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You Could Have Been Here

You Could Have Been Here

For eons, dreamers and schemers have imagined a polar utopia – a Shangri-La as pure as the driven snow. But for every promised land they’ve envisaged, the cruel north wind has blown their plans apart.
By Tristin Hopper
Sep 01
2010
From the September 2010 Issue

Five times a day, a deafening roar rumbles through the streets of downtown Whitehorse. Windows rattle, birds scatter and citizens pause in mid-conversation until the thunderous noise has passed. Unwitting tourists scan the sky in confusion. Actors at a Shakespeare in the Park performance struggle to shout their rhyming couplets over the din. Such is life when your downtown is built directly below an international airport. 

It’s only one of Whitehorse’s many urban planning snafus. The city’s 23,000 residents are sprawled over an area the size of Puerto Rico – making an affordable transit system next to impossible. “From the air, Whitehorse is abhorrent,” says local architect Tony Zedda. And Whitehorse isn’t alone -- the Northern map is peppered with similar urban-planning nightmares. Oil-rich Fort McMurray is a patchwork of traffic jams, big-box stores and drug problems. In the housing-strapped mining town of Thompson, Manitoba, a hastily-renovated garage will set you back $1,600 a month. 

Five thousand kilometres away, Richard Rohmer can only shake his head: His North would have been different. Railways would have linked Northern mines to Ontario manufacturers. Electrical lines would have plugged the territories into the North American power grid. Millions of rich, multi-ethnic Canadians would live in a string of planned, ultra-modern Northern cities. It was all part of Rohmer’s 1960s “Mid-Canada Plan” -- a concept, that, for a brief moment, captivated the minds of many of Canada’s most powerful people. In the dense woods around Lake Athabasca, Hudson Bay and Northern British Columbia, Canadians would forge a new nation. “It would have been a new national purpose,” says Rohmer over the phone from his home in Collingwood, Ontario. 

Rohmer wasn’t the first to have such a vision. For millennia, the “blank slate” of the upper latitudes has captivated history’s most fervent dreamers. The ancient Greeks imagined a Northern land called Hyperborea, where people lived free from misery and darkness. Vikings came to Iceland seeking a country free from kingly oppression. The North could be a home for the displaced, a polar refuge, an ultra-modern utopia. For anybody crazy enough to try, the North has welcomed thousands of best-laid plans. 

But it has also chewed them up.

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

Not one for slang or even contractions, Rohmer speaks with the crisp tone befitting a retired Air Force general. At 86, he’s both Canada’s oldest licensed pilot and oldest practicing lawyer. Like Forrest Gump, he has consistently snuck onto the sidelines of history. At age 20, as a reconnaissance pilot during the Battle of Normandy, he initiated a crippling aerial attack on the staff car of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. He was a board member with Hollinger International during Conrad Black’s epic fall from grace. His trophy case is stuffed with everything from the Order of Canada to the Distinguished Flying Cross. It takes him 20 minutes just to pin on all his medals.

But while Rohmer is a man of action, he also brims with far-out ideas. In the late 1960s, he patented a portable gas station that was discontinued after only two prototypes. A few years later, he was part of a plan to airlift natural gas out of the Arctic using gargantuan cargo planes. Just last May, he approached Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a plan to build a nuclear waste facility on the Barrenlands of central Nunavut. “I have lots of ideas, but none of them really come to much fruit,” he says.  

Yet in the late 1960s, one of them almost did. One night, staring at a map of Canada posted on the wall of his study, Rohmer became entranced by the broad sprawl of Canada’s boreal forest. “The green part just came out at me,” Rohmer says. There, in the uninhabited reaches of Canada’s Subarctic, he saw a greenbelt of lush, resource-rich land – an Eden, ripe for development. Gears turned madly in Rohmer’s head: He would draft a report. He would organize a conference. He would shop the idea to every engineer, CEO and politician he could find. Soon, the “Mid-Canada Development Corridor”– Rohmer’s personal centennial project – would be up and running.  

