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Monday, 9 September 2013

Alaska Highway...another view


 

 


 

Alaska Highway was road to ruin

Sept. 8, 1991: Alaska Highway was road to ruin

U.S. army engineers building the Alaska Highway pose by the ice-covered High Level Bridge in Edmonton.

For organizers planning to mark the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Alaska Highway in 1992, it was all about celebrating an engineering feat. But the Alcan Highway was also a road to ruin that brought disease and death to Northern natives.
“For so long the native side of the story hasn’t been told and it’s a side that non-natives don’t want to hear,” said James Allen, a Southern Tutchone native coordinating Yukon aboriginal involvement in the highway’s golden anniversary.
“The highway brought a lot of sickness and disease and illness that native people were not immune to, so it devastated a lot of communities. In each community there were endless funeral processions during the building of the Alaska Highway and after.”
Edmonton was the staging area for the 2,430-km road which was originally built mostly by the U.S. army as a supply route to safeguard Alaska from Japanese invasion during the Second World War. It was opened to the public in 1948.
More than 20,000 soldiers and civilians worked on the Highway from March 8 to Oct. 28, 1942.
Along with the dysentery, measles, jaundice, whooping cough, mumps and meningitis, they brought irreversible change to native culture and lifestyle, Allen said.
“Around that time the majority of native people were hunters, trappers, and fisherman, but when the highway came up they were introduced to a wage-earning way of life and some people did OK, some people made it as wage earners, but the majority of people were lost.
“They became more dependent on alcohol than anything.”
With the advent of easy liquor came wife abuse, child abuse and “a lot of horror stories about native women being taken advantage of by soldiers and civilians building the highway,” he said. Native children were taken from their homes to residential schools which were institutionalized after the highway was built.
Still, conscious of the economic potential of having thousands of international visitors descend on the area, the natives were determined not to be left out.
But instead of the air show, mammoth road rally and snowmobile safari from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse planned during the anniversary celebrations, natives living along the route planned to gather in small, quiet groups for healing ceremonies, nursing the wounds the road brought to their society.
czdeb@edmontonjournal.com