Whiskey Gap

There is another connection of Americans to Canada in the matter of liquor, less creditable than their ordered introduction of whiskey to Upper Canada.

It is referred to in the National Film Board documentary The Days of Whiskey Gap from 1961, which you can view here. The film was directed by Colin Low and narrated by Stanley Jackson whose bios you can read in Wikipedia. They were highly respected professionals, indeed Low’s award-winning work influenced some American film-making including by Stanley Kubrick.

Jackson was famous for almost creating a certain NFB style. The precision and cadence of his voice illustrated well the educated Canadian accent of the mid-20th century. It’s still heard among the older generation here but is disappearing fast. (One feature was the breathy “wh” sound, as when he pronounces “white”).

The film is mainly concerned with Western settlement and policing in general, not so much the liquor issue which was a prime reason to create the North West Mounted Police, now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Aged persons are interviewed who participated in settling the Canadian west, one, an ex-Mountie, showed his scars from skirmishes with Indians.

Whiskey Gap is a passage in the Milk River Hills in southern Alberta through which Americans smuggled liquor into the Northwest Territory. There was a sparsely settled locality there, now a ghost town.

That Territory, formerly Rupert’s Land, was controlled by the historic Hudson’s Bay Company until the new Canadian Confederation (1867) assumed control in 1869. HBC was established by the Crown in 1670 to exploit the riches of the wilderness here. The Territory is now encompassed by the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, more or less.

The background to the liquor trade is complex. As such dealings – liquor for furs and pelts – became condemned and rendered illegal in the U.S. due to the devastating effect it had on local tribes, unscrupulous traders sought new opportunities.

Fort Benton had been established in Montana, about 100 miles below the Alberta border and Gap mentioned, by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. It was later used as a base to establish a series of trading posts, finally made into forts, extending into Canada. This was late 1860s, early 1870s. One was Fort Whoop-Up (the name origin is disputed), now part of the tranquil Lethbridge, AB. Another was called Fort Standoff. You get the idea.

So Americans “invaded” Canada to set up an illicit alcohol trade with the Blackfoot nation which caused great distress in the form of rampant crime, malnutrition and disease. The growing temperance movement in the east contributed to the feeling that this had to be stopped.

The NFB quite accurately refers to this malignity, however it elides a similar culpable role of British and Canadians for about 150 years after 1700, when HBC regularly traded or gifted alcohol for furs in Canada. The HBC from the early 1800s became concerned about the alcohol trade and slowly eliminated it, first by stopping the sale of alcohol to Indians, and then ending the gifting of liquor.

There is some question how closely the bans were enforced into the 1860s but in general, by the time the Americans in the Whiskey Gap were trading rotgut for pelts, the Canadian trade had mostly stopped (a problem lingered on the western coast). Canada was intent to stop Americans from re-introducing the scourge.

So one must take account of the slightly sanctimonious tone in the film because both English and French traders in Canada had also traded booze to Indians, for a long time.

The film also has a tinge of mild anti-Americanism, something that took hold in Canadian society by 1960, at least in the chattering classes.

The film paints the history of the Canadian west as a well-policed frontier versus the lawlessness and gunplay of the frontier south of the border. That may be true in general terms, but I’m not sure the subtext is all that different.

The Northwest Rebellion is an example of the power of the Canadian state being used to subdue a rising of the Metis, a mixed blood people who had Indian allies. Another interpretation is that Canadian Indians did not want a repetition of the Indian Wars occurring south of the border, as the end result was only too clear.

Anyway, in 1874-1875 the Mounties did put an end to the American illicit liquor traffic on the Canadian Prairies. The new troop travelled on horseback from the east under great travail, it included Charles Dickens’ son.

The romance of the Mounties started early and was later abetted by admiring U.S. film treatment. The redcoats always “got their man”… This was a stock feature of 1900s popular culture but is mostly forgotten now.

Reading the accounts of the liquor sold in the forts, a lot seems to have been white whiskey doctored with tobacco, molasses, drugs of various kinds, hot peppers, and other adulterations. They probably added to the harm the ethanol caused when imbibed in great quantities. Lurid names were applied to such concoctions, such as hootchinoo (still with us in the shortened hootch), bug juice, and the denigrating Injun juice.

As various accounts make clear, historically both in Canada and the U.S. liquor was one of many items traded for furs. Blankets (especially), tools, guns, salt, molasses, flour, and other basic commodities also were traded. Once alcohol became banned, honest traders stuck to the legal side of the ledger.

But alcohol did an outsized damage to the tribal societies, who had no or little experience with it before. It is a black mark on European settlement here whose consequences endure to this day.