GOVERNMENT PRESENCE: THE POLICE AND YUKON FIELD FORCE
They trained soldiers there (Fort Selkirk). My mother, they're young
that time. Lots of people thought they were fighting one another.
-Emma Johnson, 1994
Talking about the Yukon Field Force soldiers:
... they're fighting all the time. Drunk and they fight you see. That
time the Indian don't drink nothing. Lots of saloons down below.
-Tommy McGinty (FSEOHP, 1985, p. 2)
I used to come through the town here every day, and two or three
times a day, and see everybody. We'd share out medicines, or do anything
that was necessary of that kind, or whatever was to be done. We were all
friendly. There was no question of it.
-G.I. Cameron (FSOHP 1984, p. 137)
He used to come and get us if we miss school. Who do you think come
marching up to our house? Mr. Cameron!
-Rachel Tom Tom, 1994
The Northwest Mounted Police
In 1898, two members of the Northwest Mounted Police built a detachment
at Fort Selkirk. This was one of several police posts that were set up at
regular intervals along the Yukon River to monitor the heavy traffic during
the Klondike Gold Rush.
The police constructed two small log buildings, a storehouse and an
office building, immediately downriver of the Yukon Field Force buildings.
When the Yukon Field Force left the following year, they took over two of
the more substantial Field Force buildings, the orderly Room and the
Commanding officer's quarters. Despite the presence of the soldiers, it
seems as though the Mounted Police did most of the law enforcement work in
the community - checking in river travellers, prosecuting liquor infractions,
and generally keeping order. They also performed other government duties
including running the post office, tending the sick, and distributing rations
and supplies to First Nations people in times of want.
When the population of the territory dropped early in this century,
government services were cut back. The Fort Selkirk detachment closed in
1911 although for a few years there was a winter detachment at nearby Pelly
Crossing on the Whitehorse-Dawson win-ter road.
The Yukon Field Force
In 1898, the Canadian government dispatched the Yukon Field Force to the
Yukon Territory. This special force, consisting of 200 officers and men from
several Canadian army regiments, was sent to help the NWMP keep order during
the Klondike Gold Rush and assert Canadian sovereignty among the largely American
mining population. The soldiers travelled north by an all-Canadian route up the
Stikine River, overland along the Telegraph Trail to Teslin Lake, then down the
Teslin and Yukon Rivers - an arduous journey. Five women joined the YFF on this
trip - Faith Fenton, a Toronto newspaper reporter, and four members of the
Victoria Order of Nurses.
The YFF set up their headquarters at Fort Selkirk. As the settlement was
centrally located between Whitehorse and Dawson, it was briefly considered
as a potential capital for the new Yukon Territory. When the soldiers arrived
at Fort Selkirk, they must have caused a tremendous, if brief, disruption to
the community. A sawmill was set up and civilian contractors joined the soldiers
to build a complex of 11 large log buildings at the east end of town, an area
traditionally used by Northern Tutchone people. Their parade square was built
around a First Nations burial site. Soldiers patronized the saloons at the west
end of town and alcohol was involved in at least one soldier's death.
By the following spring, all the soldiers had either moved on to Dawson or
left the territory. Their legacy was the abandoned complex of buildings. One of
the large barracks buildings was used as a temporary hospital during a measles
epidemic among the First Nations people in 1902. Over the years the buildings
and building logs were relocated and recycled around the town. The Coward House
and the Garage behind it are both relocated YFF buildings, while the Anglican
Church and the first Big Jonathan House were built from Field Force logs.
Selkirk First Nation people still tell stories about the soldiers. They point
out the two holes in the basalt wall, targets for their seven-pounder field guns.
People thought soldiers were fighting amongst each other during training exercises.
Some even speculated that the military presence might be a belated inquiry into the
destruction of Campbell's post.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police & G. I. Cameron
In 1932, during a time that Fort Selkirk was growing, the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police returned to Fort Selkirk. They stayed at Fort Selkirk until 1949,
when the settlement was closing down. From 1935, the one-man detachment was staffed
by Corporal G.I. Cameron. The RCMP rented the cabin built by Afe Brown and this
building housed the police office and the Cameron family living quarters.
For nearly 15 years, Cpl. Cameron was the sole government representative in
the community. As well as carrying out his law enforcement duties, he maintained
the game laws, met all planes and sternwheelers, distributed medicines, helped
dig graves for burials, and did whatever else he felt was needed to make community
Cpl. Cameron was often away on extended patrols, travelling by boat in summer
and dog team in winter. He patrolled up and down the Yukon River as well as up
the Pelly and South Macmillan Rivers. He checked on people living in remote areas,
delivered their mail, doctored the sick, and buried those who died. During his
absences, Martha looked after the detachment and kept busy with jobs such as cutting
the detachment firewood, maintaining the airstrip behind town for White Pass Airways
and occasionally relieving the telegraph operator.
Cam and Martha Cameron and their daughter Ione who went on to be a Senator for the
Yukon were respected members of the community. Their home was always open to visitors
and travellers who needed a place to stay. Cpl. Cameron took a number of photographs and
movies showing life at Fort Selkirk in the late 1930s and 1940s. They give us an invaluable
picture of daily life in the river settlement during the sternwheeler era.
Most of the Mounted Police who worked at Fort Selkirk were undoubtedly hardworking
and well-meaning men. Nonetheless, some of the laws they represented were alien to Selkirk
First Nation people and often their methods of enforcement conflicted with traditional
ways of resolving disputes.
In recent years, many First Nations have been looking to traditional methods of
sentencing and rehabilitating offenders within the community. A number of First
Nations people are working for the RCMP, acting as a bridge between the police force
and the community. Indirectly, Fort Selkirk has been involved in this process as the
site of the Aboriginal Policing Conference in 1992.
Julie Cruikshank, 1991. Dän Dhá Ts'edenintth'é - Reading Voices, pp. 116-117.
R. Gotthardt, 1987. Selkirk Indian Band: Culture and Land Use Study.
C. McClellan et al, 1987. Part of the Land, Part of the Water.
Helene Dobrowolsky ed., 1985. Fort Selkirk Oral History Project, 1984.
Helene Dobrowolsky ed., 1986. Fort Selkirk Elders Oral History Project, 1985.
R. Gotthardt, 1987. Selkirk Indian Band: Culture and Land Use Study.
pp.46-56, '"Traditional Technology"; p. 57-65,
"Resources"; pp. 154-161, "Changes in Technology."