I was back in the North for the first time since my family moved away, nearly 50 years earlier, and I was surprised at how much I remembered. The ever-present buzzing of a seaplane’s piston engine brought vivid recollections of my father, who flew for Pacific Western Airlines from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.
If you lived in Fort Smith at the time, you would have remembered our family. My parents, Hong and Mary Mar, were second-generation Chinese-Canadians—hard to miss in a small northern town. In fact, the 1961 Canadian census counts only five ethnically Chinese girls under the age of four living in the NWT that year. My sisters and I were three of them.
I was born in Fort Smith, but moved away a mere four years later. While I wouldn’t dare claim to be a true Northerner, I am deeply proud of my roots, and my father’s legacy. The planes he piloted helped sustain remote campsites and towns all over the region. It was a dangerous job and the lone pilot was mechanic, air traffic controller, and swamper all in one.
My dad was gone for days at a time—missing the births of my older sister, Ramona, in 1957 and my younger sister, Carolyn, in 1961 at St. Anne’s Hospital. Sadly, my dad died in a plane crash in 1967 in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Our world changed, and we moved to Vancouver.
When you lose a parent at a young age, any evidence of their existence is a precious clue to their personality and daily life. It was during a walk in Yellowknife’s Old Town last year that we came across the Canadian Pacific Air building, which also stood as the PWA base. My dad would have frequented this building, possibly even grabbing a bite to eat at the Wildcat Cafe across the street. At the NWT Archives, I was thrilled to discover an enormous photo mural of the plane my dad flew, a PWA Beaver, by renowned Yellowknife
photographer Henry Busse.
Although we weren’t able to make it to Fort Smith on our trip, the sights and sounds of Yellowknife still moved me in ways that I couldn't have predicted. The visit to the snowking’s snow castle, a dog sled ride on Grace Lake, looking out from Pilot’s Monument in Old Town, driving on the ice road to Dettah, watching the Northern Lights—these were all breathtaking and unique experiences.
But what surprised me the most was that my memories from being a northern toddler could be stirred so deeply. The crunch of dry snow under my boots and the frigid air freezing my nasal passages were standout memories of my small world, five decades past.
My mum had kept memories of those years alive with treasures that remain a rarity in a southern home. Our house held soapstone and whalebone sculptures, Cape Dorset prints, and even a wolfskin rug that, in my child’s mind, I thought was a polar bear. Our closets held my dad’s beaver-pelt coat, enormous matching mitts that went all the way up to his elbows, sealskin mukluks, and handmade bonnets—trimmed with rabbit fur and beaded in traditional Indigenous style—that we girls would wear.
I am grateful that this trip sharpened the ephemeral memories of my early childhood. Like my mother, I have filled our home with Indigenous art and imagery that we have acquired over the years. I hope that someday my children will venture to the North and recognize both the iconography of this place and the role it occupies in our family’s history.