Documentary retraces Edmonton fur trader's past journeys in Canadian Arctic

Reels of 8-mm film, long forgotten in a dusty attic, inspired Hugh Kroetsch to retrace his steps through Canada’s High Arctic, in a father-and-son expedition nearly seven decades in the making.

'When he flew up there, he suddenly turned into a young man again'

Hugh Kroetsch, 85, a former Hudson's Bay Co. engineer, returned to the Canadian Arctic for the first time in 67 years. (Last of the Fur Traders)

Reels of 8-mm film, long forgotten in a dusty attic, inspired Hugh Kroetsch to retrace his steps through Canada's High Arctic in a father-and-son expedition nearly seven decades in the making.

Hugh Kroetsch, 85, and his filmmaker son Frederick travelled north last summer, visiting communities the elder Kroetsch had first seen as a fur trader in the 1950s.

An hour-long documentary, Last of the Fur Traders, premieres on AMI-tv Friday night. The film was produced by Frederick Kroetsch.

"It took 50 years off of him," Frederick said of his father in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

"When he flew up there, he suddenly turned into a young man again. He would be able to last eight to 10 hours a day, just telling stories, and I would be there, tired, saying 'Dad, we need to go to bed.'

"I think it had a huge impact on him. He said that it added a few years to his life, looking forward to this."  

Frederick was inspired to take on the project after discovering some long-lost footage his father had shot in the Arctic.

'It was always danger'

The grainy black-and-white film, recovered from a dusty ammunition case, showed his father as a young man in the 1950s, working on wooden ships and travelling to remote outposts across the North.

Hugh spent his youth as chief engineer on a Hudson's Bay Co. supply rig, delivering groceries, fuel and other supplies to some of the most remote outposts on the Mackenzie River and the icy inlets of the Northwest Passage.

He traded and hunted with the Inuit and monitored the skies for signs of incoming Soviet bombers — part of a secret surveillance effort during the early years of the Cold War.

"Being in the Arctic when I was up there, it was always danger," Hugh said in a promotional trailer for the documentary. "You had to have a crew that knew what that they were doing, and we had that."

Now 85, he was desperate to see the North's icy landscape and its people one last time.
Hugh Kroetsch, 85, spent more than a decade working in the Canadian Arctic before finally settling in Alberta. (Last of the Fur Traders)
Father and son set out on their journey this summer. The changes in the landscape were evident immediately; something about the rugged North the elder Kroetsch knew had been lost.

"When you see the footage my dad took, in the summer months, the ice was everywhere," Frederick said.

"He was actually trapped in the ice for weeks at a time and they would have to climb out with a knife and cut six-inch strips around the boat so they wouldn't be crushed by the ice. Very dramatic stories, very dramatic footage.

"This summer, when we went back at the same time of year, I didn't see a snowflake."

'Felt like northern royalty'

On their journey through Fort McMurray, Yellowknife, Inuvik, Aklavik and the Nunavut communities of Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak and Cambridge Bay, they brought the archival footage and family photographs to show people along the way.

One night, while they were showing the old reels of film to a crowd of community elders, there was a yelp of excitement.
Hugh Kroetsch often hunted and fished with the Inuit people, describing them as the most honest people he's ever worked with. (Last of the Fur Traders)
A young Inuk girl, filmed by Hugh in his youth, was in the audience — now an old woman in wheelchair.

In the 67 years since he left, Hugh's affection for Canada's North had not faded, and he was welcomed as a respected storyteller.

"They kind of treated him like he was super elder,"  Frederick said "He was often the oldest person in any community that he went to and he knew all their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, so it was amazing to see how much respect was given to him."

"I kind of felt like northern royalty for a bit. It was great."

Difficult conversations with community elders altered the course of the documentary, said Frederick.

The people they encountered were keen to speak about the harmful impact of residential schools. The last surviving residential school in the Arctic closed its doors in 1996, and the system's painful legacy is still raw, he said.

"It was really the common denominator of every story up there," Frederick said.  "I think they wanted to share their stories and I think it's impossible to tell the story of the north without talking about that.

"And it was one of those decisions I had to make really early on, this is going to be a very major part of the doc, and at the beginning I hadn't imagined that it would be."

With the film set to have its TV premiere Friday, Frederick has already had rave reviews from his father.

"He loves it. I was actually in Toronto when he saw the first rough cut and he called me up and he said, 'Well son, by golly, I shed a tear watching it.' "

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC. 
Hugh and Frederick Kroetsch prepare for their Arctic mission. (Frederick Kroetsch)