The dauntless St. Roch: Saving a Canadian icon

The St. Roch, a Canadian icon, is in danger of being put on the scrap heap. Money has run out for the brave little ship, once a Royal Canadian Mounted Police supply vessel and the only ship ever to have circumnavigated the North American continent.

Prior to and during the Second World War, the St. Roch’s presence in Arctic waters safeguarded Canada’s north. Sadly, it may have seen its last days. Retired after 26 years of service, the schooner was drydocked and housed in an A-frame building in Vancouver’s Maritime Museum, English Bay.

Appealing to the public, the Maritime Museum’s director, James P. Delgado, says: “This Canadian icon must be saved. The St. Roch speaks to the hearts and mind of all Canadians. “We hope to raise, over a two year period, a $5 million endowment fund to pay for the upkeep and operation of the ship, to make the necessary repairs, and to install exhibits around it explaining its important role in the Arctic.”

Beginning in 1928, the St. Roch sailed from Vancouver to serve as a supply ship for four isolated Arctic RCMP detachments on a 1,200 mile stretch of coast. The St. Roch was also designed to serve as a floang RCMP detachment — during the winter, icelocked for months on end, the crew became active duty RCMP officers, patrolling far across the Arctic with teams of Huskies hitched to dog sleds.

After its maiden voyage in 1928, the St. Roch made three further voyages in Arctic waters, one lasting as long as four years, before returning to Vancouver.

As crew member Bill White recalls: “At that time, the RCMP was the Canadian government’s only official presence in the north. There was no local government, no game wardens, no social workers, no military — the RCMP did it all.”

The St. Roch not only had to supply the RCMP detachments in the Arctic, but also to carry mail, ferry Innuit children to the residential school at Aklavik, run sick people to the Aklavik mission hospital, explore new shipping routes as well as perform all manner of official chores.

The crew also had to investigate deaths and disappearances, and several patrols were raised when trappers, missionaries or traders were overdue. In all, St. Roch’s detachment investigated some 17 deaths — two suicides, mishaps by drowning and freezing, and a few murders.

Henry Larsen, one of the longest serving and best known skippers says,”Other than the occasional murder, crime is almost non-existent among the Inuit.”

The St. Roch also undertook several civic duties including registering all vital statistics such as births, deaths and marriages. Another duty was issuing numbered identification discs to the Inuit.

“The Inuit were given numbers because they generally had one name, and many shared the same ones. Sometimes they even changed their name to something different,” says Henry Larsen. “The `little ship that could’ had become a symbol of goodwill to all the Arctic people. They knew we could be trusted to lend a helping hand, and no one, no matter what he had done, was ever afraid of coming to confide in us. They knew they would get fair treatment. Ours was not a police force to be afraid of.”

In 1940, with Canada at war, the government was anxious to demonstrate its sovereignty over the Arctic Islands. This was accomplished by having the St. Roch patrol Arctic waters. That year, the ship sailed from Vancouver through the North West passage on an historic 28 month voyage to Halifax. Then, in 1944, the St. Roch went from east to west, making the return trip to Vancouver — a distance of 7,295 miles — in 86 days.

Later, in 1950, the St. Roch sailed via the Panama Canal to Halifax, the only ship to have circumnavigated the North American continent.

Today, the St. Roch is in relatively good shape. Despite being out of water for over 40 years, its well preserved, although a little dry rot has set in. But while her glory days are over — the ship will never again take to sea — it’s hoped public awareness (and a generous helping of cash) can keep the memories of the St. Roch’s accomplishments afloat.

The St. Roch is located at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, 1905 Ogden Ave., Vancouver, B.C., V6J 1A3. For more information, call (604) 257-8305; Fax: (604) 737-2621. The museum is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 5.p.m.