Tucked along the shores of Lake Athabasca, the history of this tiny hamlet once heralded as the Emporium of the North dates back thousands of years.
Its ancestors can be traced to those early civilizations that migrated across the land bridge once found between Europe and the lands that were to become Canada and the United States.
While some of these first peoples continued travelling south, some stayed, calling this expanse of Boreal forest in northeastern Alberta home.
The Dene, the early inhabitants of Fort Chipewyan, can speak with their Navajo and Apache distant cousins in the southern United States. In fact, the Dene language has been traced as far south as Peru.
Those a little doubtful of the historic migration are invited to look up the Mongolian spot or blue spot. It’s a testament to the migration of who became our first peoples.
Studies undertaken in the Athabasca area to meet the conservation requirements of the Alberta Historical Resources Act have yielded a rich and varied record of prehistoric habitation and activity in this oil sands area. Several major excavations including those around Syncrude Canada and Muskeg River, have revealed thousands and thousands of artefacts dating from between 5,000 and 9,500 years ago, confirming extensive human use of the region’s resources.
The modern day Fort Chipewyan came into being a few hundred years ago, thanks to burgeoning trade with the Europeans as Canada was being explored and settled. Though Chipewyan is their more common English name, the Chipewyan people collectively call themselves Dene which means The People. Chipewyan is generally regarded as being derived from a pejorative Cree description for their inadequacy of their early attempts to prepare beaver skins for the fur trade.
This remote hamlet is the oldest settlement in Alberta, officially established as a trading post of the North West Company in 1788, hence the addition of the word Fort to Chipewyan. The booming activity in the area resulted in Alberta being settled from the north to the south bucking the norm of settlement which has traditionally occurred from the south to the north in other Canadian provinces.
The area was abundantly rich in fur-bearing wildlife, and given its strategic location on Lake Athabasca at the confluence of three rivers (Athabasca, Peace and Slave), it was a logical choice for the early fur trade.
As such, Fort Chipewyan soon became the scene of many fierce struggles between the North West Company (NWC), the XY Company (XYC) and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).
The history of this once booming El Dorado of the fur trade is colourful, vibrant and full of energy. It gained the nickname Emporium of the North because of the size of the post, the amount of trade that passed through it and the number of people who lived within its walls.
“It’s very interesting; very much alive,” says Oliver Glanfield, who was the manager of the Fort Chipewyan Bicentennial Museum since it opened its doors in 1988 starting off as a volunteer.
Even at 86, Glanfield doesn’t consider himself retired.
“I haven’t really retired yet,” he chuckles.
“If anyone wanted to dig in to Fort Chip history and the history of northeastern Alberta, they would be quite surprised at the activity that took place up here during the fur trade years.”
The exterior of the Fort Chipewyan museum is an exact replica of the Hudson’s Bay store of 1870.
A dedicated guardian of history, Glanfield was always more than happy to guide visitors through the museum - both floors - regaling them with intricate details and facts with such intimate knowledge that history was visible to the mind’s eye. Even today, he is always agreeable to talk about Fort Chipewyan and its history that figures predominantly in the history and development of Canada.
Glanfield is so knowledgeable of the area’s history, he can talk about the details on practically every artefact in the museum and has been responsible for history books chronicling the history of Fort Chipewyan.
“The whole book” is Glanfield’s favourite part of the hamlet’s history.
“It’s quite active; filled with all kinds of stories of bravery, entrepreneurship and rivalry. It was a real active community.
“So many people do not know the history and I feel that it’s a very important part of the history of Canada, but you talk to somebody down in Ontario and they keep saying ‘Where is Fort Chippewa?’ Well, Chippewa is in Ontario; not up here.”
While the Dene were the original inhabitants of the area, the Métis arrived early on as well, many migrating to the area thanks to the fur trade, either as employees of the trading companies, as trappers or as entrepreneurs.
“They were here with Peter Pond when he came in. There was Métis with the North West Company and the HBC. The Métis were here very early in the fur trade,” points out Glanfield.
