Policing The Wilds

March 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine

by Andrew F. Maksymchuk

I was raised in British Columbia and spent a year in southern Ontario before joining the Ontario Provincial Police in 1964. My wife, Myra, is from Prince Edward Island and she began her career as a registered nurse in Kenora, Ont., the location of my first posting with the OPP. I had been on the job three years when my yearning for adventure led me to seek the position of officer-in-charge at Central Patricia, the force’s most northerly detachment. Central Patricia is at the end of Highway 599, more than 300 kilometres north of the town of Ignace on the Trans-Canada Highway. The detachment was designated as a three-man operation, but one of its members had been selected to assist with security at Expo 67 in Montreal. This left myself and one other officer to provide policing to the communities of Central Patricia, Pickle Lake and 13 Indian reservations and settlements scattered within a coverage area of approximately 76,000 square kilometres.

Only one reserve, Osnaburgh House–commonly referred to as Doghole–was accessible by road. It was located roughly 25 kilometres south of Central Patricia. Access to all other reserves and settlements depended on the availability of locally operated bush planes.

Myra and I arrived at Central Patricia in April 1967 and I remember how we stood and stared apprehensively at the building that would be our home for two years. It consisted of a three-bedroom residence, an office and a cellblock with a fenced exercise yard. The depth of the snow in front of the house was a sure sign that spring was still a long way off. My predecessor, who had left at his earliest opportunity, hadn’t bothered to shovel the snow from the sidewalks or cut a path through the snow banks along the road. On moving day, a number of locals gathered outside our house to watch the comedy show that featured the movers trying to negotiate a narrow path while loaded down with furniture and boxes.

After we had settled in I discovered that the federal health department provided medical services to the treaty Indians at Osnaburgh House. The reserve had a clinic located in a small building that was attended to by a federal nurse. The nearest medical facility for non-natives and non-treaty natives was at Sioux Lookout, 200 kilometres away by air. There were scheduled flights from Sioux Lookout to Pickle Lake, but the planes equipped with skis couldn’t land during the month-long ice break-up period in May. In early winter, the planes equipped with floats couldn’t land during the freeze-up period that also lasted about a month.

The lack of an available aircraft for emergencies during freeze-up wasn’t as critical as it was during spring. During winter, a vehicle could travel the frozen road for assistance. During spring, the road between Osnaburgh House and Central Patricia became an impassable quagmire. The mail could not get through nor could paycheques and newspapers. Indeed, the community was totally isolated.

Back then, direct deposits did not exist and popular satellite systems for television were still years away from development. The one radio station, which could be heard only at night, was WLS in Chicago. Any other news from the outside world was obtained through the use of one of four long-distance telephone lines that were kept humming most of the time or by two-way radio located at each of the three local air services. Reports to headquarters and other agencies were frustrating and time consuming because every time you picked up the telephone you got a busy signal. Whenever we did get through it was cause for celebration.

Not long after our arrival word had spread that the “chief cop’s wife” was a nurse. The detachment soon became a place for people to come with minor injuries or ailments. One afternoon I answered a knock on the door to find a middle-aged native woman holding a pair of snowshoes. She couldn’t speak much English, but Myra and I did hear the words: “Nurse come!”

While Myra grabbed a small briefcase filled with first aid supplies, I retrieved two pairs of snowshoes from the garage. We got into the police vehicle and followed the woman’s gesticulated directions for roughly 10 kilometres until we were told to stop. I parked the vehicle and the three of us got out. The woman pointed to a small trail leading east into the bush. She then bent down and tied the lampwick laces of her snowshoes to her mukluks.

Myra and I looked at each other and then at our snowshoes. We then spent a few seconds contemplating how far we would have to trek into the bush. Neither of us had walked in snowshoes and so we had no idea how quickly we could learn the skill or how far we could go.

Quite aware that time seemed to be of the essence, Myra and I buckled on our commercial snowshoes, which were equipped with leather straps, and followed the woman single file along the narrow, snow-filled path into the bush. The two of us could barely keep up even though we knew the woman was moving at a slower than usual pace.

For the first few hundred metres, Myra and I took turns stumbling and falling into the snow. After each tumble we struggled to uncross the snowshoes and bring our snow-covered bodies to an upright position. We tumbled and snaked our way through the trees and underbrush for about a kilometre and I remember how our faces stung from the frozen needle scrapes of several overhanging evergreen branches. Eventually we came to the shore of a frozen lake and were soon directed to a small log cabin nestled amongst the black spruce. The building was roughly three metres square and the top of its bough-covered peaked roof was no more than six feet above the ground. The small door was covered in canvas and there was snow banked against the outside walls to provide additional insulation against the bitter cold.

Myra and I had to duck our heads to enter the tiny abode and once inside we had to wait a few moments while our eyes adjusted to the darkness. The cabin, which had a dirt floor, was heated by a wood-burning stove. There was an elderly woman, covered in blankets, curled up against one wall. Myra’s examination found that the elderly woman was burning with fever and that her breathing was raspy. This led her to believe that the woman was stricken with pneumonia. Myra knew we had to get her to a hospital as soon as possible, and she told me she would not be leaving without the woman who had become her patient.

I left the trio alone and returned to Central Patricia where I made arrangements with the Indian Affairs hospital at Sioux Lookout to have the woman airlifted as soon as possible. Initially, hospital officials were somewhat reluctant to authorize the expense of a charter aircraft based solely on my word. However, they quickly agreed to charter the aircraft when I told them the woman’s condition had been determined by a registered nurse.

