The History Of Prince Albert

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The Indigenous

Originally named Kistahpinanihk by the Cree, which translates to a great meeting place, the area that would be Prince Albert was occupied for centuries by the Cree, as well as the Blackfoot whose territory’s upper reaches reached the area.

The various groups that called Prince Albert home over the centuries were the Woodland Cree, Plains Cree, Swampy Cree, Dene, Dakota and eventually the Metis Nation arrived in the community.

Today, Prince Albert sits on Treaty 6 land and has one of the highest Indigenous population ratios in any Canadian city.

The Founding Of the Community

The first European to arrive in the area is believed to be Henry Kelsey, who arrived along the North Saskatchewan River in 1692. While there, he attempted to work with the Indigenous, whom he called Neywatame, and convince them to trade with the York Factory farther inland near Hudson Bay.

The first trading post to be built in the area was constructed by Peter Pond in 1776.

In 1862, James Isbister with the Hudson’s Bay Company settled on the site of the current city and would farm there until 1866, and was soon joined by others in what was called Isbister’s Settlement. Around this same time, Reverend James Nisbet a minister with the Canada Presbyterian Church, arrived and established a mission for the Cree people. He would name the mission after Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, who had died five years previous.

In 1885, the village became the Town of Prince Albert.

One of the biggest events in the history of the community, at least early on, was the arrival of the railroad. Even though Prince Albert had existed since the 1860s, the North West Resistance pushed the government to build access to the community. On Sept. 4, 1890, the first train came through from Regina. On Oct. 22, Lt. Governor Joseph Royal drove in the last spike to official commemorate the arrival of the train and a new station in the community.

By 1891, the community would have over 1,000 people, including a North West Mounted Police garrison that had 56 men in the detachment. This was because of the North West Resistance, that had happened the year before, which I will get to.

Prince Albert quickly became one of the most important communities in the territories. The same year the mission was established, the Freemasons set up the first lodge in what would be Saskatchewan.

When the District of Saskatchewan was formed in the Northwest Territories, Prince Albert became its capital and would remain so until 1905 when Regina became the new capital of the province. One year before Saskatchewan became a province, it was incorporated as a city.

After Regina was chosen as the capital, Prince Albert and Saskatoon became candidates for the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Federal Penitentiary. The decision came down from the provincial government and Saskatoon received the university, while Prince Albert received the penitentiary in 1911.

Today, Prince Albert is the third largest city in Saskatchewan.

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Historical Museum

At this museum, you can experience the history of Prince Albert from its earliest days to today. The museum is located in the third fire hall built in the city, in 1912, which was used by the Prince Albert Fire Department until 1975.

On June 15, 1977, the museum was opened to the public. Today, the museum has a number of exhibits that visitors can enjoy. On the main level is the military, indigenous, fire department and civic history. On the second level you can learn about the settlers, sports and religious history of the community. On the lower level, you will find the business and industrial history of the community.

As well, you will also find a seasonal tea room in the building with wonderful drinks and treats to enjoy.

The building itself is also a municipal heritage property, and has been since 1981. 

John Diefenbaker

Born on Sept. 18, 1895 in Ontario, John Diefenbaker would move with his family to the North-West Territories, in what would one day be Saskatchewan, in 1903. Living near Borden, the family then moved to Saskatoon in 1910 and Diefenbaker developed such an interest in politics as a young man that when he was eight his mother told him he would be prime minister one day.

In 1924, he moved to Prince Albert and would run in the federal election as a Conservative, finishing third in the election. In 1929, he ran in the provincial election for Saskatchewan but he was defeated. Diefenbaker would continue to run his practice in Prince Albert, and ran for mayor of the city in 1933, losing by only 48 votes. Diefenbaker would mostly focus on his law career and family throughout the 1930s but in 1940, he would run in the federal election and would finally win a seat in the House of Commons. Through the next several years, the Liberal Party would try and dislodge Diefenbaker from his riding in Prince Albert. While serving in the House of Commons, he would continue to practice law but he would lose his wife Edna in 1951 to leukemia. He remarried to Olive Palmer in 1953. In 1956, George Drew would resign as leader of the party and Diefenbaker would finally be elected leader, becoming the Leader of the Official Opposition. In 1957, he would lead his party to 112 seats to the Liberal 105, and now found himself as the Prime Minister of Canada.