To this day, he delights in sharing stories of the antics fuelled by the rivalry between the trading companies with tales of how they set each other’s forts on fire and stole supplies; even kidnapping each other’s sled dogs.
Even the NWC had its start from conflict in the area nearly a decade before Fort Chipewyan was officially founded and named.
Around 1779, the company’s original 16 shares were held by nine partnerships, including business leaders Simon McTavish (the eventual owner), Isaac Todd and James McGill.
Meanwhile, explorer Peter Pond travelled with a First Nations person into the Canadian North in 1778, opening up the Athabasca region.
A 1780 re-organization joined McTavish, the Frobisher brothers, the McGills and the Ellices, with Pond as their agent in the Athabasca country.
Pond’s inland encounter with opposition trader Jean-Étienne Waddens and Wadden’s murder in March 1782 for which Pond was implicated, along with increased American and HBC competition, highlighted the need for a more unified, formal and permanent organization going forward. As a result, the NWC became an enduring multiple partnership controlled by the Frobishers and McTavish in the winter of 1783-84. It did an annual trade valued at about £100,000 which converts to about $175,000 CDN by today’s currency exchange.
Despite this partnership, a powerful rival endured: Gregory, McLeod and Co backed by John Ross and other traders not included in the NWC, and the intense rivalry ensued for three years from 1784. Pond was again linked with murder - this time of John Ross, one of NWC’s wintering partners, in Athabasca. As history dictated, coalition was the answer, and in mid-1787, the Nor’Westers and Gregory, McLeod and Co amalgamated. Dominated by the firm of McTavish, Frobisher, and Co. out of Montreal, these historically described dynamic entrepreneurs came together, including men like Roderick Mackenzie and Alexander Mackenzie from the ranks of their former rivals.
Now three years before Fort Chipewyan became official, Roderick Mackenzie was employed as a clerk and as his cousin Alexander’s assistant at Gregory, McLeod & Co. Roderick was the most prominent of several men with the Mackenzie name who were involved in the fur trade. He was a first cousin Alexander, who became a renowned explorer, figuring prominently in Canadian history for accomplishing the first east to west crossing of North America north of Mexico, which preceded the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition by 12 years. His overland crossing of what is now Canada reached the Pacific Ocean in 1793. The Mackenzie River, the longest river system in Canada and the second longest in North America, is named after him.
Additional Mackenzies in the fur trade were three of Roderick’s brothers: Donald, James, and Henry, as well as his father-in-law, his brother-in-law Charles Chaboillez, and his relative by marriage, McTavish.
Roderick spent the following winter at Pinehouse Lake, reporting that the rivalry between their firm and the NWC was so intense it had resulted in Ross’s murder. At McTavish’s invitation, Gregory, McLeod & Co. joined the NWC later that year, ending the tensions.
In 1787, Roderick joined Alexander in Athabasca to establish Fort Chipewyan as the NWC’s headquarters in the region. He had earlier decided to leave the fur trade, apparently feeling that his position as clerk, which gave him no share in the profits, was akin to slavery. Alexander persuaded him to stay on and in 1788, Roderick travelled to Lake Athabasca becoming one of the founders of Fort Chipewyan. He had been sent to replace Pond, still their agent in the Athabasca country. Known for a vicious temper, Pond was eventually shuffled out.
It was here that Roderick established a library that was not only for the immediate residents of Fort Chipewyan, but for traders and clerks of the whole region tributary to Lake Athabasca. In a somewhat jocular vein, he envisioned that it would be “the little Athens of the Arctic regions.” This library, built in 1790, held more than 2,000 books, and became one of the most famous in the whole extent of Rupert’s Land, a territory in British North America comprising the Hudson Bay drainage basin, a territory in which a commercial monopoly was operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company for 200 years from 1670 to 1870.
During Alexander’s many absences while off exploring, Roderick was left in charge, ultimately succeeding him in 1794 when Alexander returned to Montreal. Roderick was made a partner of the NWC the following year.
