In the early 1900s, the introduction of reindeer to Canada was seen as a possible way of supplying food and bringing an economic boost to remote northern areas of the country. This animal had been domesticated in many other northern nations and had played an important role in sustaining the population. While reindeer meat, milk and other bi-products such as hides and horns can provide resources vital to life, these animals are also strong—packing or pulling heavy loads great distances. As well, they are naturally adapted to the northern climate and environment.
Several efforts to introduce reindeer to Newfoundland and Baffin Island had early success but the most successful example was the Alaskan experiment. The American government, urged on by missionary groups, purchased 1,200 Siberian reindeer from Russia between 1892 and 1902. Another small herd was bought in Norway and shipped to Alaska, along with a group of Lapp herders and their families, hired to manage the animals and train the local indigenous population to become herders.
Canada’s government began to study the results of the American experiment. A Royal Commission on reindeer and musk-ox was appointed in 1919. The dramatic growth of the Alaskan herd was impressive, several hundred thousand deer, spread across a hundred herds, with several hundred local indigenous owners and herders engaged in the enterprise. Fresh meat was now available for local consumption, and sold to the southern states for profit.
Many groups pressed the Canadian government for action, resulting in plans to purchase an Alaskan herd and move it to a suitable site in the Northwest Territories. Two Interior Department botanists searched for a location with good grazing, recommending a headquarters be established (to become known as Reindeer Station) east of the Mackenzie River delta. A contract was signed with the Loman Bros. Company for purchase and delivery of 3,515 animals at a price of $150 a head. The reindeer drive was expected to take 18 months and cover 1,500 miles but incredibly it took five years and travelled twice the distance. In March 1935, Andy Bahr and his crew delivered 2,370 reindeer. Shortly afterwards, 811 fawns were born, bringing the final total close to the initial target number.
The early success was followed by a series of setbacks, culminating in the death of four Inuit owners and a Lapp trainer in a boating accident in 1944. It became more difficult to interest traditional Inuit hunters to abandon their customary lifestyle for the often lonely and monotonous life of a herder. Months of effort could be overturned in a moment as storms or predators could cause a stampede resulting in the loss of many animals.
As with the other Canadian experiments, the Reindeer Project did not achieve the success of Alaska’s venture. The herds under Inuit control were passed back to government control and the Canadian Wildlife Service administered the operation until 1974, at which time it was sold to a private owner, Canadian Reindeer Ltd., and remains a private operation today. Although the ambitions of early advocates have not been achieved, the efforts form an interesting piece of Canada’s northern history.
There are hundreds of documents and photographs held in the Library and Archives Canada collections which reveal much more detail about the reindeer experiment in Canada. You can have a look at some of them by searching the following sources:
- Commission to Investigate into and Report upon the Potentialities of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Regions of Canada as a Grazing Country for the Development of Musk Ox and Reindeer Herds for Commercial and National Purposes Fonds
- Northern Affairs Program sous-fonds
- Canadian Wildlife Service sous-fonds
- Canadian Parks Service sous-fonds
- Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds
- Department of Agriculture fonds
- Department of the Interior fonds
- Department of External Affairs fonds
Prime Ministers’ papers
- Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds
- Sir Robert Borden fonds
- Arthur Meighen fonds
- Richard Bedford Bennett fonds
- William Lyon Mackenzie King fonds