Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ‘Coulees to Muskeg – A Saskatchewan Environmental History’ series. This series is a partnership between NiCHE and the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society (SHFS). All articles in the series appear on the NiCHE website and are published in SHFS’s Folklore magazine. You can become a member of SHFS and subscribe to Folklore HERE. To contribute to this series, see the CFP HERE.
In 2017, at the Saskatchewan Archives in Regina, I stumbled across a tape cassette from the Saskatchewan Indian History Film Project.1 I was researching environmental policy in the province and found an interview with A.H. MacDonald conducted by Canadian author and journalist Murray Dobbin. The archivist found some headphones and a tape player. In an instant, I heard my grandfather’s voice – it was one I hadn’t heard in thirty years.
Augustus Hector MacDonald was the greatest man I never knew. I was nine when he died in the hospital in Saskatoon after suffering a stroke. I don’t have any childhood memories of him. The few boxes of uncatalogued manuscripts at the Archive as well as the loving memories of his seven children, including my mom, have preserved the outlines of a life that stretched across the globe.2 Looking back, I can see that he played an oversized role in Saskatchewan politics in the 1940s and 50s, and then again in the 1970s.
Gus, as he was called by friends, was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia in 1910. He seemed destined to be a coal miner like his dad and brothers. Instead, he started university at St. Francis Xavier (St. FX) in Antigonish and earned a one-year scholarship to attend Columbia University in New York. His transcripts indicate that he studied sociology and economic co-operatives. He earned money playing baseball for a practice team with the Brooklyn Dodgers. After the year, he returned home and worked shifts in the coal mine while finishing his schooling at St. FX.
During the “Dirty Thirties,” he worked at the Extension Department at St. FXs and became close associate with the leaders of the Antigonish Movement, Rev. Dr. Moses Coady and Rev. Jimmy Tompkins. The Movement, part social and part economic, was a reaction to rural devastation in Nova Scotia. It was led by the Catholic Church but based on emancipatory theories of democratic action and co-operation.3 Through study clubs held across rural areas, the Movement organized people – especially fishermen, farmers, and miners – and created credit unions and co-operatives (such as canneries and warehouses). The Extension Department offered a leadership course and hosted cultural programs, technical workshops, debates, library services, and lectures.4 In the early days Gus would help out at the Extension School, and later he was overseeing leadership courses in different school branches, including one in Newfoundland.
In 1940, he hoped to join his two brothers by volunteering for military service, but was deemed unfit due to a fractured vertebra. Gus changed his plans and took a job in Nova Scotia. Between 1941 and 1946, he was the Secretary Treasurer of United Maritime Fisherman, which at the time was the largest marketing organization on the Atlantic coast. He married Mary MacNeil in 1945 and that same year started consulting work on fisheries for Saskatchewan’s Premier, Tommy Douglas. It was here that he made a name for himself. In 1947, he was appointed to the provincial Royal Commission on Fisheries, and subsequently made Director of Fisheries. Gus and his pregnant wife then moved from Glace Bay to Prince Albert.
His knowledge of co-operative education and marketing was a desired asset – far beyond Saskatchewan, and even Canada’s, borders. Gus took a leave of absence from the province to join the Canadian delegation on the Columbo Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia as an advisor on fishery co-operatives. The Columbo Plan was broadly about fighting the spread of communism in Asia after World War II. Canada provided foreign aid, but also took the position that “people of the region would really have to do it themselves,” and aid could “help make a start by providing at most missing components in the form of technologies.”5 Canada sent resources and various people, including Gus, to Southeast Asia to work on development projects.
Gus travelled by car to Saskatoon and flew from Halifax to Rome. After taking his wife and three children to visit the Vatican, the family flew to Beirut, Bahrain, Karachi, Bombay and, finally, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). What an adventure for a miner from the tiny town of Glace Bay! He took his work very seriously. The “technology” that Gus was to deliver in Ceylon was co-operative marketing for fisheries. His goal, similar to what the Antigonish Movement achieved in rural NS, was to offer leadership training and educate local people in Colombo and Kandy about the value of co-operatives and fish marketing.
When Gus returned to his home in Saskatchewan in 1957, he was appointed the very first Director of Northern Affairs. He was tasked with helping to bring “economic development” to the Northern region. During Douglas’ years as Premier there was a focus, especially by the Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Phelps, on extending roads, electrical power, and resource extraction northward.6 While the CCF would defend this strategy as “putting humanity first,” both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars criticized their form of colonialism.7 Like other governments before and after it, the Douglas government sought resources and control in the North, often exploiting the environment and Indigenous peoples.
Indeed, Gus was meant to address the “Indian Problem” in the North head-on. In the 1959 report “Co-operatives and People of Indian Ancestry,” he wrote “anyone who has ever visited an Indian reserve or observed the hovels of people of Indian ancestry on the periphery of our towns and cities, realizes that Canada has a colonial problem of considerable magnitude.” Further, he noted the “economic and social conditions of the people of Indian ancestry are a disgrace in a country as rich in resources as Canada.” He felt strongly that Indigenous people “have been deprived of responsible decision making and participation roles and this has led to a pattern of accepted dependency.”8 Lasting change in the North could only come about by the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in co-operatives and development.
For his part, Gus spent extensive time on Métis and First Nation fishing boats and traplines. He saw his work as a direct extension of the Antigonish Movement with its focus on education and co-operatives. In the interview I listened to at the Archive, Gus told Murray Dobbin, “my bias, and I try to be as open as possible about this, was to get the people to do their own thing. Development itself cannot be done by anybody outside. It must be done by the people.” He went on to point out that a mistake of the government at the time was the “idea that the Indian-Metis people were not educated, and they were isolated, and they were scattered and therefore, [government] had to do things for them.”9 During the almost five years he spent as Director, fish marketing significantly increased. But the province was not near as successful at improving the lives of its Indigenous population. Gus may have championed inclusion, but he participated in a failed project of assimilation. So called “economic development” was not easily accepted by Northern peoples.
