History file: A glimpse into the mink and fishing industries, circa 1958

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Mink farming was once a thriving industry along the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake. Much of the feed for the mink came from fish from the lake. The two industries went hand in hand, and in its heyday, the numbers were pretty big.

Providing a glimpse into the scope of these two activities is a Sept. 30, 1958 letter that Canyon Creek resident Gilbert Pearson found in his files recently. It’s from ‘Fur Farm Supervisor’ R.W. Gillies (presumably a government person) to Arther ‘Bud’ Rippin, President of the Canyon Creek-Widewater Fur Breeders’ Association.

Gillies opens his letter by telling Rippin the numbers are lower than normal, “due to the great fall-out (price decline?) last year.”

Widewater, Canyon Creek and Slave Lake had 29,197 mink in total. Those, added to the ones in Faust, Joussard and Kinuso bring the total to 50,693. In the previous season, about 35,000 mink were ‘pelted’ in that region, with a total value of $591,000.

“There are about 100 families who derive their livelihood in the area from operating a mink farm,” Gillies says.

The letter goes on to list fish volumes by species out of Lesser Slave Lake. These were taken via 180 commercial fishing licenses, plus 110 fur farm fishing licenses. The numbers are probably for the previous year, though Gillies does not specify. Roughly three million pounds of tullibee were taken, with a value of $123,240. Whitefish (800,000 lbs.) and jackfish (200,000 lbs.) were the next highest in volume. A fish called ‘yellow’ (probably walleye) came in at 28,000 lbs.

Gillies goes on to say it is “easy to see” how the fishing industry depends on the mink industry.

“I would also like to say,” Gillies continues, “that the above figures, both mink and fish volumes, is one of the lowest in many years.”

The mink industry was in decline and it never really recovered. For one thing it depended heavily on local fish, and after several decades of intensive harvesting, that resource was becoming depleted. Mink ranching continued through the 1960s, but with fewer people doing it. The discovery of oil in the mid-1960s made the decision to ‘pelt out’ easier for many. By the mid-1970s the industry had pretty much disappeared from the area. Commercial fishing continued off and on, until the provincial government shut it down just a few years ago.

Canyon Creek, back in the day, had several commercial enterprises going. Also from the Pearson files is a photo of the business district, along with a note from Mr. Pearson saying there was one restaurant, a shoe repair place, two auto repair shops, three stores with groceries and hardware, a post office and a cold storage outfit for fish. Fish were shipped off in refrigerated rail cars from the Canyon Creek siding, from the Gateway Fisheries plant.

Slim Bartlett and his sister Minnie at the mink pens in Widewater.
Photo courtesy Leslie (Bartlett) Logan

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