Cross Lake is a small community situated approximately 800 kilometers North of Manitoba’s capital city of Winnipeg. The population of 3000 Cree First Nations inhabitants is divided into four suburbs, delineated in one part by the Nelson River that flows through it and in the second part by a cultural and legal status of the residents who live there.
The banks of the Nelson River were a historical settlement choice of many Cree communities in Northern Manitoba, giving them easy access to traditional hunting grounds. Later day settlement factors were also determined by the extensive hydroelectric development of the Nelson watershed ranging from from Lake Winnipeg North to Hudson Bay.
The terms “Indian” and “Metis” are legal definitions that were created in an age when government labels were deemed necessary to delineate the rights and responsibilities of both the government and its indigenous peoples. In effect, the term Indian was used to describe First Nations Peoples, the original Canadians, who in a benevolent moment relaxed their immigration policies and allowed European explorers and fur traders into their country. Human nature being what it is, many of these European immigrants married First Nations people. Offspring of these unions lost their legal Indian status and were designated Metis. While some negative history has been associated with this designation, recent decades have brought pride and honour back to those that share this name. A 1985 legal challenge made to the federal government resulted in an amendment to the Indian Act and a return of Indian status to many Metis people.
In 1979, three of the Cross Lake suburbs were on First Nations “Reserve” land, where the costs to maintain health, education and local government were provided by the federal government. A Chief and Council represented the residents of these suburbs. Metis people lived on provincial land and received the same benefits as other provincial residents. A Mayor and Council represented the residents in this suburb. In all suburbs, employment was low, the people were poor and social issues, historical and current, affected most either directly or indirectly.
In July of 1979 I was posted to Wabowden Detachment. Wabowden is situated on the main North/South highway, 660 kilometers North of Winnipeg and 110 kilometers South of Thompson. The detachment was comprised of 13 Members. Cross Lake was an inland post 150 kilometers from Wabowden and was inaccessible by road for the final 50 kilometers. During summer months, a 1-hour ferry ride brought residents and visitors from the nearby hydro town of Jenpeg to the Cross Lake community dock. During winter months, the same route was traversed over the ice. In between, during the fall freeze and the spring thaw, air transport was used. RCMP police service was managed from a mobile trailer on provincial land in the community. One RCMP Member was posted to the community from Monday to Friday; a second Member arrived on Friday afternoon for the busy weekend period. Monday was the shift rotation day.
My first week in Cross Lake was spent in the company of Constable Richard Tremblay. I had at that time almost 6 years of service. Richard had 8 years. He was therefore senior to me and was sharing my first and only orientation patrol.
Richard had been in Cross Lake the previous week and had taken a complaint from a local resident regarding an explosives magazine that had been abandoned by a contractor. The resident advised Richard that the owners of the dynamite stored in the magazine (shack) should have removed it. Repeated calls to the company were not returned. He had requested Richard’s assistance to resolve this issue.
Richard accompanied the citizen to the location of the magazine. It did truly seem abandoned and the lock on the door was not fully secure. With little effort, the lock was breached and the door was opened. Inside were 19 cases of dynamite. Each case held 50 sticks. The boxes had started to collapse and by looking into an open box, Richard observed that the sticks had started to “sweat.” Richard secured the magazine and called the RCMP explosives experts in Winnipeg for advice. He was advised that the dynamite was extremely unstable and that an explosives expert should be contracted to move and destroy the cache, preferably by burning. Richard had contacted the larger neighbouring RCMP detachment and Oscar Muswaggon was recommended by the detachment commander as having the knowledge and experience necessary to carry out such a task. Oscar was due at Cross Lake Detachment the next morning on the ferry.
Early the next morning, Oscar called to advise us that he was busy and not able to meet us at the office until that afternoon. Because our morning had been set aside for this duty, Richard and I sat down to ponder our options. Richard was unusually quiet, thinking.
The brief silence was broken when he said, “I read somewhere that you can set off dynamite with a bullet.”
“Really” I said. “How does that work?”
“Well the compression or something is enough shock to cause a stick of dynamite to detonate.”
“Have you ever seen that happen?”
The next moment of silence was replaced by a loud hissing in my head and as I looked at Richard I knew that my last question and his response was actually an invitation or perhaps a challenge. Richard was not disturbed by this nuance and got right to his point,
“Wanna try it?”
“Come on, we’ve got the rifle here, we can be a long way away.”
“Well I want to try it and I can’t do it alone.”
“Ah, no Richard. Not a good idea, we need to wait for Oscar.”
“Yeah, well if Oscar doesn’t come then we’ll get busy with other things, and the dynamite will never get destroyed. Some kids might get hurt.”
“How did this conversation go from shooting a stick of dynamite to protecting the youth of the community?”
“Are you in or out?” Richard asked with just a hint of frustration.
I must admit, I was curious.
We arrived at the explosives magazine about 10 minutes later. Climbing out of the marked police pick-up truck I walked over to stand at the side of a sand cliff that descended with a moderate grade to the water below. The water below was actually a long elbow of the Nelson River that extended into the topography. It was suitably named Sandy Bay.
