family.

' I have no thought of sending you back to a post,' he said. 'You can do better than that. But you do realize that I can't pick a job for you out of thin air. It will take a little time. Do you think you can hang on a bit longer until I see what turns up?'

Now that I knew something would be done, I told him I could wait for as long as it took.

It was late in July before he called me. 'I've been giving your request some serious thought,' he said, 'and I have an idea. Our general office is in bad shape. It's dreary and very out of date. Miss Boyle, the office supervisor is retiring on September 15th and I would like to replace her with an office manager. Do you think you can handle the job?'

' I certainly do.' This was great. Now I could be home every night and enjoy my family again.

I made my last trip around Saskatchewan District at the end of July 1957, accompanied by Jim Glass, formerly manager of Manitoba District who was taking over from me. During the nine plus years, I had been in charge, the overall sales in Saskatchewan District had increased every year and, at the same time, the 30 per cent overall gross profit required by Mr Chesshire had been maintained. It was a gratifying performance, entirely due to the hard work of my post managers. They were a grand bunch of men. Of course, they benefited by receiving well-earned bonuses but I also benefited. The first two years, I received 10 per cent of my gross annual salary; the next year - 121/2 per cent; the third year - 15 per cent; the following two years - 20 per cent and the final two years - 25 percent...the largest bonus amounting to $1600. The only year no bonus was paid was that in which we bought beaver for the first time in years.

The Company's policy required that a substantial depreciation be taken on all furs on hand at the end of each fiscal year. This was to guard against any future drops in the fur market before the pelts were actually sold. In that particular year, we had brought so many beaver during the last month that the required depreciation practically offset any profit I had gained on the furs already sold. This was a wise regulation, as the fur market fluctuates rapidly and can drop drastically within a few months.

The family and I took a well-earned motoring holiday and I reported for work as office manager on 17 September, 1957.

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