Election handout for John Diefenbaker, 1926. Exhibit at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre, Saskatoon, Canada. (Diefenbaker Canada Centre/Wikipedia)

Diefenbaker would get to work putting together a cabinet, appointing Ellen Fairclough as the Secretary of State for Canada, making her the first woman to be appointed to a cabinet post, and Michael Starr as Minister of Labour, making him the first Ukrainian-Canadian to serve in the cabinet. In 1958, Diefenbaker would call an election and would lead his party to a massive majority, winning 208 seats to the Liberals 48 seats, which is still the largest majority based on the percentage of seats in Canadian Parliamentary history.

As Prime Minister, Diefenbaker would also appoint the first Indigenous person to the Senate of Canada and grant the right to vote to Indigenous and Inuit people. He held a strong stance against apartheid but would also be remembered for the 1959 cancellation of the Avro Arrow project. His government would also pass the Canadian Bill of Rights while he was prime minister.

Unfortunately for Diefenbaker, the Conservatives would begin to fracture and in 1963, he would lose the federal election to Lester B. Pearson and the Liberals. In 1967, a leadership convention was held and he was forced out as leader of the party. Nonetheless, he would continue to serve in the House of Commons until Aug. 16, 1979, the year of his death. In all, he had served from 1940 to 1979, one of the longest uninterrupted periods in Canadian political history.

Evolution of Education Museum

Another museum located in Prince Albert is the Evolution of Education Museum, which is maintained by the Prince Albert Historical Society. The building was once the Claytonville School, which operated from 1920 to 1963.

Today, it shows how schooling has changed in the community, from a one-room school to several schools within the city. This type of one-room school once dotted the landscape of the Canadian Prairies before schooling became more centralized and the one-room school faded away.

The school district this school once sat in had been named for Clayton Smith, who was the postmaster for the area the school was located in, roughly 20 kilometres north of Prince Albert.

Today, the museum holds artifacts from the early school days of Saskatchewan, as well as desks and a library. Overall, the school is decorated how it would have been decades ago.

The Prime Ministers

One very interesting aspect of Prince Albert is that it has had not one, not two but three prime ministers of Canada represent it, something no other community in Canada can claim.

The first Prime Minister to represent the community was Sir Wilfrid Laurier. In 1896, he was the leader of the Liberal Party and he stood in two ridings, as was allowed at the time. He stood in the Prince Albert area and in Quebec East, winning both ridings. He would choose to represent Quebec East.

The second prime minister to represent the community was William Lyon Mackenzie King. In 1926, Charles McDonald had won the Prince Albert seat but he was persuaded to step aside so that King could run in the riding and re-enter the House of Commons after losing his own seat. King would win the by-election, and that same year he would run again in the riding during the federal election. He would run against John Diefenbaker, the only time that two future Prime Ministers faced each other as candidates in the same riding in Canadian history. King won easily, taking 64 per cent of the vote. King would go on to represent the riding until 1945.

The third prime minister to represent the community was John Diefenbaker, and unlike the previous two, he actually lived in Prince Albert. He would represent the riding from 1953 until 1979, the year of his death. During that time, he served as prime minister from 1957 to 1963.

The Prince Albert Volunteers of 1885

The role of Prince Albert during the North West Rebellion was no small matter. Some of the most important battles were fought near Prince Albert, including the Battle of Batoche, one hour south, that ended the rebellion for good. The Resistance was also sparked somewhat when the Government of Canada sold a large tract of land to the Prince Albert Colonization Company, causing the Metis to fear they would lose their land. At the time of the resistance, Prince Albert was also the largest community in the area with 800 people.

One of the most important forces raised during that resistance was the Prince Albert Volunteers, who would face off with the Metis in Duck Lake. The volunteers were organized by Gentleman Joe McKay, who was with the North West Mounted Police and was sent to Prince Albert to enlist 20 men as volunteers. On March 21, 1885, 22 men were sworn in by Lt. Colonel Alexander Sproat and the force was put under the command of Captain Moore.