It might have seemed a pipedream, but this was the 1960s -- technology was conquering everything. The Swiss kicked off the decade by sending a manned submarine to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Brazil was building a hyper-modern capital in the middle of the rainforest. Americans were en route to the moon. Surely, Rohmer thought, Canada could turn its Northland into a frontier utopia.

“Unless the growth of population is checked through war or pestilence or birth control, it will not be long till we need the North for those to live in."

Half a century before, explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson had had a similar dream. To him, the Arctic could become “a polar Mediterranean.” Musk-oxen would be the new beef. Arctic grasslands would be the new prairies. “There may no longer be a Far West, but there is a Far North with the same nebulous and glamorous future within which shall rise stately cities and empires of productivity,” he wrote.  

In his famed 1921 book, The Friendly Arctic, Stefansson sought to dispel the common belief that the North was a deadly and uninhabitable desert. Rather, he argued, by conquering the polar wilds and saturating them with submarine bases and airports, Canada could catapult itself to global superiority. At the very least, the North would be an easy way to solve overpopulation. “Unless the growth of population is checked through war or pestilence or birth control, it will not be long till we need the North for those to live in,” he wrote.

As The Friendly Arctic topped the best-seller list, Stefansson set his sights on Wrangel, an island off the Northern coast of Russia. Wrangel could become a valuable stopover for British Empire zeppelins, he argued – and with that in mind, he deployed four young men on a private flag-toting mission to the island. Within months, the ill-equipped and untrained youths were dead. And as far as the public was concerned, Stefansson’s friendly Arctic had died with them. 

“The system of towers and domes could eventually be repeated endlessly to create a city in the bleak Arctic."

Just as Jimi Hendrix played the closing notes of the Woodstock music festival, Rohmer was kicking off his Mid-Canada Development Conference. After months of letter writing and pavement pounding, he’d wooed Canada’s best and brightest to the meeting rooms of Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University. Journalist Dalton Camp was there. So was transportation mogul Andre Bombardier. Of the conference’s 150 delegates, seven would go on to win the Order of Canada. 

From the get-go, the conference bristled with technological hubris. “Nature has not provided us with any insoluble problems,” announced one attendee. Sure, the North was cold, but the people of Mid-Canada would be equipped with high-tech synthetic clothing. They would feed themselves from indoor hydroponic gardens. After a few years, they would simply find themselves becoming physically immune to the effects of cold. As proof, the conference whipped out a bizarre 1962 study that enlisted Inuit and Caucasian test subjects to immerse their arms in freezing water. After two hours, the cold-accustomed Inuit noted “slight discomfort,” whereas the Caucasians reported a “period of deep-seated aching pain.” 

The Mid-Canada Plan wasn’t merely possible, said the planners – it was vital, for it would solve myriad sticky national issues. Immigration was one. During the 1960s, border crossings were surging with American draft dodgers, refugees from Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring and black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Instead of crowding these newcomers into southern cities, Rohmer argued, the North could be their new home. 

Sovereignty was also on everybody’s mind. The Subarctic needed to be filled with maple leafs before it was swarmed by stars and stripes. As the conference wrapped up, the U.S.-owned S.S. Manhattan was already steaming North to complete its audacious navigation through Canada’s Arctic islands. “If we do not create a strong, distinctive, Northern nation, Canada will continue as a colony of the United States or, at best, eventually will be absorbed into it. That is not rhetoric. It is simple fact,” said Harvard history professor John Conway in a conference speech.

Fantasy Art Design

On the eve of the Great Depression, futurist Buckminster Fuller theorized that by the year 2000, building an Arctic city would take only a matter of hours. Fleets of blimps would release a hail of bombs onto the tundra. Ultra-lightweight office towers would then be planted into the still-smoking craters. Fuller, apparently, cared little for polar bears.  

While Fuller’s concepts never saw daylight, by the 1950s Ottawa was cooking up its own Arctic development schemes. The Cold War was in full swing, and while army engineers chiselled out a prime ministerial nuclear bunker on the outskirts of Ottawa, federal planners were devising schemes to populate the North and thus buffer it from Russian encroachment. Nobody would want to live in a North beset with wind-chill and ice, they reasoned, so their solution was to sprinkle the tundra with nuclear-heated domes. In 1958, the government unveiled such plans for Iqaluit. A ring of skyscrapers would surround a dome packed with parks, a hospital, a fire hall, banks and a swimming pool. “The system of towers and domes could eventually be repeated endlessly to create a city in the bleak Arctic,” reported the Globe and Mail in 1958.