The three women were waiting for me at the side of the road by the time I got back to the path leading into the woods. Myra and the native woman had wrapped the patient in blankets, lifted her onto a toboggan and pulled her through the bush to the road. It wasn’t long before the patient was flown to Sioux Lookout where she made a full recovery.

By the beginning of the following winter, Myra and I had obtained Ojibwa snowshoes, handcrafted by an elderly Osnaburgh House resident. The long, narrow shoes with an upward curl on the front were much more preferable than the short, wide and flat style issued by the department. When time permitted, Myra and I would go out on snowshoeing treks–both for the fun and for the practice.

By the end of June the backlog of investigations and the mountain of mail stalemated by the spring break-up had been dealt with. I was having a leisurely day, staying inside and away from the multitudes of blackflies when the telephone rang. It was Father Charland, the Roman Catholic priest who lived in the rectory next door and ministered the parishes of Central Patricia and New Osnaburgh. We had become friends and he and his assistant, Brother Martin, were frequent visitors to our home. On Sundays–if not out on a call–I would attend church and occasionally read an extract from an Epistle to the small congregation.

Father Charland was fluent in English, French and Ojibwa and had lived among the Ojibwa and Cree since becoming an Oblate missionary. Central Patricia was his most southerly posting and I quite frequently relied on him for translation services. I was always amazed at his fluency and how easily he switched from English to French and Ojibwa.

I soon discovered that the purpose of his telephone call was to invite me to the rectory to meet Father Maurice Ouimet who had arrived from his parish at Lansdowne House, some 160 kilometres northeast of Central Patricia.

ther Ouimet had been a missionary for many years and was very well known. He and the Ojibwa built the first church in the area using a small sawmill provided by a brother of the Oblate order.

Towards the end of our visit he mentioned that a sawmill–run by Indian band members at the Fort Hope reserve–had been vandalized and that some items, including a chainsaw, had been stolen.

Two days later I chartered a plane from Hooker Air Service at Pickle Lake. It took two hours to fly to Fort Hope and as the plane touched down on Eabamet Lake I noticed that a crowd had gathered on the dock. My pilot, who had been briefed on my mission during the flight, elected to stay with the aircraft until I returned.

The Fort Hope Indian reserve was a fairly progressive community. It had a school and a nursing station. And in addition to supporting the sawmill operation, the people had formed a co-operative store and were in the process of clearing land for an airstrip. The community was also blessed with a wooded boardwalk.

The pride of Eabamet Lake was Johnny YESNO, a Canadian radio, television and movie star who was born and raised in the community, but who now lived and worked in Winnipeg.

The chief was unavailable, but I still managed to collect a lot of information on the vandalism and theft. During my investigation, while walking along the shore of the lake, a young male accosted me. He demanded to know whether he was the person I was looking for. He became very belligerent and displayed physical signs of having consumed alcohol.

I should explain that by democratic vote of its residents, Fort Hope was a dry reserve. That meant no alcoholic beverages were permitted to be had or consumed within its boundaries. I told the young man that he could be the person I was looking for if he was the one who stole the chainsaw from the sawmill.

“What if I did?” he replied.

“Then I’ll have to take you with me,” I told him.

With that the young man became very aggressive and raised his fists into a boxer’s stance. Instinctively I slammed my fist into his cheek, fully expecting him to fall to the ground where I could cuff him. Instead, he responded like a raging bull. He shook off the blow leaving me with the impression that my best punch may as well have struck a tree. I lunged at him and we toppled to the ground. We rolled in the mud along the water’s edge until I finally managed to cuff one of his wrists and place him in the prone position with his two arms behind his back. All I needed was a third hand to snap the empty cuff on his other wrist.

Looking up I noticed that a large crowd had gathered along the crest of the bank. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but by the tone of the conversations I got the feeling that the support was not entirely in my favour. I sat on my screaming prisoner for what seemed like an eternity until a short, slight white male emerged from the crowd. I asked him to snap on the other handcuff, which he did. He then suggested I should leave as soon as possible because some of my prisoner’s friends were on the verge of attack.

I thanked him and then raised my prisoner’s cuffed wrists. This pressure provided sufficient pain to force him to his feet.

When the pilot saw us moving toward the plane–wet and covered in mud with a loud mob in pursuit–it didn’t take him long to untie all but one of the plane’s mooring ropes and then fire up the engine.

I quickly shoved the prisoner into the back seat before untying the last rope and giving the plane a firm push away from the dock. I remember sitting down next to the pilot with a huge sigh of relief.

On the return flight we had to endure the prisoner’s boasting on how it had taken two people to arrest him. I discovered that my saviour had been the school principal, a man from southern Ontario who had remained in Fort Hope during the early summer in order to finish his paperwork.

The next day my prisoner’s attitude was much more subdued. I learned who he was and that he was only 20. He was advised he’d be charged with liquor offences, which included consumption by a minor. The legal drinking age at the time was 21.

When it came to the delicate task of attempting to obtain a confession regarding the vandalism and theft, I had very little to go on without any witnesses or physical evidence.

I decided to take my prisoner downstairs to the interrogation room where there was a table with a large reel-to-reel tape recorder, complete with headphones and microphone. A large green bulb shone whenever the machine was turned on.

Banking on his isolated upbringing and lack of knowledge of electronic equipment, I convinced him the machine was a lie detector and that the green light would turn red if the machine detected a lie. With the machine turned on and the headphones on his head, he described in detail his involvement in the vandalism at the sawmill and where the stolen property could be recovered.

He appeared in court a few days later and after pleading guilty was sentenced to a short jail term. The chief of Fort Hope was delighted when the sawmill property was returned.

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