General Ramsey Withers Nothern Mess Dinner Speech 2011

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Speech by General Ramsey Withers to Joint Task Force North & RCMP Mess Dinner 2011[1]

On the History of Military and RCMP in Canada’s North

(Salutation to PMC, General Miller, RCMP Chief Superintendent Middleton, ladies and gentlemen)

As I look out at this gathering I cannot help but realize that many of you were not even born, or at most, were in kindergarten or Grade One about the time of which I shall speak. I am sure that you will forgive me for relying on notes. There are two things problematic about growing old: the first is that you tend to lose your memory; and, I cannot remember the second. I thank you for this opportunity to return to Yellowknife and to relive memories of four decades past and to tell you what it was like back then when we first established Canadian Forces Northern Region to quote the press line, in that year following the SS Manhattan’s attempt at the Northwest Passage, “to establish a permanent military presence in the North”.

Of course we were not the first military presence in the North. That distinction goes to the Yukon Field Force, under the command of Colonel Thomas Dixon Byron Evans, for whom this building is named. It also commemorates the first cooperation between the military and the Northwest Mounted Police, a cooperation which continued in the First World War with a Mounted Police Squadron in the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and in the Second with the RCMP providing the Military Police Company for the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and continues today in Afghanistan.

And Yukon is a good place from which to start my story. We were sensitive to the concern of Whitehorse that the headquarters would be located in that other Territorial capital and that Yukon might be “second fiddle”. Hence we decided to give prominence to Yukon by naming the property, the Evans Block, saving the title Evans Building for the eventual edifice in which we are now assembled. But as you most probably know, to name a building for a person, one needs the permission of the descendants and that posed a problem. Colonel Evans died in 1908 and as the terminology goes, he died without issue. But he did have a wife. Two of our staff officers, John Sharp and David Bewley, put on Sherlock Holmes deerstalkers, got into newspaper archives and, lo and behold, found the former Mrs. Evans, remarried and then named Mrs. McCarthy alive, well and in her nineties, resident in Ottawa. She was thrilled and we got our permission. The painting you have of Evans was done by the talented Cpl Claude Rousseau who was the graphic artist on our staff; more on Claude later.

By the way, when the announcement of the new Region was made it included the fact that it would be commanded by a brigadier-general. Subsequently, when my name came out most of the one-stars in CFHQ emerged from cover with a sigh of relief. What was Yellowknife like then? It had been only three years since the arrival of Territorial Government. Before 1967, the NWT was administered from Ottawa with the Deputy Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs double-hatted as Commissioner. The first resident Commissioner was the human dynamo Stuart Hodgson who rapidly established a capable team of public servants.

Up to that time the city had been the creature of the two gold mines, Giant and Con. It was Giant, alone I do believe, that commissioned the first hydro-electric project, on the Snare River at Cameron Falls, in the 1940s and provided power to the town. My father installed the generators after bringing them over the ice by tractor train from Hay River.

But there was also a military presence. The Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals had 27 stations providing commercial communications throughout both territories and there was a prominent station in Yellowknife. It also originated local radio broadcasting with a station that became CFYK. However that military presence ended when the 1960s Glasco Commission Report handed over the service to CN Telecommunications in the west and to Bell in the east and the broadcast station to the CBC. Other than those two mining enterprises, Yellowknife was the Territorial hub of air transportation. Max Ward was the major operator with his new fleet of Twin Otters and Pacific Western Airlines pioneered jet travel with Boeing 737s capable of landing on gravel runways plus the first C-130 freighter supplying the emerging oil exploration in the Mackenzie Delta.

And that was the environment into which we arrived in 1970. What about accommodation? Our first roost, generously arranged by Commissioner Hodgson, was a spare office in the Territorial liquor store. Not the best spot to call home from an image point of view, but it was soon replaced by another of his kindnesses; the condemned and closed St Patrick’s School which had sunk into the permafrost Since it was now winter it would not crumble any further.

What about living quarters? Although married quarters were to be built by Public Works they would not be ready until 1971, so we struck a deal with the Yellowknife Inn for bachelor accommodations in the old part of their hotel. More importantly how about a headquarters building? A contract was let with a Langley, British Colombia, firm to fabricate seventeen trailers to be assembled on a berm on the permafrost part of the Evans Block. They arrived in February 1971 and, in constant 40-below temperature the Yellow Submarine was born.

