History Infrastructure

The Alaska Highway Corridor: Notes on the Indigenous Geography of a Canada at War

Over the past few years, the Alaska Highway Community Society (AHCS), a not-for-profit organization based in B.C., has accessed a generous grant from the Peace River Regional District to nominate the Alaska Highway Corridor as a National Historic Site of Canada. The nomination was submitted in the fall of 2015 by the AHCS with the Alaska Highway Heritage Society in Yukon. It links 12 nodes within the corridor that speak to a broad range of interconnected themes, including Indigenous archaeology, history and culture, natural heritage, and engineering history. Some sites are related to the construction of the Alaska Highway; others are much older. This set of notes shares some ideas that have emerged during the nomination work on one of the topics explored in the nomination; namely, the impact of military events during the Second World War on Indigenous geographies.

The strategic geographies of the Second World War are often called “fronts” or “theatres,” such as the “Eastern Front,” the “Pacific Theatre,” or the “Home Front.” Within Canada, however, there was also a distinct front – perhaps best named the Third Front – represented by places traditionally occupied by Indigenous people that were commandeered for military purposes. Well-known physical legacies from the Third Front are toxic wastes and unexploded ordnance, but for many Northern and Arctic communities there were enormous social, cultural, environmental, and economic impacts. In several places in Canada’s North, a large military presence consisting of tens of thousands of mainly United States troops appeared in 1942 to build and staff military installations.[1] Almost as soon as they were gone, a smaller but more powerful presence in the form of Canadian government institutions and legal traditions was installed, followed by a post-war industrial economy powered by natural resources in the 1950s.

For Want of a Road

One of the places where the physical and cultural legacies of the Third Front are most obvious in Canada is in northeastern B.C. and southern Yukon, home to the Alaska Highway Corridor. The highway stretches 2,240 km from Dawson Creek, B.C. through southern Yukon and up to Delta Junction in Alaska. The corridor travels through several ecological regions, crosses five mountain summits, and runs alongside portions of major rivers. The Canadian section alone is 1,900 km long. Until the middle of the 20th century, most parts of the region, with the exception of some land that was sectioned for farming in the Peace River district, was fully occupied by Indigenous people sustained by an intimate knowledge of a rich natural environment learned over millennia. While the fur trade, gold discoveries, and the signing of Treaty 8 in the 19th and early 20th centuries served as catalysts to end the region’s relative isolation and alter its economic and social conditions, the construction of the highway was a tectonic force of change. Today, the highway serves as a main street that connects urban centres, First Nations reserves and communities, protected park lands, recreation areas, resource development sites, and farmlands. It is a busy supply lifeline, and the region is a major tourism destination for the world.

Conventional narratives explain that following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in the Second World War, the United States sought a safe supply route to Alaska inland through Canada. Earlier, influential politicians and Northern promoters on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border had promoted building a road and airway north from B.C. into Yukon and Alaska; others also sought to open the Norman Wells oil fields in the Northwest Territories to development. The unique confluence of access to wartime funding and geopolitics made the dreams a reality. The pioneer road, which consisted of a roughly cut dirt and gravel road with temporary bridges and culverts, was constructed from Dawson Creek, B.C. to Alaska in 1942. In 1943, the CANOL supply route to Norman Wells was completed and the main road and air route were upgraded. The Alaska Highway was eventually converted into the fully paved public highway system that serves the region today.

The whole project was a remarkable feat of engineering, logistics, and human perseverance, with much of the original labour undertaken by African-American regiments. Only eight months passed between the time Canada agreed to the construction of the road and air route in March 1942 and the ceremony that opened the Alaska Highway in November 1942. In this period, the population of Whitehorse alone went from about 350 in January to more than 10,000 by the summer. With the construction of the highway, maps were redrawn, new communities were built, communications and transportation became quicker and easier, and profitable natural resources could be accessed and exploited.