When the Liberal Party formed a government in 1964, Gus left Saskatchewan to join a three-month Canadian Mission to the Republic of Kenya. Almost immediately upon his return, he was hired as a full-time fisheries officer for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) and sent to Tanzania. Gus, Mary, and their seven children, all of whom had been born in Prince Albert, journeyed across the world for Gus’ new appointment. Before their departure, the Government of Saskatchewan recognized Gus’ contributions to the Province by naming the geographical features of Gus Island and MacDonald Channel at Otter Lake.
Between 1966-68, Gus was appointed Chief Fisheries Officer for the UNFOA in eastern and east central part of Africa and then the Director of Fisheries in Tanzania for two years. Following this, he was appointed Development Officer on the Volta Lake Research Project in Ghana and then Project Manager of the Central Fisheries Research Station, Lusaka Zambia. For over a decade, he and his wife, with seven children in tow, traveled across Africa, with sometimes long stays in Rome at the UN headquarters. Often, he met with high-ranking officials and delegates or ambassadors, but most of his time was spent on fishing boats with local people.
In 1973, Gus was granted an honorary Doctor of Laws from St. FX. The citation from the ceremony indicates that it was for his work as a “sturdy front-line fighter for humanity” and representative of the Antigonish Movement principles.
Left: Citation from the St. FX Ceremony. Right: Mary MacDonald receiving, on behalf of her husband, the honorary Doctor of Laws from St. FX.
In 1976, Gus returned to Saskatchewan. Within a year, he was appointed by Alan Blakeney’s NDP government to be Chairman of the Board of Inquiry for the Churchill River Project. At the time, Blakeney’s government was exploring energy projects across the province. The Sask. Power Corporation had announced plans to dam the Churchill River at Wintego Rapids to produce hydroelectricity for the province. In the mid-1970s the project came under scrutiny by the province and Indigenous organizations because it threatened the environment, commercial fishing, and Northern communities who trapped, hunted, and fished across the area.10
The plight of Indigenous people weighed heavily on Gus. He often wrote about this in his personal papers. In 1977, as Chairman he traveled the Churchill by boat and met with communities in the North. He authored a report entitled “Indians and Metis,” where he wrote “if the Indian proved anything, it is he cannot be destroyed. He has kept faith in his values, in his way of life and he has reached a stage where he is in a position to demand to be treated as equal, educated and compensated for the land given up by means of questionable treaties.”11
Gus and the Board said no to the Wintego dam on the basis that the “river systems have special cultural, historic, and scenic values worthy of preservation.”12 The Board recommend to Blakeney’s government that the river-delta system be established as a heritage waterway in collaboration with Indigenous peoples. They recommended a freeze on property leases or sales as well as a freeze on timber and mineral leases. The Board also felt that archaeological research should be supported and expanded to include field work by local people. Finally, the Board recommended that land entitlement claims arising out of unfulfilled treaty land entitlements (Treaty 6, Peter Ballantyne Band) be settled immediately.13
In the end, the only recommendation the government followed through on was not constructing a dam at Wintego Rapids. The Saskatchewan government has never addressed the other recommendations. Hopefully, one day the province and Canada will formally recognize the Churchill as a heritage waterway and support the ongoing Indigenous-led protection of the river system.
In 1980, the year I was born, Gus retired and moved to Saskatoon. He died May 23rd, 1989 – a few weeks after he sold his house to relocate British Columbia.
In the summer of 2020, I travelled to Missinipe and Otter Lake to see Gus Island and MacDonald Channel from a float plane. I am the first family member to do so. Perhaps more importantly, my husband and I later found ourselves sitting around a family table in a Cree home being fed bannock and walleye. The kindness of strangers remains unchanged in the North and I know my grandfather had shared similar meals with families he met in fishing boats and on traplines. That evening I saw the Churchill as my grandfather saw it.
- Gus Macdonald interview, by Murray Dobbin (Regina; Canadian Plains Research Center: June 29, 1976): http://hdl.handle.net/10294/1336.
- These papers were donated to the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, but have not been catalogued and made accessible to outside researchers. As a family member, I was given permission to access these records. Given that they are uncatalogued, I am unable to provide certain archival access information (e.g., box and file numbers).
- St. Francis Xavier University Extension Department. No date. “Our History.” https://www.stfxextension.ca/our-history/ Accessed November 17, 2020. The work of Rev. Coady and Thompkins was rooted in Leo VIII’s Rerum Novarum 1891.
- David McGee and Rian Manson. “Canada, Communism, and the Columbo Plan.” in Objects in Motion: Globalizing Technology, edited by Nina Mollers and Bryan Dewalt (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2016), 46-64, http://aidhistory.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07.
- Kathleen Carlisle. 2017. Fiery Joe: The Maverick Who Lit Up the West. University of Regina Press.
- David Quiring contends that during the first CCF government in Saskatchewan exhibited a pattern of northern colonialism in his CCF Colonialism in Northern Saskatchewan: Battling Parish Priests, Bootleggers, and Fur Sharks (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004).
- Gus MacDonald Papers, 2829, Box 5.
- Daniel Macfarlane and Andrea Olive. Forthcoming. “Whither Wintego: Environmental Impact Assessment and Indigenous Opposition in Saskatchewan’s Churchill River Hydropower Project in the 1970.” Canadian Historical Review.
- Gus MacDonald Papers, 2829, Box 5.
- Churchill River Board of Inquiry Report – June 1978, Gus MacDonald Papers, 2829, Box 5, (PAS), vi.
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