The XYC – the New North West Co. – was named after the marks used to distinguish its bales of goods from those of the NWC, and was a product of conflicts between NWC agents (led by McTavish) and NWC winterers, following the company’s re-organization in 1795.
In 1797-98, Montreal partners who did not join the 1795 agreement became a focal point for uncommitted or alienated winterers, and in 1798, they fielded an opposition that reached as far as Athabasca. In 1800, Alexander joined the new venture, which then became popularly known as Alexander Mackenzie & Co. According to historical documents, rivalry became intense and costly. The use of liquor in the trade rose sharply; more employees were needed and were able to sue for higher wages in both firms. When McTavish died in 1804, it removed a focus of personal hostilities and disaffection allowing the NWC and XYC to negotiate a coalition. Their agreement that year created a new powerful and monopolistic NWC of 100 shares; 75 to be held by the old Nor’Westers and 25 by the former XYC partners.
While NWC was cementing its business in Fort Chipewyan, HBC quickly followed suit, establishing two forts in the area: Nottingham, House in early 1800 and Fort Wedderburn in 1815.
The forts were usually multi-building enclosures that included barracks, officers’ quarters, a Chief Factor’s residence, a general store, and a fur store.
At the Hudson Bay trading store in Fort Chipewyan, Aboriginal hunters would bring their fur pelts to trade for the European markets. Beaver pelts were the main currency and used to set the standard prices. Store clerks would exchange, for example, one gun for fourteen beaver pelts, five pounds of gunpowder for one beaver pelt and one pound of tobacco for two beaver pelts.
For a while, there was competition between the XYC post and Nottingham House, but that changed by 1805 when the XYC and NWC amalgamated, and the HBC was forced out by competition and bullying.
The following decade was prosperous for Fort Chipewyan, but by 1814, the returns from furs were showing a decline and Roderick’s library is described as “not only neglected, but almost destroyed.”
When the HBC returned to the area to build Fort Wedderburn, property was damaged, the English and First Nations were intimidated by the NWC, Samuel Black and others; provisions were withheld, and finally, Colin Robertson, the head of the HBC’s Athabasca program, was captured and held prisoner for most of one trading season.
The HBC eventually gained control of the fur trading business merging with its most successful rival, NWC in 1821, and became the headquarters for HBC’s Athabasca district. The fur trade, however, continued to decline. Fort Chipewyan continued being the depot for the Peace River region, although by 1833 the Athabasca River was being supplied from Edmonton.
Sir George Simpson arrived at Fort Wedderburn in 1820-1821 and began to reorganize the fur trade. HBC history lists him as the Governor-in-Chief of HBC during the period of its greatest power. During the period from 1820 to 1860, he was in practice, if not in law, the British viceroy for the whole of Rupert’s Land. That same history reports that Simpson’s efficient administration of the west was a precondition for the confederation of western and eastern Canada. He was noted for his grasp of administrative detail and his physical stamina in travelling through the wilderness.
By the end of the 19th century, changing fashion tastes contributed to the fur trade losing importance. Western settlement and the Gold Rush quickly introduced a new type of client with different currency to HBC: One that shopped with cash, not skins. In 1869, HBC reached an agreement to transfer Rupert’s Land, granted to the Company in the Royal Charter, back to the Crown. The deal was finalized the following year and the land was included in the new Dominion of Canada three years after Confederation, making way for continued settlement in western Canada.
It also signalled the arrival of the retail era and HBC shifted its focus, transforming trading posts into sale shops, stocked with a wider variety of goods than ever before.
Additional significant moments in the history of Fort Chipewyan include 1820 when Sir John Franklin set out from Fort Chipewyan on his overland Arctic journey in 1820. A great famine hit the area in 1887-1888 and it wasn’t until 1959 that electric lights arrived in Fort Chipewyan.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate founded a mission in 1851 and the Anglicans followed in 1874. The North West Mounted Police – the predecessor to the RCMP – established a post in Fort Chipewyan in 1898 and the following year, Treaty 8 was signed.
