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The Northwest Staging Route

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Carl A. Christie

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and Country

Northwest Airlines employees apparently deliberately emphasized and flaunted the civilian complexion of their operations. Personnel, aircraft, and facilities bore company identifications, and the employees identified their work as a company rather than U.S. Army task ... The situation displeased Canadians who saw the Northwest Airlines' actions as designed to create and advertise a privileged position that could be exploited after the war in commercial operations ... Reports that Northwest Airlines was carrying passengers for hire were circulated and did not improve the atmosphere. 23

Protests against the attitude of Northwest Airlines were made through the PJBD, the RCAF, and regular diplomatic channels. Complaints were also made directly to the president of the company, with whom Howe reportedly had several clashes. Under pressure of these representations the Air Transport Command finally gave assurances of its intention to bring all its contract carriers into line. By the spring of 1943 most of the grievances had been satisfactorily resolved.24 Even so, the high-handed methods of Northwest Airlines, which ironically had taken over the residence of the Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta for office space, had a damaging effect on Canadian-American relations.

Canadians found it easy to believe that their American neighbours sought to entrench themselves permanently on the Northwest Staging Route. The behaviour of Northwest Airlines seemed to confirm this fear. Vincent Massey, who from his distant post in London kept his own watch on events in Canada, confided to his diary:

The American government clearly have in mind the use of the air routes for commercial purposes. All they have to do is to repaint their planes and change the clothes of their crews and they will have their civil routes in being directly peace is declared. 25

In an attempt to allay Canadian fears of US expansionist ambitions, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King made a brief statement in the House of Commons on 1 February 1943 on the status of American military undertakings in Canada. He emphasized that they were part of an authorized programme of wartime co-operation and did not give the United States "any continuing rights in Canada after the conclusion of the war. Indeed, in regard to most of the projects ... agreements have already been made which make the post-war position completely clear".26

An exchange of notes between the two governments provided that Canada reimburse the United States for all permanent improvements to airfields in the northwest. The agreement was later extended to all airfields in the Dominion, as well as to Goose Bay in Labrador.27 In referring to the agreement C.D. Howe placed the cost of the Northwest Staging Route, up to the end of 1943, at $46,000,000 and estimated the total wartime cost of developing airways in the northwest at $58,500,000. He told the House of Commons:

In brief, the Northwest Staging Route is Canadian property, owned and operated by the Canadian government. It was built and developed by Canada, with the co-operation of the United States army engineers and workmen. The cost of the project is to be borne wholly by the Government of Canada. 28

The United States willingly ended its air operations in Canada as quickly as possible after the war.29 Still, Canadians worried that their big neighbour would press for new concessions. The war suggested that long-range aviation would loom large in the Canadian-American defence relationship. The Arctic air approaches to Canada were also air approaches to the United States. Airfields in the North, such as those along the Northwest Staging Route, Goose Bay in Labrador, and the Crimson [or Northeast Staging] Route across the barren lands of the Arctic, carried a special strategic importance to the Americans. In January 1945, the Advisory Committee on Post Hostilities Problems reported to the Cabinet War Committee: "The possibility ... of the United States being moved to exert undue pressure on Canada, particularly as respects matters of defence, should not be overlooked."30

Notwithstanding his public pronouncements, Mackenzie King may have felt uneasy about the future air relationship with the United States. About a year after assuring the country that an exchange of notes made the postwar position "completely clear," he confessed some personal concerns to Vincent Massey. The Prime Minister, the distinguished diplomat recalled,

raised the subject of future relations between the USA and Canada and spoke apprehensively of the process of disentanglement which must follow when the Americans must withdraw and leave us in full control of our own bases and their wartime installations. The P.M. showed that he had grave doubts as to whether the international agreements on this which Canada had secured from the United States provide any practical guarantee against the United States' claims and pretensions. When I suggested that the Americans although undoubtedly friends, did not take us seriously enough as a nation, King said that Canadians were looked upon by Americans as a lot of Eskimos. This was a striking observation made by a man who had been so often accused of being subservient to American policy.31

Mackenzie King may have been playing to the anglophile inclinations of Massey. There can be little doubt, however, that the scale of American air activity in Canada concerned him deeply.


22. See, for example, DHist 169.009[D106].

23. Dziuban, op. cit., p. 308.

24. Ibid., pp. 309-10; Minneapolis Morning Star, Oct. 1943. For an account of Northwest Airlines responsibilities on the Northwest Staging Route, see Craven and Cate, Plans and Early Operations, pp. 37-8, and Services around the World, pp. 156-8. The close relationship of the airline with the USAAF is illustrated by the posting of a former Northwest vice-president, Colonel George E. Garnder, to Edmonton, as executive officer to the ATC commander there. Ibid., p. 157.

25. Massey, op. cit., p. 371.

26. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 1943, Vol. 1, p. 21.

27. Ibid., 1944, Vol. 3, 2227; Dziuban, op. cit., pp. 358-9; RCAF file S. 262-5, “Curtailment of US activities over the North West Staging Route”, DHist 181.009[D293].

28. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates, 1944, Vol. 1, 980-1. In May 1944, the valuation placed on the Northwest Staging Route by the Canadian government was $31,311,196. The total value of US construction in joint defence projects in northern Canada at that time was $71,811,551. C.G. “Chubby” Power, Minister of National Defence for Air, to J.L. Ilsley, Minister of Finance, 17 May 1944, RCAF file FS-N-25, DHist 181.009[D3293]. This file contains detailed breakdowns of the cost of improvements made to support US air activities along the Northwest Staging Route, along with frequent concerned communications between Canadian officials about the ultimate cost to be born by this country.

29. See RCAF file S.262-5, “Northwest Air Command Curtailment of US activities over the NW Staging Route - Report of Meetings Joint board of Defence”, DHist 181.003[D3281].

30. Report of the Advisory Committee on Post-War Hostilities Problems, “Post-War Canadian Defence Relationship with the United States: General Considerations,' 23 January 1945”, paragraph 3, in James Eayrs, In Defence of Canada, Vol. 3: Peacemaking and Deterrence [Toronto 1972], p. 376. Some of the best sources on the handover of facilities from US to Canadian control can be found in DOT files, such as 6800-18 pt 1, “Stations, Radio, Government Owned, Northeast Staging Route, General”, Sept. 1942 to Dec. 1947, NA, RG 12, Vol. 1222, and 5150 pts. 5 and 6, “Airports & Airharbours, Northwest Staging Route, General Correspondence”, Aug. 1945 to July 1949, ibid., Vol. 1406.

31. Massey, op. cit., pp. 396-7.

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