The force would meet Gabriel Dumont and the Metis at Duck Lake on March 26, 1885. In the battle, of the 41 volunteers who were sent, nine would be killed in the battle. The bodies were left in the field until Louis Riel agreed to allow for the citizens of Prince Albert to retrieve them and bury them. Of all the regiments and volunteer units in the North West Resistance, none suffered as heavy casualties as a percentage of the force as the Prince Albert Volunteers. All who served in the volunteers were given 320 acres of land and $80 for their service.

Boris Karloff

Prince Albert has had its share of unique residents, as most towns can relate to, but few towns can boast that for a time, Frankenstein himself lived in their confines. Thanks to a stay in Prince Albert by Boris Karloff, who would go on to gain fame as Frankenstein.

While he was born William Pratt, it was in Canada, where he had moved for employment at the age of 18, that he officially changed his name to Boris Karloff. During his time in Canada, Karloff toured with stage shows throughout the country.

Going back to how he came to Prince Albert, Karloff had recently been married in Vancouver, and he happened to see an advertisement in the paper for performers with the Jeanne Russell Players. He applied under the name of Boris Karloff because he liked how it sounded. Two months later, he joined the company for Six Pounds per week, starting his acting career in Kamloops of all places.

In mid-April of 1912, the troupe arrived in Saskatoon, staying until mid-May.

With no work, Karloff took work with the Dominion Express Company, a haulage company owned by Canadian Pacific. In Regina, he was sent to get crates of goods from the railway station. As he crossed the track, someone threw a theatrical journal from a train window. Karloff picked it up and saw that the Harry St. Clair Players, a repertory company in Prince Albert, needed a leading man. Karloff sent off an application letter and a few days later received a reply asking him to join them in Prince Albert.

For the next year, he would tour with the group, improving his acting ability and saving up money. He left the group in 1914 to try to make the big time in Chicago but no one wanted him. After he was rejected by the British Army to serve in the War because of his heart murmur, he decided to “go back where I was appreciated”, and once again he would perform with St. Clair in Prince Albert for another year, before leaving in 1916.

He eventually made it to Los Angeles in 1919, and gained employment in silent films. In 1931, he played Frankenstein and became one of the most famous actors in the world.

The Royal Visits

Prince Albert’s importance in Saskatchewan is shown in the fact that it has received a total of four Royal visits. While the Queen and Prince Philip never came to the community, several others have.

The first visit was by Princess Margaret in July of 1958. Her arrival in the community came with a bit of commotion when two tires on the RCAF aircraft she was in blew out as the plane was taxied to the airport. Thankfully, it was a minor incident and the Princess was unaware. She was greeted upon her arrival in the city by Lt. Governor Frank Bastedo and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

The Princess arrived again in the community 22 years later when she stopped over in 1980 during a tour of seven communities in Saskatchewan as part of the 75th anniversary of the province. While in the community she met several veterans at the Canadian Legion, and attended a luncheon in her honour.

In July of 1989, Prince Andrew and Princess Sarah arrived in Prince Albert for the third Royal Visit in the community’s history. A very windy day did not dampen spirits as a crowd of 1,000 people came out to welcome the Royal Couple to the community. The couple would open the town’s summer fair and met with several residents, shaking hands and speaking with them.

The most recent visit by a member of the Royal Family came in 2003 when Prince Edward came to the community on June 21, 2003. A huge crowd came out to see the prince arrive, waving small flags and cheering. The Earl of Wessex spent some time in the community, speaking with residents and stating to children who gathered, quote:

“You managed to escape school today have you?”

The Prince also attended the Prince Albert Urban Treaty Days where hand drummers put on a performance for the Royal.

The Octagonal Building

One of the more unique historic buildings in Prince Albert is the Octogonal Building, which is an eight-sided two-storey structure that was built in 1905. Built for the purpose of housing agricultural displays during the annual Exhibition, the structure’s design was made to enhance the architecture of the overall city. It features a widow’s walk and white washed walls that have made it a landmark within the city.

Construction of the building was conducted by the Ladies Section of the Lorne Agricultural Society with the purpose of displaying their dairy produce, baking, horticultural goods and needlework. It also provided a place for the women’s group to hose and organize meetings.

Today, it is the only surviving building of its type still remaining within Saskatchewan. 