During the bolting together of the trailers propane heaters were used to make life bearable. Little did we then know that, when the hot sun returned in the spring, there was a serious down-side to propane usage. The water produced by its exhaust had frozen to the interior steel parts of the roof and now descended through the suspended ceiling tiles.But we had our own home and it served us well. The promise made by Ottawa was that we would have a permanent building within five years. I was thrilled to return, 20 years later in 1991, for the dedication of the Evans Building.However, Ottawa acted very quickly on our other materiel needs. Unlike the long process of equipment procurement that exists today, I shall give you two examples.

We needed aircraft to do our work in the North and the Twin Otter was the clear choice. In the summer of 1970 I asked the Director-General Air Force, at that time Brigadier-General Dave Adamson, for them. In the fall of 1971 we welcomed our two birds to Yellowknife will fully operational aircrews and support. Of course there was also need for a hangar. A joint deal was worked out, a design approved and funded and we both moved into the DND/RCMP hangar one year later. I’ll bet you could not equal that speed of reaction today.

I have another example, but first an explanation of the aviation environment of 1970.

The North presented serious challenges to aviation safety. Piston engine aircraft dominated the scene, communications were difficult and navigation aids did not exist. In 1970 there were only two non-directional beacons in the whole of the Territories. Search and Rescue missions were numerous and difficult to prosecute. The only precision aid available for the Twin Otters was the periscopic sextant. One day I received a call from Inspector Hugh Feagan who commanded the RCMP in the Territories and was our next door neighbour. He said that he had had a most interesting visitor, from California, who claimed to have a miracle navaid and would like to bring him over. He arrived with Herr Doktor Frudenfelder in tow. Were you to have made a movie about the good doctor you would have casted the late Peter Sellars in the role, accent and all. Dr. Frudenfelder then proceeded with the pitch about his invention: GPS 200. Yes, he called it a global positioning system but it had no satellites. He had worked for many years in a firm involved in the US Navy’s nuclear submarine communications system and came to appreciate the potential it had for exploitation as a civilian, unclassified navigation system. The Navy communicated with the submarines by a VLF - Very Low Frequency - network of stations strung out around the globe. These stations pumped out high energy ground waves which a submerged boat could receive anywhere at sea. The primary criterion was that the system had to be capable of transmitting 100% of the time. Scheduled maintenance was performed to a five minute only time off the air. GPS 200 could triangulate a position from three stations. It contained a synthesizer which would emulate the missing station for those five minutes of down time. Thus it could accurately establish the position of a relatively low-flying and slower speed aircraft with a circular error probable of no more than 500 metres. We lashed up his black box in a Twin Otter and conducted our own trials. The results were every bit as good as the good Doctor had predicted. At a cost of $10,000 per aircraft we received almost immediate authority to proceed. This was a quantum leap in conducting proper search patterns. Our pilots even did letdowns through cloud to settlement airstrips with it.

As I said before, Search and Rescue incidents were numerous. Some were false alarms because of a lack of communications. The primary assets devoted to the real ones were Hercs, Dakotas and helicopters coming in from Edmonton or Winnipeg. However the Twin Otters were a valuable addition and were able to accomplish a number on their own.

I shall just mention two SARs that were epic. The first was SAR Showalter. Manley Showalter, a Yellowknife pilot, had to make an emergency landing southeast of Paulatuk because of weather, in late 1971. A Dakota from Winnipeg arrived in a timely manner and soon located him and his downed aircraft. A helicopter would need to be brought in to extract him. Dakota 930 under the command of Captain Stan Gitzel landed at the DEW Line Station at Cape Parry, waited until the light was good enough on November 2nd and then proceeded to drop supplies to Mr. Showalter to sustain him until rescue. Tragically, Dakota 930 stalled after the supply drop and crashed with the loss of all on board in his horrified view.