Air continues to be the only means of year-round access to the oldest continuously occupied settlement in Alberta. It is not yet served by a year-round road; just the winter roads opened every year between Fort McMurray and Fort Smith. In the winter, it can also be reached by snowmobile for the adventurous and by boat in the summer.
Despite its embattled early days, Fort Chipewyan is a peaceful community, one that embraces its commitment to traditional ways of life and cultures while embracing amenities of the 21st century such as broadband high speed Internet service.
As one of the northernmost communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), it was welcomed into the regional family on April 1, 1985 when the city of Fort McMurray and Improvement District No. 143 (previously north and south parts of Improvement District No. 18) to form the regional municipality.
Residents can also enjoy the amenities offered at The Sonny Flett Aquatic Centre and The Archie Simpson Memorial Arena, each named after respected community Elders.
Currently, the RMWB lists the population of Fort Chipewyan at just over 1,200 people. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, Mikisew Cree First Nation and Métis Local 125 make up the majority of those who continue to call Fort Chipewyan home.
The community relies on seasonal trapping and fishing, supplemented by employment in the nearby oil sands and Wood Buffalo National Park. Fort Chipewyan is the gateway to this national treasure.
There are a number of businesses in town now and the oldest family run business is The Athabasca Café.
Known for its burgers and cure-all breakfast, its doors first opened nearly 70 years ago.
Serena Mah, whose parents Dickie and Kim, ran the business, recalls that her dad first arrived in Fort Chipewyan in 1944. Her mother, who can still be found cooking up the tasty fare, arrived 13 years later in 1957.
The Mah’s have six children and 17 grandchildren.
“My father’s grandfather came to Canada for a better life,” remembers Mah, speaking on behalf of her mother. “My grandfather was working in Fort McMurray in a restaurant there and they worked on the barge that ran from Fort McMurray to Yellowknife. They stopped in Fort Chipewyan because of bad weather and they noticed there was no restaurant.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
When Mah’s mother arrived as a young bride to this foreign land, she found it cold and unfamiliar; the language unknown.
“She tells me it was strange, scary, and she remembers crying. She was in culture shock and was getting used to a new family and a husband she didn’t know.”
When Dickie passed away in 1988, Mah says her mother stayed because she wanted to continue to make a living to provide for her family.
“At that time, I was just graduating from high school and she felt her job as a mother wasn’t done. It’s years later and she still continues to working.”
Over six decades later, Mah says her mother happily describes Fort Chipewyan as her home.
“She describes it as her home. It’s the place where she is entirely independent and comfortable in her surroundings.”
Though her mother wouldn’t describe herself as a pioneer only because she doesn’t know what it means, Mah explains her mother would describe herself as incredibly strong.
Her mother still works at the café seven days a week.
“Mom says there are people in and out of Fort Chipewyan all the time. Business isn’t as robust as it once was. She does recognize the people that come and go.”
Despite all her years at the café, retirement continues to be a moving target.
“She keeps telling us she will retire in two years, but the years keep passing by,” chuckles Mah. “All of us kids want her to move out, but she’s not ready to let go of the community and the last connection to our father.”
Mah adds that over the years, her mother has noticed major changes in the community.
“She remembers a time with dog sleds and when bombardiers where the mode of transportation. She also remembers fondly a time when the Elders played a prominent role in the community. For instance, the late Elsie Yanik, who became our adopted grandmother, made all of us parkas, mittens and mukluks. She also remembers a time when life was simpler, when people lived off the land by trapping and fishing. She loves this community and credits it for making all her children successful.
“Sadly, when she moves out, a piece of Fort Chipewyan history will go with her. She never wanted any of her children to serve cups of coffee and work the long hours she and my father had to endure. Success means her children will never return and when she moves out, a piece of Chinese history will also disappear as the only Asian restaurant in a prairie town.”