Taking life as it comes
Peter Fraser: 78 years a Northerner

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Jan 24/00) - Peter Fraser is a 78-year-old man who has done it all. His resume reads like an adventure novel. From residential school to the legislative assembly and everywhere in between, there are few Northern veterans who don't know Fraser.

Born in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., in 1921, Fraser was sent to a residential school in Hay River when he was nine years old. When asked about those early years, he becomes quiet. He has a difficult time conjuring up good memories from what were obviously hard times.

"They sent me away and I never went home for five years," said Fraser.

"I spent five years there and I came home with a Grade 3 education because I was fishing every second day for the mission. I was a big boy so I was chosen to fish winter and summer."

While Fraser concedes the experience did contribute to his character, they are times he would rather leave in the past.

"I was never given a hot meal to go fishing on and I never got a hot meal when I got home. I would have been happy with a hot meal," said Fraser.

After leaving school he trapped until 1938, and at the age of 17 he decided to pack his bags and head to Yellowknife.

"Yellowknife was booming then and there was a lot of work. I ended up cooking at Con mine, Ptarmigan mine and the Thompson Lundmark," said Fraser.

"I was just a kid. I remember they wouldn't let me in the bars but I tried and got thrown out two or three times a week."

He joined the Rangers in 1940 and still proudly points out that his rifle from those days is in perfect condition. He ended up piloting a river boat for the Canol Project for two seasons before eventually hanging his hat in Fort Smith with his first wife, Mavis, who died in 1960 from rheumatic fever.

"I worked as a forestry officer in the summer and in the winter I was a Northern survival instructor for the RCMP," said Fraser.

"Being a survival instructor was very interesting. My take-home pay for me and my two dog teams was $15 a day. I went back to muskrat hunting in the spring just to make ends meet."

In 1958, after getting hired by the Department of Transportation in Fort Smith, Fraser built a house for his family. By 1963, he had been promoted through various positions to airport manager in Tslin, Yukon. He ended up hiring his own teacher to teach him how to understand the technical nature of his job.

The years passed with Fraser being transferred to different posts and positions throughout the North. One of his fondest memories was of being transferred to Norman Wells. In 1975, he was promoted to highway inspector. He was given an office, a secretary, and truck "complete with mobile telephone and two-way radio."

"The federal government thought they'd build a road through there so they created the position," said Fraser.

"But there was only five miles of road in Norman Wells. The chief highway inspector would phone and ask me for a report. I would tell him I checked the five miles of road and no wash-outs, no caribou, and everything was up to par. He'd call me a week later and say 'How's the highway?' I'd say, 'Same as last week.'"

"There's still no highway in Norman Wells," he added, laughing.

He eventually bought a cab.

"I went into the taxi business because of my knowledge of the highways," he says with a wink.

In 1976, Fraser became the MLA for the Mackenzie/Great Bear riding. He served two terms.

"We had lots of exciting days back then. I remember a guy threw a coffee cup at me, so as chairman of committees I passed a motion that from now on we use only styrofoam cups in the house," said Fraser.

"They still can't serve coffee in the house."

At the time, one of the major projects the MLAs undertook was an education study. It ended up taking six months and cost $1.3 million. In the end, the study had 46 recommendations.

"We recognized back then that the education system needed changes. We made some, but unfortunately, many of the changes we recommended never got implemented because of lack of funding," said Fraser.

"Some of those changes we wanted to make are still plaguing the system today and we're still short of money."

Throughout the years, Fraser has travelled to all 32 settlements in the Yukon and all but three of the 56 communities in the NWT and Nunavut. He's been married to his current wife, Ellen, for 40 years and has helped raise seven children.

At 78, after beating prostate cancer, and having a heart attack which left him with a pacemaker, Fraser looks better than ever. He is a respected elder and continues to fight for a better way of life for Northern people.

"I think the people of the south take a dim view of the people in the North. They feel their tax dollars are supporting the North," said Fraser.

"We aren't supported by the south. The government is supported by the billions in resource revenue they get from Northern resource projects. For example, there's 132,000 barrels of oil going out of Norman Wells a day. If they gave us $2 a barrel we wouldn't need help from the south -- and until we get province-hood, nothing will change."

Fraser is currently working on a book that he hopes to have published this summer. In it, he gives a biographical account of what it's like to live an entire lifetime in the North from the point of view of someone who has done it -- himself.

In the meantime, he plans to continue to mentor the younger generation because they are in charge of building and protecting the future of the North.

"Being an elder isn't easy in this day and age. In the early days there was no such thing as elder abuse. The reason was that the youth had to depend on the elders to get them to where there was good hunting and fishing and to get them back," said Fraser.

"That's called traditional knowledge. It's spiritual healing, cultural healing and knowing where you are and who you are. That's what elders today are trying to pass on to the younger generations."

When asked if he plans to slow down any time soon, Fraser laughs out loud.

"If you stop being active you get old," said Fraser.

"Besides, there's lots of time for slowing down when I get old."