At the beginning of the twentieth century, less was known by outsiders about Saskatchewan's northern forests than of the woodlands of other provinces. Aboriginal people had lived in geographic isolation in northern Saskatchewan for thousands of years. They had little contact with other cultures until the 1700s when explorers passed through northern Saskatchewan following the mighty Churchill River westward.
By the early 1800s, fur traders had set up a string of trading posts between Cumberland House in Saskatchewan and Edmonton in Alberta. The northern aboriginal people often travelled for days and weeks on foot, by dog team, or canoe to these posts to trade furs and fish for supplies. In the mid-1800s, the Hudson's Bay Company signed an agreement with the government, freeing much of its fur-trading area for settlement, and the importance of the northern region and its furs declined.
However, it appeared that Saskatchewan history would once again take a northerly turn. Reverend James Nisbet, with a small group of settlers, made a gruelling trip overland and by canoe from Winnipeg in 1866 to settle on the southern fringe of Saskatchewan's forests. He named the place Prince Albert and established schools, agricultural industries, and medical services. People from other northern areas moved there, and many new settlers arrived from eastern Canada.
By 1878, Prince Albert was the largest centre in the North-West Territory, as Alberta and Saskatchewan were then called. The North Saskatchewan River valley around Prince Albert was the agricultural heartland of the territory. It had the most intensively used farmland in the area and supplied most of the region with flour. Riverboats linked the community to Battleford and Edmonton to the west and Winnipeg to the east.
Northern growth slowed, however, when the trans-Canada railway by-passed Prince Albert. The Canadian Pacific Railway chose a southern route through the largely uninhabited prairies, even though the northern route across Saskatchewan to the Yellowhead Pass seemed the most accessible. Settlers arrived by train and located in the southern region, disappointing the merchants of Prince Albert and Battleford. In 1883, the territorial government was moved from the northerly community of Battleford to Regina, and southern Saskatchewan became the centre for the government, the police, and transportation.
One forest-based industry did flourish in the northern region early in the century, however. Lumber replaced fur as the major resource of Saskatchewan's forests. Prince Albert, Big River, and Nipawin all developed thriving logging industries. Prince Albert developed the largest planing mill in Canada, and the lumber industry in Big River employed over 1,000 people. A rail line was eventually built to link Prince Albert with the south, and in 1910 the railway reached Big River, and lumber could be shipped south by train. Ultimately, the logging industry was limited by the lack of roads, railways, or waterways into the north.
Unlike its neighbours, Saskatchewan had not seriously begun to develop its resources north of the forest fringe. Manitoba and Alberta both began early to diversify their economies beyond wheat and cattle and into logging and mining. Both, however, had the natural advantage of navigable north-south waterways, and both embarked on energetic railway building programs.
In Alberta, Edmonton became the western centre of business. Navigable waterways and trails gave access to the Athabasca River and the Peace River, launching Alberta's influence into the Northwest Territories and eventually to the Beaufort Sea.
In Manitoba, the great Hudson Bay provided a passageway to the northlands. And for two centuries, the Hudson's Bay Company had been sailing into the bay to trade for furs with the aboriginal people who lived along the shoreline. As well, a vast system of lakes and rivers, with Winnipeg at the hub, gave access to the lumber, furs, and minerals of the north. As early as 1907, The Pas was a thriving lumber and fur-trading centre. By 1916, it was connected by railway to the rest of Manitoba and was experiencing a mineral exploration boom. By the 1920s, railway lines linked Flin Flon with Churchill on Hudson Bay, mining companies had explored the north by aeroplane, and gold and copper mines were in production.
By contrast, Saskatchewan lacked rivers and lakes which allowed an easy entry into the north, or which could be used for transportation of northern resources southwards.
When aviation first entered the northern parts of Manitoba and Alberta, it was assisting in the expansion of the mining industry and transportation system already in place. But when aircraft entered northern. Saskatchewan in the mid-1920s, they were opening the door to the province's untapped natural. riches. The twentieth century, which. came gradually to the north in Manitoba and Alberta, was thrust upon northern Saskatchewan in a few short years.
Today, life in the north is very different from what it was before aircraft arrived nearly 70 years ago. The airplanes brought much that was novel to the province's north, a region where people had long been isolated by geography. In addition to a new means of travel, airplanes also brought the technology, ideas, and values of the south.
The pilots who have flown above the northern forests and lakes over the years have been a brave and adventurous lot. These pilots, together with the entrepreneurs who founded the air companies, the aircraft engineers, and others in the aviation industry, have played a vital role in opening Saskatchewan's north.
The role of Saskatchewan's northern aboriginal peoples in the development of aviation. must also be acknowledged. When pilots stopped at northern. communities or were forced down by weather or mechanical failure, the northern people greeted them with hospitality, food, and shelter. They generously shared their knowledge of the forest, woodsman skills, and survival techniques. With their intimate knowledge of the terrain and their ability to work in the bush, aboriginal northerners helped in the recovery of many downed aircraft. Others helped build airstrips, docks, and other facilities in remote areas. Some northerners became aircraft mechanics who helped keep the airplanes flying and some too, become pilots themselves.
This book tells the story of aviation in northern Saskatchewan. It looks at the ever-changing nature of flying operations as roads penetrated the north, the role of the entrepreneurs, pilots, and aircraft engineers, and the impact of aviation on northern life. It covers the eventful first years of aviation in northern Saskatchewan, the flourishing years of bush flying in the province's north, and the continuing importance of aircraft in northern life today.
It is the hope of the researchers, writers, and editors of this book that readers of all ages will enjoy this account of northern aviation, and that with the help of the photographs, it will bring alive this vital part of Saskatchewan's heritage.
Province of Saskatchewan.
Map produced by Pro-tech Drafting Services, La Ronge
and Saskatchewan Education, Northern Division
The Northern part of Saskatchewan,
showing some of the Communities and places mentioned in the book.
Map produced by Pro - Tech Drafting Services, La Ronge
and Saskatchewan Education, Northern Division.