Rotary Museum of Police and Corrections

Another great museum within Prince Albert is the Rotary Museum of Police and Corrections. This museum covers the history of law enforcement not only in Prince Albert but Saskatchewan as well. The museum itself is located in the original guard room of the RCMP depot in Prince Albert.

The museum has artifacts from the history of the North West Mounted Police, RCMP and Prince Albert Police, as well as the provincial correction facilities. On display are uniforms, a tommy gun, weapons made by inmates including shanks, a zip gun, two sawed-off shotguns and other items. There is also an alcohol still made from a fire extinguisher.

Also on display are what the guards would use for discipline in the penitentiary, including a rack, whip and a paddling table.

The St. Louis Light

One very interesting aspect of the Prince Albert area is the St. Louis Light, also known as the St. Louis Ghost Train. This is a supposed paranormal phenomenon that occurs near Prince Albert. It has been described as being similar to the headlight of an old-fashioned train.

The phenomenon has been covered across North America, including on Unsolved Mysteries. Even though the tracks are now gone, the phenomenon still exists and draws many people out each year to see it.

There are many tales related to the ghost light and its origin. One says that it is a ghost train, while another says that a drunk brakeman lost his head to a passing train and he now walks up and down the tracks holding a lantern trying to find his head. A stamp has even been issued by Canada Post commemorating the ghost light.

As for how it happens, that may have been solved by two 12th grade students from La Ronge. They were able to duplicate the phenomenon which they stated was being caused by the diffraction of distant vehicle lights.

Of course, the story of the lights predate the invention of the car, so who knows what the real origin is.

Fort d la Corne

Located to the east of Prince Albert you will find Fort de la Corne, a National Historic Site of Canada. Originally called Fort St. Louis, and then Fort Des Prairies, it was built by Louis de la Corne in 1753 as a fur trade post on the western end of a chain of posts that were designed to divert furs away from the English and their forts on Hudson Bay.

The fort would only last until 1759.

In 1775, the Pedlars, a group of independent fur traders, built a fort in the area but soon moved upstream in 1776. In 1795, either the Pedlars or the North West Company built Fort St. Louis on the right bank of the river nearby to the original fort. One year later, the Hudson Bay Company built a fort nearby at Carleton House.

In 1846, after the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company had merged in 1821, a new Fort St. Louis was built just a few kilometres away from the original fort.

In 1926, the area became a National Historic Site of Canada.

Grey Owl

On Sept. 18, 1888 Grey Owl, also known as Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, was born in Sussex, England. Coming to Canada in 1906 on the S.S. Canada, he began to study agriculture and then worked as a wilderness guide, fur trader and forest ranger. It was around this time he began to fabricate his Indigenous identity. He would serve in the First World War, claiming he was born in Montreal and his comrades believed him to be Indigenous. He would return to Canada in 1917 after being shot in the foot, the second time he had been wounded in the war. He would spend a year in the hospital as doctors tried to heal his foot. Beginning in 1925, he would rise in prominence as an author and lecturer on environmental issues. Around this time he began living with Gertrude Bernard, a Mohawk Iroquois woman who encouraged him to stop trapping and publish his writing about the wilderness. Grey Owl began to feel that trapping was barbaric and started to campaign against it and for conservation.

He would publish articles on animal lore under his name Grey Owl and in 1928, the National Park Service made a film about him. The film featured him with two beavers he had adopted after their mother was killed. Between 1930 and 1935, Grey Owl wrote 25 articles for Canadian Forest and Outdoors magazine. He would publish his first book in 1931 called The Men of the Last Frontier, which traced the story of the beaver and presented his concerns about the future of Canada’s forests. With the success of his books and his collaboration with the National Park Service, he would begin to do speaking tours in Canada and England. Between 1931 and 1937, he would write five books on conservation and the wilderness. Sadly, the pressure of the tours and his growing alcoholism began to weaken him and in 1938, he would die in Prince Albert from pneumonia. After his death, it became known that Grey Owl was actually a man born in England called Archibald. The North Bay Nugget knew of the truth behind his identity for three years and published their story on the day he died. The cabin he built in the 1930s still stands in Prince Albert National Park. Several plaques honour Grey Owl in England and Canada as well. The cabin he lived in at Riding Mountain National Park for six months in 1931 has also been designated a Federal Heritage Building.

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