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AWG WEEK: Where’s Pierre?

AWG WEEK: Where’s Pierre?

That time the Prime Minister of Canada disappeared en route to Yellowknife
By Herb Mathisen
Mar 13

It was only three weeks before the first ever Arctic Winter Games that Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau announced that he would travel to Yellowknife to ring them in. It was a coup for organizers—this ambitious, impossible dream had come together and the rest of the country was paying attention. But it also scared the bejesus out of them. Had this thing snowballed out of their control? Were they truly ready? (At the very least, they knew they’d have to scale up security for Trudeau and his Cabinet coterie.)

A crowd of hundreds showed up at the Yellowknife airport on Sunday March 8, 1970 to welcome Trudeau. There was just one problem—he wasn’t there.

Earlier that morning, the prime minister attended mass in Cambridge Bay before flying to an Inuit seal hunting camp on Banks Island, where he sipped strong black tea with hunting families who didn’t speak English. It was the tail end of a tour that took him across the Arctic. Drumdancers performed for him in Baker Lake. In Iglulik, he was presented with a 22-foot kayak. In return, Trudeau set up a screening of the new Hollywood Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. With the American tanker ship Manhattan’s crossing of the Northwest Passage the preceding summer re-opening the thorny sovereignty debate, Trudeau centred his tour on the people—“The real and more important question was the future of the northern residents themselves,” a Canadian Press story paraphrased Trudeau. Lighting the torch to inaugurate the Arctic Winter Games—an event organized by Northerners for Northerners—would be a fitting way to end the tour.

But en route to Yellowknife, the RCMP Twin Otter Trudeau was travelling in lost radio contact. Host society members got nervous and southern reporters, dispatched to cover the games, sent word down to their editors. What had happened to the prime minister?

The crowd of hundreds dwindled to a few dozen. But then the Twin Otter landed just a couple hours late and Trudeau stepped out, in a fox hat and parka, having experienced strong headwinds along the way.