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The Saskatchewan Government Takes Wing

Aircraft Line.

A new government came to power in 1944 and was to change the direction of northern development and northern aviation. The devastation of the Dirty Thirties had prompted the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) to attempt to solve Saskatchewan's age-old problem of a single-resource, boom-and-bust economy. T.C. Douglas and his CCF party won power in the 1944 election on a platform that called for social ownership of natural resources. The government planned economic development of those resources to diversify and expand the economy while providing revenue for an expanded social welfare system. This meant opening the north.

The northern treasure chest held a wealth of fish, furs, lumber, and minerals. The lack of roads or waterways into the area had, however, turned all but the hardiest resource developers away. The government pressed for completion of the road to Lac La Ronge, and the contract was awarded in July 1945. Crews worked day and night through the next summer. Draglines dug up kilometres of muskeg and peat to lay the sand and gravel roadbed, and the last metre of the road to the Montreal River bridge was made passable at noon, October 16, 1946. The road would prove to be an important factor in northern Saskatchewan's development.

Aircraft and pilots were also vital to the success of the new government's scheme. With the end of the war in sight, the #6 Elementary Flying Training School had closed down, and there were plenty of pilots and airplanes from which to choose. When word went out that the province was looking for a pilot, Floyd Glass, just released from the Flying Training School, responded:

I went down to Regina and had an interview with the Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Phelps. There were five or six of us being interviewed and Mr Phelps phoned me the next morning and said, "You've got the job." I was employed to do natural resources work [which] got involved with fisheries work and testing of the lakes to see how effective the fish were in different places.

The government had purchased M&C's Waco CF-AYQ for passenger transportation and light hauling in January 1945. Next, it sought smaller airplanes for forestry and fishery work. The provincial government approached the federal War Assets Corporation about the hundreds of Tiger Moth trainers that were left when the flying schools closed. By May 1945, Saskatchewan acquired two Tiger Moths and hired H.C. Paul, a former military pilot, to fly them.

Other pilots who flew for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) flight program included Lefty McLeod, Stu Millar, Fred McClellan, and, of course, Floyd Glass. Lefty McLeod and Stu Millar had taught flying with Floyd Glass at the Elementary Flying School in Prince Albert during the war.

Saskatchewan Government Airways' De Havilland Fox Moth CF-SAL.

Saskatchewan Government Airways' De Havilland Fox Moth CF-SAL.
Three passengers could be carried in the cabin ahead of the wings,
while the pilot sat up in the cockpit behind.

Photograph courtesy of Ray Crone.

The DNR flight program divided the north into eastern and western halves. McLeod served the west side of the province and McClellan served the east, with Lac La Ronge the connecting point between east and west. Glass and Millar worked out of Prince Albert. McLeod describes the work as "a little bit of everything. We carried a briefcase, that weighed about 20 pounds (about 9 kilograms), full of various forms like burning permits, net permits, sawmill permits - permits for everything." They surveyed timber in the Big River area, serviced conservation officer stations and fire towers, and patrolled for fires, while Fisheries Branch used them to carry on lake research.

The Douglas government wanted to do much more than just conserve resources, however. Only half of the northern third of Saskatchewan, some 230,000 square kilometres of pre-Cambrian Shield, had been geologically mapped. Phelps believed prospecting was "the weakest link in the mineral development of the area. The situation regarding prospecting is more acute than in other parts of Canada. Northern Saskatchewan is difficult prospecting country. The short season and the lack of transportation facilities add to the difficulties of the individual prospector." To encourage them, prospectors were transported free into the north and, "serviced by the government's airplane at monthly intervals, at which time food supplies will be brought in and samples were taken out for assay. A government geologist will accompany the plane to visit the prospecting areas and confer and advise the prospectors. Prospectors must supply their own equipment and food supplies." Prospectors would literally get a free ride.

With the government's program for northern development in full swing, the need for a communications system was greater than ever. In 1946, the Department of Natural Resources began to design and manufacture radios for their aircraft and ground personnel. The radio sets were primarily intended to make forest fire suppression more efficient, but the radio also proved useful to DNR administrators and for emergency use.

M&C Aviation's aircraft on the river at Prince Albert.

M&C Aviation's aircraft on the river at Prince Albert in 1946,
with a visiting Fairchild Husky on the right.
Photograph courtesy of Ray Crone.

The sets carried by the government aircraft were all built in the radio shop off the DNR hangar in Prince Albert. Ron Hook, the radio engineer, was able to build sets to operate on the Department of Transport allotted frequency more cheaply than they could be purchased. Radio communications were important to the government's plans for expansion of services to northern people and northern resource development.

