Remembering the CANOL at the MacBride Museum

Michael Gates Special for the News Whitehorse residents crammed into the MacBride Museum last Thursday night to discuss CANOL, the secret pipeline and refinery project undertaken in Whitehorse during World War II.

Michael Gates

Special for the News

Whitehorse residents crammed into the MacBride Museum last Thursday night to discuss CANOL, the secret pipeline and refinery project undertaken in Whitehorse during World War II.

The meeting room at the museum was full to overflowing, and chairs had to be set up in the lobby to accommodate the large crowd in attendance for a special presentation. The event, instigated by Pat Ellis, included speakers Ellen Davignon and Sally Robinson, accompanied by slides, sound and video clips.

There is little left in the Yukon today to remind us of this construction mega-project. The Japanese invasion of Alaska became a distinct possibility after the occupation of Attu and Kiska, two outlying islands in the Aleutians. The United States thought that a supply of oil that was not dependent upon coastal transportation was of utmost strategic importance.

Thus was born the idea of transporting oil from Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories, to Whitehorse, where it could be refined into products essential to the war effort. Over 20,000 men and women were employed in this friendly invasion of the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Museum member Keith Halliday acted as the master of ceremonies. Opening the evening, he laid out some background information of the project. The Yukon and Alaska became strategically important on the world stage during the war, with mega-projects like CANOL, the Alaska Highway, and the North West Staging Route, the latter being a string of landing strips spanning the north.

It should be noted that the CANOL project was considered one of the biggest boondoggles of the Second World War. Started the spring of 1942, the pipeline and the refinery were supposed to be up and running by October 1. Almost two years dragged before it was completed, long after its strategic value had vanished, at five times the projected cost. It is said that the project consumed more oil than it ever produced.

Halliday’s introduction was followed with a 12-minute segment taken from a film on the CANOL project that was produced during the war by former Yukoner Richard Finnie. This clip portrayed the project through a stirring and patriotic lens. The film was followed with the showing of a number of still photos kindly provided by the Northwest Territory Archives, and a short audio clip from an old interview with Finnie about the CANOL project.

Notable in Finnie’s interview is reference to the blindly ignorant confidence of American contractors when the project began. These men had never heard of permafrost before the project started, but they certainly had by the end. Finnie said that he saw many self-styled so-called experts come north full of self confidence, and leave weeping, weeks or months later.

Ellen Davignon provided an entertaining and informative perspective of someone who grew up during the CANOL years. She recalls how three men came to see her father about a problem with fires in the CANOL pump stations, which he was whisked off to solve. After the war, her family got a start in business at Johnson’s Crossing by supplying food and lodging to the salvage crews who came in after the war to clean up the abandoned supplies along the CANOL route. Her account was peppered with humorous and earthy stories of life during that era.

Yukon historian Sally Robinson described the historic resources that can still be found along the extent of the CANOL. Of particular interest were her remarks about the suspension bridge at Ross River. Threatened by demolition earlier this year, the bridge, which is perhaps the most charismatic of the surviving elements of CANOL, was saved by a community initiative that has been held up as a model for heritage preservation everywhere. When demolition crews arrived at the site last winter, they were met by the entire Ross River village, which was camped out for fun and games on the ice at the bridge.

The contractors were told that they couldn’t bring down the bridge because the community was having a party. The gentle and non-confrontational tone of the protest made it easy for the government to reconsider their plans for demolition, said Robinson. The south tower of the bridge has already been repaired, and once the Pelly freezes over, they can get started on the tower on the opposite shore.

After a brief intermission during which everybody enjoyed a tasty spread of treats and purchased copies of Pat Ellis’ book The CANOL Adventure, guests returned to the meeting room to watch Allan Code’s 2006 documentary film, CANOL: Strange Invasion.

Featured in the film is Kaska elder Art Johns Sr., who, as a young man in 1942 led the first party of surveyors over the route that would be followed by northern Canada’s first mega-project. Johns, who was 92 years of age at the time of filming, offered up interesting insights into the pipeline and the impacts that it has had upon his land and his people.

Everyone appeared to enjoy the evening’s program, and few left before the final film was over.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net