Indigenous Geographies of Canada at War

During the construction of the Alaska Highway, Indigenous families experienced assaults on their health, culture, economic security, beliefs, and language as a result of the influx of newcomers, new game laws, poor policing, formal schooling, exposure to diseases, and loss of forests. Military units occupying Indigenous geographies were generally ordered to stay away from Indigenous populations, but economic realities, human nature, and the difficulty of round-the-clock surveillance intervened. People interacted on many levels – whether by choice or coerced – with troops and civilian contractors through employment, personal relationships, business transactions, and illicit activities. When Elijah Smith, a member of the Champagne and Aishihik band in Yukon and a celebrated leader and parliamentarian, returned from fighting in Europe during the Second World War, he was moved by the extent to which his community was affected by alcohol, flu epidemics, and the looting of trap line cabins. He dedicated the rest of his life to mentoring future leaders and addressing land claims and self-government.[2]

Through the war and in the post-war decade, Indigenous communities and their leaders were forced to navigate through a quick succession of changes, including the loss of family members from disease, depletion of traditional hunting places, a collapse in fur prices, new laws and administrative procedures, and a cash economy, all of which brought communities into the powerful orbit of Canada’s legal, social, and economic systems. More children were also taken away to residential schools, including a school opened in Lower Post in 1951 that specifically took advantage of the highway as an easy transportation route. Some Indigenous communities, such as Old Fort Nelson, were moved; others, such as Dane-zaa in Fort St. John, B.C., had land taken from them.

American anthropologist John Honigmann observed Indigenous geographies along the Alaska Highway up close in 1944-5 when he lived as a researcher in Lower Post, a primarily Kaska Dena community near the Yukon-B.C. border. While studying language and cultural practices, he also kept many notes about the behaviour of military and civilian personnel and the consequences of economic dislocation, poor policing, and uncaring government officials on the community. One example only comes from 23 July 1944:

Drinking in town [Watson Lake] …. All the White trappers completely drunk. In the midst of this Purdy and another policeman came into the post [Lower Post] enroute to McDame Creek, for some prospecting. They went into Les Cormier’s shack for some drinks and then left. Army fellows came in about eleven and ran off with [Kaska] girls. Returned at 2-3, some of them sleeping at Clarence’s.[3]

Honigmann’s words came to mind immediately while reviewing an historic image of the Alaska Highway. The photograph captures a crew working on the highway along the shores of Muncho Lake. The archival description is short and simple: “Party on raft trying to locate submerged truck which had missed curve. One girl, 19 years, lost her life.”[4] Since the highway was almost exclusively limited to military vehicles and contractors in 1943, the mention of a young woman raises questions, as so few women enlisted or worked in a civilian capacity in the area. Who was she? Did her family learn what happened to her? For me, she remains a symbol of what went wrong during the Third Front period; the events that changed the meaning of the landscape for all but its most recent inhabitants.

Keeping History Alive

Several projects are currently underway in northeastern B.C. and Yukon to promote a stronger understanding of the relationships between people and the Alaska Highway Corridor by presenting the landscape as more than a picturesque stage on which historic events occurred. It is better understood as a living being that is intimately connected with communities that have interacted with it for generations.

The nomination of the Alaska Highway Corridor as a National Historic Site of Canada is a key initiative that is supported by governments and local communities in B.C. and Yukon to promote an understanding the corridor’s history and protect places of cultural heritage value. The potential for the commemoration to raise awareness of the area’s rich history and encourage more visitors to travel to the region was addressed in the Yukon legislature in November 2015. During a debate on a motion that received unanimous consent to support the nomination of the Alaska Highway Corridor, Mr. Kevin Barr, a member of the Yukon legislature, spoke directly about the “negative aspects” of the history and asked: “How do we [tell the story] in a dignified way not to re-traumatize anyone, but to share it so we can learn from the past as we move forward?” The nomination project included dozens of meetings with individuals and communities who live the cultural landscape and know the places and stories that can support a deeper understanding of its significance. Their message to us was clear: that fearless voices are ready and able to tell the story because the relationship between people and the land is strong, even if it has changed.

Photo credit: istockphoto/DrSuezie

[1] A parallel example to the Alaska Highway Corridor is Iqaluit, Nunavut, which was developed as an airport in 1942 by the United States Air Force. Many of the troops working on the airport’s construction came from African-American regiments, just as they did for the Alaska Highway.

[2] John P. Hoyt, “Remembering Elijah”, The Yukon Reader, Number 17, August 1993: 29-41.

[3]  National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, John Honigmann Collection, Series VI, Kaska Indians, Lower Post B.C. Canada & Southern Yukon Territory, Canada, 1944-45, Box 50. 

[4] Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Image No: NA-1796-33.

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