Their vision was realized – sort of. While it may be domeless, Inuvik is a still-standing testament to Ottawa’s Arctic ambitions. Built by federal planners in the 1950s to replace flood-prone Aklavik on the opposite side of the Mackenzie Delta, it was envisioned as a polar mecca of urban civilization. “Inuvik was seen as a kind of grand experiment in Arctic town-building,” says Matthew Farish, a historical geographer at the University of Toronto. Unlike its cobbled-together polar neighbours, the town was going to be a meticulously-planned centre of hospitals, schools and cutting-edge utilidors. “This was the first community north of the Arctic Circle built to provide the normal facilities of a Canadian town,” reads a plaque unveiled by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker at Inuvik’s 1961 opening. 

But Inuvik’s symmetrical, planned neighbourhoods also drew a clear segregation between native and non-native residents. Civil servants lived in fully-serviced houses and apartments. Across town, aboriginals were housed in un-serviced “512s” – pre-fabricated houses with just 512 square feet of floor space. “It was going to be something much more attractive and modern,” says Farish. “But of course, the result is up for question.” Today, deep cultural roots keep Aklavik thriving, while Inuvik’s social problems have mounted. Bored youth have turned to alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness has hit the town’s well-planned streets, and clerks at the Northmart stash mouthwash behind the counter. Diefenbaker’s multi-million-dollar, southern-style hub has become, in the views of some, a government-funded slum.

 “These CEOs would step out timidly into the forest. They didn’t like it – they’d rather have their feet on granite."

The Mid-Canada Conference had barely begun before it started acquiring enemies. Saskatchewan architect Clifford Wiens was a dissident, along with the conference’s other Westerners. In their eyes, Rohmer’s plan was a devilish scheme to fleece the West of resources. “Ontario would screw us forever,” said one. In a Rohmerized North, tarsands oil might be pumped to Toronto, not Edmonton. “There was a view of, ‘Here we go again -- Bay Street forcing its views on Mid- and Western Canada,’” says Gavin Warnock, one of Rohmer’s consultants. “I well recall a group or two of vociferous students with lynching-intent.” 

Architect Raymond Moriyama remembers an unsettling zeal taking hold of the Mid-Canada planners. “I sensed the rashness and insensitivity the technologically- and corporate-oriented members were bringing forth,” he says. When the Thunder Bay meetings wrapped up, Rohmer shepherded the planners on field trips to Canada’s remote boreal communities, including Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Inuvik. They travelled by DC-3, avoiding poor visibility by flying just above the treetops. Wiens spent these flights in the cockpit, marvelling at the country rushing beneath him. “You felt as if a hand was suspending you above the landscape,” he says.

It was a long way from Toronto. “These CEOs would step out timidly into the forest. They didn’t like it – they’d rather have their feet on granite,” says Wiens. “You could hear them talking, saying this was the last place they’d ever want to go.” In the communities, Moriyama met up with locals and First Nations people, many of whom urged “restraint,” “inclusion,” and “consultation” for Rohmer’s plan. When Moriyama pushed these ideas to the other planners, he was accused of being a communist. “Many members of the conference thought these ideas to be good, but perhaps too idealistic, and would delay the process,” Moriyama says.

Rohmer might beg to differ. “It is not the purpose of those taking part in the conference to ‘rape’ the mid-north,” he wrote in The Green North, his 1970 Mid-Canada manifesto. “We must seek to avoid the mistakes of the past -- the degradation and exploitation of the true native Canadian peoples, wanton pollution of air and water; and indiscriminate destruction of the only pure, virtually untouched habitable region left on this continent.”

“We had our grand plan to tame the Arctic. It’s painful for us who have given our lives for it to admit, but the whole thing was a terrible mistake.” 

