Them Days: Reflections From The Spring Of ‘86
Originally appeared in the June/July 1986 edition of Up Here, written by the late John U. Bayly.
This spring, I observed the 19th anniversary of my first arrival in the Northwest Territories. I can hardly claim to have been here in the old days but I feel that I can get away with referring to my early life in Rankin Inlet and Kuujjuarapik as “them days.”
Since “them days,” of course, a generation of children who were still being packed on their mothers’ backs have begun to have children of their own and to assume responsibilities. Some of the things we lived with and accepted in “them days” seem to belong to another age, not just the previous generation. In the late 1960s, there was no such thing as a long-distance telephone call from most small northern communities. When transmission permitted, there was a radio connection to the southern telephone system.
As a government clerk in Rankin Inlet, I also acted as the radio operator. People would call in. I would contact the radio operator in Churchill, Whale Cove, or wherever in the Keewatin there was a Bell radio installation. Switching was manual so I had to stay on the line changing from transmit to receive. There were as many calls in Inuktitut as there were in English. Radio work was an important part of my Inuktitut language instruction. More than that, it placed me at the nerve-centre of the community. Nurses and doctors would diagnose the illnesses of patients who could not be taken to hospital. Courtships took place and marriages broke up over the public airwaves. The solemn news of death and the joyful arrival of new life were announced to the entire Keewatin in a single call.
I do not want to leave the impression that people were constantly on the radio. The expense aside, there were days on end when we could not transmit or receive or when other stations were using the frequencies. Most of our communication was by mail. In theory, we had a scheduled flight once a week. That flight brought the mail on a “space available” basis. Some weeks we would not get the flight and sometimes when the flight came in, there was little or no room for mail. Once we had a DC-3 filled with mail bags, all addressed to the Hudson’s Bay store. Every bag was filled with potato chips. The manager had discovered that it was cheaper to send potato chips by second-class mail than by air freight.
When the mail did come in, it was an event. People put down their tools, left their dishes in the sink, and went for the mail. There was no television or radio to bring us the news. The mail linked us to the outside world. There was no better introduction to a new settlement than to carry a letter. You were assured a new acquaintance and often a meal or a place to stay. Once, in March 1968, we flew into the north camp on the Belcher Islands (Sanikiluaq). We took the mail, some magazines, and a box of paperback books. Ours was the first aircraft to land since Christmas 1967, and every household was opened to us. We were treated like family. We were entertained and fed the best the country had to offer.
In Rankin Inlet, one of my duties was to pick up passengers and mail and freight and take them to the airstrip. There was plenty of time. First, the plane had to be unloaded. If it was continuing north, it required fuel. Forty-five-gallon drums had to be rolled over to the taxiway and the gas wobbled into the airplane’s fuel tanks with a hand pump. You could count on the stop being at least an hour long.
In the fall, when the fog rolled in without warning, you could almost count on being held up by weather. Visitors became angry, sullen, or accepting, depending on their characters and experience. Once, a traveling dentist was stranded for a month in Coral Harbour. When an aircraft came in, she expected to leave. Before she arrived at the airstrip, a party of American hunters commandeered the plane and chartered it to take them and the spoils of their hunt (including a massive walrus head) to Churchill. When she arrived in Rankin two weeks later, she was still indignant. “To wait six weeks was difficult,” she said, “but it was nothing compared with the indignity of giving up my seat to a walrus head!”
Today, nobody has to give up an airplane seat to a walrus head. Mail comes by post, by telex, and by computer in many communities. We can talk to each other and the rest of the world, in private, by satellite. Although travel is still very expensive, northern people can and do meet regularly. The territorial and national news reaches every community on radio and television.
The northern children of “them days” have, as adults, taken up the innovations of “these days” in their working and personal lives. Northern people are using space-age travel and communications tools to shape northern society and are being shaped by the use of them.
What does it mean for the future? I do not know. Perhaps my children, looking back from the year 2000, will talk of the spring of 1986 as “back in them days.”