The government was in a hurry to develop northern resources. In two years the province put ten airplanes into service - more than twice M&C's fleet - and was intent on more.

There was no doubt that the Air Division of the DNR was cutting into M&C's business. The government was flying at lower than commercial rates. Government airplanes freighted medical supplies and building supplies for schools and fish processing plants into the north, returning with fur and fish. They ferried in government administrators and personnel, doctors, nurses, and teachers. They provided medical transport and made mercy flights. The federal Indian Affairs department contracted them to conduct all medical flights for treaty Indians, an essential. part of M&C's business until 1945. Furthermore, DNR pilots were instructed, "If anybody was going our way we could pick them up and take them with us. If somebody wanted an outboard motor fixed you brought it out for him and got it fixed and took it back in to him if you were going that way."

M&C tried to keep two Norseman aircraft and two Wacos flying, but on some days during the first half' of 1947, they had no flights at all. The only pilot that stayed for any length of time was Rene Baudais. Not only was the province making flights that had traditionally been M&C's, but it also had money to buy airplanes from War Assets at bargain rates. Tiger Moths that cost $7,000 were sold for as little as $450; a Norseman originally priced at $38,000 was sold for just $15,000.

Natural Resources Minister Phelps warned the Air Transport Board October 7, 1946, in Saskatoon, "if companies who may in the future be granted charters to operate in the North are not prepared to exercise their franchise to the fullest possible extent and give adequate service to the people of the North, then we find it necessary to apply for a straight commercial licence sooner than had otherwise been intended." M&C countered that "under the present economic conditions and the development of northern Saskatchewan, as it is now and in the next few years, there is in this territory only sufficient air transportation business to support one licenced operator. To issue licences to more than one company would be to invite a financial deficit for all."

At this time Floyd Glass was piloting Premier Douglas and Phelps, the DNR minister, around the north so they could get an idea of the problems the north faced. Glass, of course, had been covering the north. and certainly had a better feel for what was going on. Glass recalled:

In 1947, Mr Phelps and Tommy Douglas called me down to Regina. They said, "What has to be done to get things moving in the north?" I said, "One of the first things that have to be done is there's got to be an air service up there."

A scheduled service was needed that reached every northern settlement and village. M&C was only flying as far as Stanley Mission and La Loche. In the government's estimation, M&C was just hanging on financially and was probably in no position to develop an expanded service. Douglas and Phelps challenged Glass to come up with a transportation plan.

The plan he developed called for scheduled service to Lac La Ronge three times a week plus two wide-reaching circular routes that covered most of the main communities in northern Saskatchewan. Of course, being a scheduled service, it would require federal licencing. Glass travelled to Ottawa and presented the plan to C.D. Howe, the Liberal transport minister. Glass recalled:

We had lots of frank talks about the air business and I presented the plan I had. He said, "Look, young man, that looks like a pretty good plan. You go back and you tell that so-and-so government back there that they've got a licence to go ahead but they've gotta buy out M&C Aviation to get them out of the way." He could see a conflict there and M&C losing out what little they had left. It was a practical decision on what was best for air service. It was straight business. That was my impression.

Now all Glass had to do was wait for the actual approval from the Air Transport Board. Then the province could start dealing with M&C.

Glass knew the M&C people very well, and it was his job to strike a deal for the government. Mayson was in England for a year on a combined pleasure and business trip to market the shock-absorbing ski pedestal. Wilf Perry, the company treasurer, was in charge at M&C. The province was working from strength, operating ten aircraft (three Norseman aircraft, four Tiger Moths, a Mark V Anson, a Waco, and a Fox Moth) and had recently added two more.

On June 30, 1947, Phelps and Glass met with the M&C representatives. Phelps stated that M&C admitted it was in no position to meet the province's desire to expand transportation to the main. northern settlements. He reminded them, too, that the province was not asking or insisting that M&C withdraw from operations. In fact, he believed there was room for both of them, conceding that M&C "might continue to operate, such as your commercial overhaul, repair and service, as well as the continuation of the manufacture under the patents, which you now hold, together with any charter flying you are prepared and equipped to do."

Saskatchewan Government Airways aircraft.

Saskatchewan Government Airways aircraft in front of the hangar at Prince Albert airport
in the winter of 1946-47. From left: Waco CF-KZU, Tiger Moth CF-SAF, Norseman CF-SAM,
Fox Moth CF-SAL, and Stinson Voyageur CF-EXM.