By the time Rohmer held his Mid-Canada Development Conference, the USSR’s Northern population numbered more than six million. Rohmer cited the Soviets’ efforts as an example that Canada could follow. “The potential for development obviously exists, and the Russian experience shows what can be accomplished,” he claimed in The Green North

The Soviet conquest of the North had long been underway. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, the USSR spared no expense in building their pavilion, and all around were the grandiose symbols of Communist power. Billowing red flags. Gleaming red stars. Murals populated with smiling multi-ethnic Soviets. At the Soviet Arctic venue, displays showcased the Russian conquest of the North: photos of massive open-cockpit ski planes, maps of daring Soviet polar flights, and artifacts from SP-1, the world’s first North Pole ice station.

But even as New Yorkers were marvelling at the spoils of Russian dominance, trainloads of slave labourers were rumbling towards Siberia. Few would make it out alive. In Vorkuta, Russia, rumour holds that the entire city is built atop a grave. One million were sent to build the coal-mining centre, and more than one-third never returned. When not covered by the city’s infamous two-storey-high snowdrifts, abandoned watchtowers and barbed wire can still be seen in the downtown. Today, families make their home in abandoned prisoners’ barracks. From the air, the streets of Vorkuta have the unmistakable shape of a skull. 

When communism collapsed, Joseph Stalin’s Arctic collapsed with it. In the 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, one third of Russia’s Northern population fled south – the largest voluntary migration in Russian history. Vorkuta is now lined with empty apartment blocks. “We had our grand plan to tame the Arctic,” said a Vorkuta resident to a New York Times reporter in 2003. “It’s painful for us who have given our lives for it to admit, but the whole thing was a terrible mistake.” 

“If I had been a raving Liberal, the Mid-Canada region would have long been in existence."

Rohmer stepped in from the chilly Ottawa air and prepared to make history. It was February 1971, and his former law partner, Governor General Roland Michener, had arranged a Rideau Hall luncheon with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. A quick slideshow, a glass of sherry and, he hoped, the Mid-Canada bulldozers would be on their way.

But Trudeau, according to Rohmer, entered the meeting “blasé and indifferent.” He hadn’t even read the report, delivered to him a few days prior. A heated back-and-forth soon broke out, with an uncomfortable Michener caught in the middle. “Trudeau let me know he didn't like me, and I let him know I didn’t like him,” says Rohmer. A few hours later, a still-agitated Trudeau allegedly mouthed “fuck off” to an opposition MP during question period. Famously, Trudeau would later claim to reporters that he was simply saying “fuddle-duddle.” To this day, Rohmer takes full credit for the outburst.

Needless to say, the Rideau Hall meeting was a spectacular failure. Within days, the Mid-Canada plan was dead, reduced to little more than a collection of documents stashed in archives across Canada. Rohmer blames politics. “If I had been a raving Liberal, the Mid-Canada region would have long been in existence,” he claimed in his autobiography, Generally Speaking.

He was undaunted, though. “On to the next windmill,” reads the Latin inscription on his personal coat of arms. “I went on to other things; books and royal commissions and things of that kind,” he says. He discovered that while his Northern designs didn’t carry political weight, they were book-publishing gold. His novels about aggressive American governments and Arctic sovereignty battles have often made the best-seller list.

Meanwhile, all of Rohmer’s 1969 suspicions have eerily come true. Canada’s inner-city populations have exploded. In 1970, the population of Toronto was a mere 650,000. Now, it has ballooned to a sprawling megacity of 4.7 million people. Gang violence in Vancouver, race riots in Montreal – these people were supposed to be living in Mid-Canada. Instead of efficient railroad supply lines, the communities of the North are fed by under-maintained highways, cargo planes and clunky sealift deliveries. Electricity is supplied by an unreliable patchwork of diesel generators and aging hydroelectric dams. Lineups at the Fort McMurray Tim Hortons are a running joke.

Rohmer envisioned a North filled with environmental sustainability, social harmony and methodical planning. Instead, Canada’s boreal forest hosts little more than a smattering of ghost towns, jerry-rigged infrastructure and resource rushes. For the most part, however, it remains untouched. Thousands of square miles of empty forest and tundra, waiting patiently for the next challenger.