The population of Yellowknife was highly moved by the tragedy. The Mayor contacted me and asked that new streets being constructed be named in memory of the crew and that is why you see the signs Gitzel Street and Albatross and Dakota Cour plus the monument in the latter.Manley Showalter gave up flying and requested to work for our headquarters. He was employed as a civilian driver and gave many years of devoted service.

The other most memorable one was SAR Hartwell. In November 1972, Martin Hartwell had just dropped passengers in Cambridge Bay when he was chartered to fly two patients, one a pregnant woman and the other a boy with appendicitis, plus a nurse to the Stanton Hospital here. The aircraft was a Beech 18, or ex-RCAF C-45. As I recall, Hartwell was not instrument rated and this was a night flight. A massive search effort was launched with search headquarters set up here. During the operations a large number of local citizens were strapped to the open doors of the Hercs to act as spotters. After thorough coverage and recoverage of primary, secondary and tertiary search areas the operation was called off. It was reopened after a dramatic CBC interview with the father of Hartwell’s spouse. However he was not found by the search itself. A Herc returning from a supply trip to Inuvik Supplementary Radio Station picked up an emergency signal, localized it and found him. He was over 400 nautical miles west of course from Cambridge Bay to Yellowknife and, therefore, way beyond even the tertiary search area. It seems that he did not understand how to deal with precession of his gyroscopic compass. I never heard an understandable reason why his beacon was only turned on thirty days after the crash. A SAR helicopter went in to extract him, saw the three dead passengers and requested that the RCMP meet it on arrival in Yellowknife. How to deal with the discovery that part of the nurse had been eaten was the question.

Because of the CBC featuring it, the world press had descended on Yellowknife and we had to arrange a press conference. Explanation of the facts was most effectively brought home with a slide prepared by our wonderful Claude Rousseau. He superimposed the complete search area on the map of Saskatechewan - it covered the whole province - and then added a flap showing where Hartwell was found - outside it by quite a bit. Now the media understood. Hugh Feagan had to deal with the sensitive news about Nurse Judy Hill’s body.

Up till now I have talked a lot about the Air Force. Remember that, back then, there was no Air Command. There was Air Defence Command, Air Transport Command and Air Force elements in Mobile Command, Training Command, Canadian Forces Europe and Maritime Air Group in Maritime Command. Right at their birth, the Snowbirds gave their first performance over Yellowknife when Ann Murray was performing in town.

Firstly, let’s talk about Maritime Command. We counted on their Argus assets to do air surveillance of the North and they did it with great dedication. The great Iron Birds were always on patrol. On one occasion, when an Argus had remained over night in Yellowknife, on start-up the next morning it threw a propeller right across the tarmac, just missing the Air Terminal Building. Maritime Command was every bit as active afloat and gave us the first Norploy in 1972. I regret to say that the least support we had was from my service, the Army. Please keep in mind that the Army was totally devoted to the NATO role and feared anything that would take limited funds away from it. The Defence Budget had been fixed at $1.314 billion, for three years, without any compensation for inflation and, given the amount already committed to the CF-5 procurement and the DDH-280 Program for the Navy, the Army was suffering. I had been mandated to recommend a new Ranger program in light of the emphasis on the North and sovereignty. We worked diligently on it and produced a proposal best described as what now exists. When I took it to Ottawa and presented it to the Director General Land Forces it was totally rejected. The incumbent, who had recently returned from commanding our Brigade Group in Germany, told me that all they really wanted was a new Canadian Forces Administrative Order on how to deal with the Rangers.

Now let me return to our lives in Yellowknife with its then population of under 6,000 souls. And they were great souls. I remember Smokey Heal, Second World War bomber pilot, who operated a construction firm in town. His advertisement in ‘The Yellowknifer’ our weekly newspaper contained the phrase about his company, “Where a stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet.” We had Smokey construct a storage building which we could rent. There was no contract other than a handshake. When arranging the aviation fuel drops for the annual sea resupply we all put in our requirements for barrels at the settlements and paid the bill. During the subsequent year every operator filled up from what had been delivered. Especially because of the needs of SAR operations we often used more than our cache at some locations and our civilian counterparts had their own extra needs based on unexpected contracts. Every one kept the tally and we worked it out at the next annual meeting. I am sure that if the Auditor General had known it would have been a horror story in the press.