Photograph courtesy of Bill Horley, Ray Crone Collection.

The only conflict with the government's proposed route, according to Phelps, was M&C's Ile a la Crosse to La Loche flight. Perry responded by saying: "We are definitely of the opinion that there is only room for one series of licenced flying operations in this area, even taking into account such reasonable expansion as may be expected in the next few years."

Perry, of course, maintained telephone and letter contact with Mayson, still in. England. Perry admitted to Mayson that M&C's price of $144,000 was high, but he said the government insisted "on reducing any figure you say as evidence of their skill as a horse trader. You can be sure that our figures will be cut down considerably when an answer comes back from Mr Phelps... We have allowed for this and are expecting it."

Within ten days, hardly before Mayson could respond to the letter, an accident would force both sides to come to a quick agreement. Four of the province's 13 airplanes and a hangar were destroyed by fire at Prince Albert.

The hangar had been built by the Department of Munitions and Supply in 1940 to house M&C's overhaul, operations on war-time trainer aircraft. The fire which destroyed the hangar started in the early morning of August 1, 1947. Alex Kilday, a Caterpillar "cat-train" freighter and welder, was the first to awaken. and raise the alarm. He ran to the phone and called the fire department. Kilday later reported, in an official statement:

I got a couple of the fellows and [we] went around to the other side of the hangar to see if we could save any of the aircraft. We broke into the hangar, prying back the door nearest the office. I told the two other boys to open the hangar doors [and] I would try and get the Anson twin-engine aircraft out. I pushed the Anson about three feet (about 1 metre). The fire was getting worse. One of the aircraft was on fire, half of the wing burning.

Allan Quandt, assistant to Floyd Glass, and others made several attempts to enter the hangar and move the Anson, but entry was impossible.

There were two big explosions. Then the fire department pulled in, followed by Stu Millar, one of the pilots. The firemen immediately had trouble with their new "instant coupling" hoses. The airport still had the old-style "screw-thread" hydrants. After losing ten minutes trying to hook up they realized there was no use trying to save the hangar. Flames were shooting about 90 metres into the air. They went to work preventing the fire from spreading to the caretaker's home and other surrounding buildings.

Millar and the others tried to save what they could. Millar testified:

I arrived at the airport ... and nearly the whole building was in flames. The front doors were still standing and the lean-to on the south side of the hangar was burning fiercely... I could see flames coming against the window of the Radio Room but I thought I could save some of the office supplies or equipment. The windows all around the office were blackened and hot. Using an iron bar I smashed in the window, hoping to gain entry. The heat was so terrific that the oxygen supplied by the breaking of the window caused the entire office to burst immediately into flame. When daylight came people could see the ruins in full view. The building was a total loss.

Fortunately, only four of the province's airplanes were in the hangar: an Anson with a large aerial camera, two Tiger Moths and a Norseman, all obtained from the War Assets Corporation. Luckily, the aerial photos and related records took over the past year had been shipped to Regina just the week before.

Saskatchewan Government Airways hangar fire.

The Saskatchewan Government Airways hangar at
Prince Albert burning to the ground on August 1, 1947.
Photograph courtesy of Mineola Pool, Ray Crone Collection.

The greatest loss was not the aircraft or even the building, but the radio equipment. A good radio communications network was vital in opening the north. Luckily, the building content insurance had just been increased, and the loss was well covered.

When he came up to view the ashes of the Air Division and radio service, Phelps met with representatives of M&C. He not only needed their airplanes but their radio equipment, maintenance and overhaul shop, and hangar.

The minister presented an agreement to Cabinet in Regina, and they approved a formal offer of $115,000 for the assets agreed upon, including the patents for Aircraft Skis Limited. In return, M&C would relinquish all flying rights and agree not to engage in commercial air transportation for ten years. The Saskatchewan government was in the airline business.

Dick Mayson was pleased that most of the staff of M&C continued. with the Department of Natural Resources, serving many of M&C's old friends and customers across the north. Rene Baudais was hired as a pilot, and John Pool continued as an aircraft engineer and shop superintendent. And with that, the propellers of M&C stopped for the last time after almost two decades of flying history.

On August 15, 1947, the province created a new Crown corporation, Saskatchewan Government Airways, and the next day held the first meeting of the board. Floyd Glass was chosen as general manager. Northerners saw very little change. Saskatchewan Government Airways flew M&C's schedule the very day the Crown corporation was formed. There was no interruption in mail service and all. original agreements with M&C were fulfilled.

