Otto Binder, legendary reindeer herder and RCMP special constable, dies at 93

Otto Binder, the Mackenzie Delta's legendary reindeer herder, game warden and RCMP special constable, died Thursday at the age of 93.

Fluent in Inuvialuktun, Binder served as crucial bridge between police and Inuit

Otto Binder, who worked as a reindeer herder, RCMP special constable and barge captain, died in Inuvik Thursday at the age of 93. (Submitted by Kristian Binder)

Otto Binder, the Mackenzie Delta's legendary reindeer herder, game warden and RCMP special constable, has died.

He was 93.

Born in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Binder herded reindeer at Reindeer Station, N.W.T., during the 1940s and 1950s. There he met Ellen Pulk, daughter of Sami herders who were brought to the region by the Canadian government in the 1930s to help establish reindeer as an alternative to caribou, which were in decline at the time.

But the reindeer business was always a marginal one and in the early 1950s Binder moved his family to Aklavik, where he began working as a game warden.

"He was a realist about change," said his son Lloyd. "Otto understood that times were changing, were going to change, and realized that an education was important. So he felt that a job in town was better for the children [so they could] go to school."

At home on the land

But Otto was especially at home on the land. He became an RCMP special constable, a job that made use of both his knowledge of the bush and his fluency in Inuvialuktun, the language of Mackenzie Delta Inuit.

Otto taught southern RCMP officers how to survive on the land and acted as an interpreter. Lloyd said his father travelled thousands of kilometres by dog team with the RCMP and was expert at quickly converting foreign English words into Inuvialuktun.

"He was just a natural fit for the job," Lloyd said. "He was a bit of a loose end. The other job seemed to be a bit of drudgery and a dead-end, not much of a challenge, so he certainly found something he enjoyed doing with the RCMP."

Otto's role as crucial liaison helped bridge the gap between the Inuvialuit and the police, said Gerry Kisoun, who used to go hunting with his father and Otto.

"Otto was a man from the land," he said.

Kisoun became an RCMP officer in the 1970s at Binder's urging.

"Them days sometimes our relationship with people in authority wasn't the best," Kisoun said. "And if Otto happened not to be there, I'm not sure I would've been able to join the RCMP."

'Many miles'

After around 25 years as a special constable, Otto retired from the RCMP and worked as a barge captain on the Mackenzie River for a decade, before retiring to spend time in the bush.

When the Binder family reacquired the reindeer herd in 2001, Otto would help out occasionally during the winter until he was 85, and continued as a source of advice after that, Lloyd said.

Otto is being warmly remembered by the community in Inuvik, where the reindeer business is now based. Lloyd said his father "had many miles on his body" and was ready to pass on, so while his family and community mourn his loss, they're also celebrating a remarkable life.

"What else can a guy ask for but to die a peaceful death and to have done so many jobs so well?"
 

With files from David Thurton

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