Our staff and spouses entered happily into community life. I doubt that there was not a service club, hockey team, softball team, curling league, amateur musical production, volunteer swimming instruction activity or the like in which we did not participate.

During Caribou Carnival weeks we twice won the ice sculpture prize for commercial participants and the best float in the Caribou Carnival parade for the Yellow Submarine float with full Beattles audio. Of course the architect of all of this was our valiant artist Corporal Claude Rousseau.

Three of our originals went on to serve the North as civilians giving devoted service for many years; our Chief Clerk, Warrant Officer André Theriault finished his career as Director General of Economic Development for the Eastern Artic, was elected Mayor of Frobisher Bay now Iqualuit, and received an honorary degree from McGill University when he retired; Command Warrant Officer David Morris, who was our first Forces member to complete the Inuit Language Course served many years as a settlement manager; and, Nurse Jan Stirling, the wife of the late Major Bill Stirling, our first SO Ops, has earned a well deserved reputation as a major contributor to health care in the Territories.

You will be amused, I am sure, by the occasion on which the Withers family and home at 2 Dakota Court came to the aid of the civil authorities. We know it as “the night of the Russians”.Commissioner Hodgson had made an official visit to Siberia and was most impressed by the reception he received. In return for the hospitality he invited a group of senior Soviet officials to visit the NWT.

Late in 1971, ten Ministers of the Supreme Soviet arrived for their tour of the Territories. The wind-up event of their trip was a formal dinner hosted by Stu Hodgson in the Yellowknife Inn. It was attended by some one hundred local citizens and spouses, including the Feagans and the Withers.It was indeed a festive event.. The Commissioner decided to emulate the Russian style and there was a lot of vodka and plenty of toasts. To say that it became a rollicking good time would be a gross understatement. As the dinner was coming to its end, the Commissioner and Inspector Feagan asked me to huddle with them privately. A warning signal had been received from Ottawa. Earlier that day, President Podgorny of the Soviet Union had been assaulted as he was about to visit our Parliament Building by a dissident immigrant from Eastern Europe. Ottawa feared some sort of conspiracy and called for security to protect the Soviet Ministers in Yellowknife.

It was an unusually warm evening that Friday and Stu Hodgson knew that the Russians intended to go out on the town. There were many local citizens who had escaped Communist countries to make a new life in Canada and, perhaps, might want to protest. The visitors had to be kept off the street. Having had them at his residence before the dinner, the Commissioner reckoned that they would not be interested in returning to the same place. He asked, “how about taking them to your Officers’ Mess at NRHQ”?

On any other night that would have been a reasonable move. However, that night, there was a party on in the Mess for all the surveillance crews, both Canadian and American; not a good venue for a bunch of Soviet Ministers. It was then that I volunteered our home. At the time there were no other houses built around us and it would give a clear perimeter for RCMP coverage. Stu and Hugh Feagan agreed with alacrity. I called home and told our three teenagers, “the Russians are coming” and get ready to receive them. Next, I called the Mess and asked that appropriate supplies be brought in. Our kids were terrific and had all in order when the group arrived. The Mess Steward had reacted quickly as well. Unfortunately the news of the next stop got out and a number of Yellowknifers decided to join the party. We had a full house. The Russians arrived bearing their own supplies; small bottles of vodka with tear tops, once opened never to be recapped.

My most memorable recollection was of my son, Jim, playing chess with the Mayor of Moscow and beating him. Jim had not had any vodka. At about 0200, the night of the Russians at 2 Dakota Court ended.

And there are so many more cherished memories of the beginning that I would love to tell you.

But many years ago, when I was a student at the Canadian Army Staff College, we had a distinguished English Professor and Newspaper Editor, Arnold Edinborough, lecture us on public speaking.All his instruction was encapsulated in what he termed ‘the three Ss’:

Stand up so all can see you;

Speak up so all can hear you; and,

The third S, know when to shut up.

Thank you

Speech by General Ramsey Withers to

Joint Task Force North & RCMP Mess Dinner 2011

On the History of Military and RCMP in Canada’s North


  1. Speech text courtesy of Semaphore-to-Satellite project