Chapter 28: Mackenzie Delta 1947


“We have led them into a pauper’s mental state – a most degrading result.”

– xxx


In 1947 the Northwest Territories Administration asked Cowan to do some research in the Mackenzie delta. People were hungry. There had been “violent fluctuations” in numbers of muskrat, fox and beaver, all of which provided food and furs for the people of the delta. Hunting of beaver and marten had been banned for a decade, and a cold winter had exacerbated an already low muskrat population. Duck numbers, such as the Pintail and Baldpates (American Wigeon) had also declined drastically. An imported reindeer herd, complete with Lapland herders, had collapsed. Cowan was to make recommendations for a wildlife management plan that was critical to keeping indigenous populations from starving.

There were lots of prospects for Cowan to recruit an assistant for the work. The UBC zoology department was now attracting bright, experienced master’s students. Among them was Ward Stevens, only nine years his junior, a seasoned veteran and a student of the ‘B’ indirectly. The plan was to do reconnaissance followed by a detailed population study. The objective of the live-traps was to tag muskrats so that their territories could be determined. Cowan and Stevens wanted to set up long-term field stations where they could live-trap and tag. When the trapping season was over, the trappers would provide them with the tags, which would list the age of the muskrats; whether they were young of the year or older; and where they eventually turned up. Stevens spent the next three and a half years working on this project for his PhD dissertation.

While they trapped, they also surveyed the ducks, geese and swans they encountered nesting along the riverbank, to compare with National Museum of Canada records form 15 years earlier. Much of their time was spent interviewing local native trappers who wanted to know: Where did the rats go during the floods and between litters in the midsummer? Cowan also interviewed the local doctor, Dr. J. Harvey who questioned the debt system of economy in the territories.

Cowan and Stevens did waterfowl surveys – found their first whistling-swan nest – and interviewed participants in the annual reindeer roundup and harvest. In an uncharacteristic journal entry, Cowan wrote: “July 16th. We were exhausted today after several hard days with little sleep and took it easy.” The exhaustion was partly driven by a sense of urgency to make the time useful. Dr. Harvey had arrived at Reindeer Station at the same time and reported that the majority of the Indian trapper families upriver (whom he had visited to deliver treaty money) were on the verge of starvation. He emphasized that the trapline registration concept was unworkable because the families must be free to travel to find food. Being forced to stay put was a hopeless strategy for a culture reliant on widely dispersed wildlife populations. Wrote Cowan: “It seems to me to be a poor reflection on our administration that in 150 years we have not given any idea of providing for the future to the natives. Instead we have led them into a pauper’s mental state – a most degrading result.” 

Another student, Joe Bryant, who took over the Aklavik research position in 1955, tells a story that illustrates Cowan’s interest in linking human health to wildlife health for indigenous people. Bryant was working in the bush with Charlie Peter Charlie, chief of the Old Crow band (another Gwich’in band, west of Aklavik), and Cowan’s name came up with reference to the hydatid disease, a parasitic infection that requires dogs or wolves and caribou or humans as vectors. Bryant speculates that the reduced incidence of the disease in Old Crow was due to Charlie’s insistence on people following Cowan’s recommendations to improve sanitation and handwashing after handling the dogs.

Joe Bryant was familiar with the scope of Cowan’s work. As a boy, he had been out in the Rockies with his father, Frank Bryant, and Cowan back in 1930. Bryant had maintained an interest in wildlife and wanted to be a park warden, but his father recommended he follow in Cowan’s footsteps instead. They also had another important connection: Mary Harrington, whom Cowan had first met independently in Aklavik in the summer of 1947, and Bryant was to marry after meeting her in Cowan’s class. She was the schoolteacher there and regularly took the children on exploring walks to observe birds and record their names in the three languages. On one of these bird walks one day, she and her students ran into Ward Stevens and Cowan along the banks of Peel Channel.

Cowan’s scientific defence of the North and indigenous rights to wildlife became one of his strongest campaigns towards the end of his academic career. 1968 was pivotal, as the recommendations of the UNESCO Biosphere Conference for preserving “the rich genetic resources that have evolved over millions of years” faced off against powerful commercial interests. It was the year of the Prudhoe Bay oil field discovery in Alaska. British American Oil Ltd. had increased their stake across eight million acres of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Moving Prudhoe Bay oil south prompted the proposal for a pipeline through the Mackenzie watershed. Cowan wrote an article which appears like a small, lone voice in the context of the oil boosterism of the time.

By 1972, Cowan was asked to sit on an early prototype of an environmental assessment panel, paid for by the oil and gas companies that were proposing the Mackenzie Valley pipeline – the biggest private development in history. The panel’s mandate was to predict the environmental impact. Cowan critiqued the process: “We have proposed to government that a larger interdisciplinary team be formed to consider the broad questions of energy, transportation and development in the western Arctic.” He argued for an independent board that would take into account cumulative impacts and indigenous voices and would be “insulated politically and economically from the project developers.”

Cowan’s recommendations in 1973 were to resonate with Justice Thomas Berger two years later when the jurist was appointed to conduct the government’s own inquiry into the Mackenzie pipeline proposal. Berger brought in many of the innovations proposed by Cowan, the most important of which was funding for First Nations, environmental organizations and health authorities to bring in their own witnesses and to take a year to get ready for the hearings. Cowan was brought in as a witness, specifically for his expertise on caribou, but as Berger noted, “He was also an expert on the whole ecosystem.”

Round about this time, Cowan first met Tom Beck, an arctic wildlife biologist, who was to become one of his closest friends during the last quarter-century of his life. Beck and Cowan shared many committee positions, for organizations like the Canadian Environmental Advisory Council and the Arctic Institute. Over the years, the two of them helped keep the oilmen out of the Arctic in the sensitive times and the sensitive areas, whether it was arctic fox den nesting areas, snow geese breeding areas or caribou grounds. Beck supported the Inuvialuit land claim; he chaired the committee at their request. Out of the settlements was the creation of Aulavik National Park.


Chapter 27: Queen Charlotte Islands [Haida Gwaii] 1945-1946
Chapter 29: Chilcotin and the Ashnola 1947-1948