Glass and Phelps discussed the new air service in a radio interview. Phelps explained:

It's another step in our programme to utilize the province's wealth lying `north of 54' - our fishing, furs, timber, and mining industries. Development in remote areas, such as those lying north of Prince Albert, is impossible without the aeroplane. A large portion of the north has lacked adequate transportation facilities ... the new airlines will cover every important settlement, and provide - for the first time - a first-rate service for all groups, both private enterprise and government departments, engaged in development work.

Glass added that a large part of the flying would be northern development work which they had been. providing for the last two years. Another service would be an air ambulance. He continued, "We co-operate with the air ambulance service in Regina. They handle mercy flights roughly south of Prince Albert, and we'll do the northern work."

Saskatchewan Government Airways' first office.

Saskatchewan Government Airways' first office and warehouse at
Uranium City was in this shack-tent at Martin Lake in 1951.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.

Saskatchewan Government Airways was essential to Premier Douglas's conservation plan for northern Saskatchewan. From the moment it took office, the government was involved in the conservation of renewable resources. It set up local councils or co-operatives of fishermen and trappers to regulate the harvests of fish and furs. Since it took office, the government had been regulating the trapping of beaver because of over-trapping and poaching. The very first Crown. corporation the provincial government set up was the Saskatchewan Fur Marketing Board. The government was also considering taking over existing fish filleting plants and creating a fish marketing board. The fisheries people thought that with proper management commercial fishing could continue through the summer without damaging the stock. Northern fish livers were being tested for oil quality, and it seemed at the time that there could be a market for northern fish liver oil.

That Saskatchewan's new government was serious about conservation and development was apparent when it established a royal commission on forestry, which made several recommendations in 1946. Fire patrols and fire fighting efforts were increased. The timber industry was increasingly regulated, and the Saskatchewan Timber Board was set up. The role of the Northern Conservation Service within the Department of Natural Resources was greatly expanded and took flight.

At first, the use of airplanes for the Northern Conservation Service was expensive. The airplane and pilot either waited while the conservation business was being conducted or returned later to pick up the officer. The solution was to hire a few conservation officers who were also pilots. The airplanes would be leased from Saskatchewan Government Airways (SGA) but would be flown by the conservation officer to conduct his day-to-day operations.

The First airplanes to be leased from SGA were four Tiger Moths: CF-CKK, CF-CKO, CF-SAG, and CF-SAJ. They were not the most practical because they were a biplane, so the pilot's downward view was restricted. As well, on floats, they were difficult to dock. But they did have the advantage of being smaller and cheaper to operate than the big Norseman airplanes. The Tiger Moths seated two, though officers often flew alone.

An engine change on SGA's de Havilland Beaver CF-SAU.

An engine change on SGA's de Havilland Beaver CF-SAU in January 1951
at Martin Lake. John Finch and his team used a wood-burning
airtight heater under the engine tent while changing engines.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.

Airplanes were stationed at Hudson Bay, Prince Albert, Meadow Lake, and La Ronge. If a conservation officer needed an airplane in his area, he would simply arrange the flight with the local conservation. officer pilot and they would fly the trip.

Conservation officers now had the flexibility of being able to make their own schedules for better enforcement and more efficient administration. Fur, game, and fish poachers could be scouted out and tracked down. Trappers and commercial fishermen knew that, at any moment, a conservation officer could appear over the horizon. During the beaver recovery period from 1946 to 1956, limited beaver trapping was allowed. All beaver pelts were sold through the conservation officers. Fur dealers no longer got their percentage of the business. Also, fur dealers had to accurately record all their fur purchases and provide monthly fur inventories.

Now that conservation officers had their own airplanes to use, fire patrols could be made without trying to fit them into SGA's flight schedule. When the fire index went up, fires became a priority to the flying conservation officer. Radio sets manufactured in the DNR shop in Prince Albert were carried in the leased SGA aircraft for speedy reporting.

The conservation officers did more than manage the resources, though. They became the link between the government in Regina and the people of the north. Earl Dodds, who had instructed RCAF pilots at the flying school in Prince Albert during the war, worked as a Natural Resources administrator in northern Saskatchewan in the early 1950s. He supervised conservation officers in 11 regions across the north. Dodds recalled:

Our work involved not only the resource aspects of fish, fur, fire, and forestry but also included land administration. We were also the dispensers of social welfare, and we were the municipal authority. When I first went into Stony Rapids to a trappers' meeting, we met in the school. It was like being in an army because all the trappers were dressed the same in caribou skins - one suit with the fur in and another with the fur out. Of course, they were all Chipewyan (Dene), and we had to have everything translated. It was the same story in the early fish meetings. But it was the start of ... preparing them for some form of municipal government.

