Whiskey Gap

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

It is highlighted by the National Film Board documentary, The Days of Whiskey Gap. From 1961, you may view it here. The film was directed by Colin Low and narrated by Stanley Jackson, whose bios you can read in Wikipedia. Both 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 NFB documentary style. The precision and cadence of his voice illustrates, incidentally, the educated Canadian accent of the mid-20th century. It’s still heard among the older generation here but is fast disappearing. One feature is the breathy “wh” sound, eg. when he pronounces “white”.

The film mainly deals with Western settlement and policing, not so much the liquor issue. Booze though was a prime reason to create the North West Mounted Police, now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Aged persons are interviewed who helped settling the Canadian west. One, an ex-Mountie, shows his scars from skirmishes with Indigenous peoples.

 

 

Whiskey Gap is in the Milk River Hills in southern Alberta, a passage through which Americans smuggled liquor into the Northwest Territory. The Gap featured a sparsely settled locality, today 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. It caused great distress in the form of rampant crime, malnutrition and disease. Growing Temperance sentiment in the East contributed to the feeling this had to be stopped.

The NFB refers quite accurately to this malignity, but elides a similarly culpable role of the British and Canadians for about 150 years from 1700, when HBC regularly traded or gifted alcohol for furs in Canada. The HBC starting in the early 1800s became concerned about the alcohol trade. It slowly eliminated it, first by stopping the sale of alcohol to the Indigenous, and later endin gifting of liquor.

There is some question how strictly the bans were enforced into the 1860s. In general though, by the time Americans in Whiskey Gap were trading rotgut liquor for pelts, the Canadian trade had mostly stopped. although some persisted on the Western coast. Canada became intent to stop Americans from re-introducing the scourge.

The slightly sanctimonious tone in the film about the American role thus is unjustified due to ample Canadian involvement earlier. In general, the film exhibits mild anti-Americanism, something which took hold in Canada by about this time, at least among the chattering classes.

(In society at large, as shown by the great popularity of American films and other pop culture, the U.S. was as popular as ever).

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.