Airplanes Help Save the Beaver

The beaver were almost gone from Saskatchewan, trapped almost to the point of extinction. During the 1945 trapping season, only 50 beaver were legally trapped. The government closed beaver trapping the next season.

Concern for the beaver had been kindled largely by Grey Owl, the Englishman Archie Belaney. The Canadian government was attracted to Grey Owl's conservation ideas and established him as a naturalist at the Prince Albert National Park in 1931 to continue his research, writing, and lectures promoting conservation efforts. The simplicity and sincerity of his writings succeeded in capturing the attention of people and governments to the declining beaver population.

However, during the war the government concentrated mostly on. forest protection. The conservation officer's main duty was fire control and the issuing of commercial fishing licences. Only four officers were covering the province north of the North Saskatchewan River; they could not be everywhere at once. Travel by dog team or by freighter canoe with an 8-horsepower motor made enforcement a slow and often impossible task.

Believing that the beaver was essential for maintaining a healthy northern environment, Saskatchewan and Ottawa signed a Fur Conservation Program in 1946. The northern forests were divided into fur conservation areas, and only northerners were allowed to trap there. Outsiders wanting to trap in the north had to be voted in by the trappers in the area. Ottawa paid the province to provide a conservation staff to manage the program. It was first directed by Allan Quandt and later by Earl Dodds.

The government's shut-down of beaver trapping during the 1945-46 season was not popular. It was one thing not to have any beaver to trap, it was another thing not to be able to trap beaver especially if you knew where they were. The fur harvest for all types of pelts was small that year, creating economic hardship among the trappers.

In February 1946, the province opened certain northern areas for beaver trapping. While the trappers were somewhat satisfied, the northern fur dealers were not. The beaver pelts could only be turned over to a conservation officer or a member of the RCMP, and the fur buyers made no profit. To increase the beaver population, a program of beaver transplantation was started. In some areas, beaver were simply a nuisance. Lefty McLeod tells about flying them north in the Norseman:

They had a plague of beaver in the Prince Albert National Park, and they decided they were going to transfer a bunch of them around the province. They were delivering them to me down at the break-water at Waskesiu 35 at a time . . . You should have seen the cages - made of chicken wire and 2-by-4's wrapped in galvanized iron so they couldn't eat their way out. The cages weighed more than their contents. The minute you started the engine they would all work themselves into a heap in the centre, just like a bunch of kittens, and go to sleep. They wouldn't bother you at all. The beaver transplant program paid off. Through careful administration and strict enforcement by conservation officers, 55,000 beaver were harvested during the 1955-56 trapping season.

SGA pilot Bob Hodgins flying Cessna 180 CF-HGK over Uranium City.

SGA pilot Bob Hodgins flying Cessna 180 CF-HGK over Uranium City.
Gus Hawker's famous store can be seen just in front of the right float.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.

In many ways, the conservation officers were the municipal authority since there were no local municipal governments in the north at that time. It was a very practical relationship. Most northern residents made their living from natural resources and conservation officer pilots had contact with nearly all of them.

This SGA Norseman, nick-named the Wollaston cannonball.

This SGA Norseman, nick-named the "Wollaston Cannonball", was on the Wollaston Lake
scheduled flight when it developed oil pressure problems over reindeer lake
and had to land. a replacement engine was shipped to Lynn Lake
by rail and hauled to Reindeer Lake by bombardier.
Sam McKnight, left, and Roy Bruman, on airplane,
worked with John Finch to change the engine.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.

SGA's de Havilland Beaver CF-GDY.

SGA's de Havilland Beaver CF-GDY, based at Stony Rapids, developed
engine trouble flying prospectors into the Barren Lands.
Knowing there would be a lack of large trees in the area,
John Finch left, and his team took timber with them
from Prince Albert to build the hoist frame.
Photograph courtesy of John Finch.

The pilots saw northerners at their traplines, fish camps, and in their communities. They delivered fur cheques and government payments and hauled furs out. Unlike the RCMP who more often came with warrants or questions, a conservation officer's visit was more like a social call. Unlike commercial pilots who had to keep to a schedule to earn revenue, conservation officers could take time to pick up mail and a few groceries for trappers they were going to visit. And the conservation officer pilot would fly the sick and injured for medical attention.

Flying conservation officers would operate in northern Saskatchewan for almost two decades until the government changed in 1964.


Author: Webmaster -
"Date Modified: April 15, 2024."

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