It was a beautiful summer morning, with a high blue sky. Big puffy clouds had been cast randomly against that backdrop for as far as the eye could see. The air was warming from the cool of the previous night and the dew was quickly evaporating from the sparse vegetation around us. A rusty hinge noise broke the peaceful silence and I turned in time to see Richard ease open the rickety door of the shack. I advanced toward Richard, and while I could not see into the interior of the shack, I felt its black hole presence challenging our decision to enter. Turning on his flashlight, Richard entered through the door. I followed, silently moving in behind him. An acrid scent assaulted my senses as the beam of light trapped two uneven rows of cardboard boxes haphazardly stacked against the back wall of the shack. The boxes’ exteriors had been stained through in spots by their decomposing contents and a few lower boxes had been crushed under the weight of the boxes above. We both stopped. I’m not sure what Richard was thinking but my thoughts were fairly clear.
Had these boxes been dangerous and volatile criminals that we had backed into a corner following a perspiration induced foot pursuit, we both would have had our guns drawn and our voices raised in an effort to exert control; to become the alpha dog! To continue with that analogy, at that moment I felt like a whipped hound, hoping at worst that my wounds following this adventure could be licked. Last chance to back out.
We both headed back outside to survey the scene. We decided that we shouldn’t carry the cases any further than we had to and we also recognized that some degree of cover would be necessary for our personal protection. It was decided that the riverbank overlooking Sandy Bay would offer a good staging location for the dynamite. Looking in the opposite direction, we observed a stack of logs that would serve well as our shooting location, and as well preserve our personal safety. By now, I had bought into the mission; I was on the team and ready to play.
Once committed, our enthusiasm overtook us and deciding on the number of cases to blow at one time was a quick decision. We decided that we would blow 7 cases the first time, 7 the next and 5 for the final blast. We reentered the shack and donned plastic gloves to protect us from the harmful “sweat” that we knew to be nitroglycerin. The boxes moved quite easily and once the first couple had been removed, the possibility of accidental detonation became moot. Stacking the boxes in two rows of three with a box on the top, we retreated to our woodpile and took cover. Richard prepared the rifle.
In 1979, the RCMP used the Winchester .308 bolt-action rifle as their main long-range weapon of choice, which fired a 180-grain bullet. The specifications allowed for the highest bullet velocity with the least chance of a deflection enroute to the target. And while we had both been trained and certified for its use, Richard took the firing honor. It was after all, his file. And now, leaning over that woodpile, he was ready to fire. I took up a spotting position beside him.
The cases of dynamite looked small from this distance and our confidence was high that we had set up the destruction sequences and safety issues properly. The area was safe from errant wanderers and there were no flocks of low flying geese that we feared would be victims of friendly fire.
Richard spoke, just above a whisper, “Fire in the hole,” and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. No boom!
“What happened?” Richard asked.
“I don’t know, it didn’t work I guess.”
“Well where did the bullet hit, did you see?”
“No, I was covering my ears with my hands and trying to stay behind the logs.”
“Well, you need to be my spotter. I’m not sure if I even hit a box.”
“OK, try again.”
“Fire in the hole” and he pulled the trigger a second time.
“Well I think you hit it that time” I reported to him. I think I saw something fall from the middle box, but I’m not sure.
“Well you’ve got to be sure I’m hitting the boxes. We each have a role here you know.”
“Ok, don’t get owly, try again.”
Bowing to the scourge of Richard’s nervous agitation I moved to stand to the side of the woodpile and trained my eyes in the direction of the dynamite. I uncovered my ears. If this attempt was going to be another failure, I didn’t want to be indecisive about my observation. And I rationalized that, in the unlikely chance that it did blow, I would be able to duck behind the woodpile, quickly. Richard gave no third whispered warning before pulling the trigger.
The concussion from the blast hit me, forcing me back a couple of feet so that I lost my balance and fell into the sand. To this day I’m not sure of the sequence of events, the concussion, the noise or the visual effects, but suffice to say it was all totally unexpected. Any thought that I had believing that I could jump under cover from the approaching blast was wrong. It was that fast.
Looking back at me on the ground from his position on the woodpile, sporting a big grin on his face, Richard declared, “That went well!”
And I from my supine position on the ground replied, “Well we’re still here to talk about it, but I’d like to see it again now that I know what to expect.”
The next 7 cases exploded on the first shot, and I was able to enjoy the sequence of events, the flash, the wave of energy and the tremendous noise and smoke of the explosion itself. On a roll now, we set up the last 5 cases for detonation and returned to our woodpile. Richard was getting in position to fire when a pickup truck pulled up beside our truck. The driver emerged and walked slowly toward us and I walked out to greet him. Richard stopped and watched.
It was Oscar. As I shook hands with him he remarked in a casual laid back and lethargic tone common of his culture, “Do you want some help?”
Richard responded, “How did you know where we were?”
“I heard you from town. I wouldn’t do it that way you know, you’re too close.”
“Yes,” Richard replied, “I knew there were other options. We didn’t have any problems with the last two blasts, lots of noise and smoke is all.”
Turning toward the police truck Oscar said, “I’m going to sit in your truck”
My enthusiasm waning with this expert now on the scene, I joined Oscar in the truck, my side toward the blast zone. Nicely settled, Oscar quietly understated a concern, “You’d better roll your window down a bit, sometimes the concussion can break the glass.”
Well the window glass didn’t break from the concussion but the feeling when the dynamite went off was similar, I expect, to being inside a metal garbage can and having it hit by a giant polar bear. Outside was definitely better and I wondered at Oscar’s wisdom for choosing to be inside. In fact, I posed the question to him,
“Why was it better inside, that was brutal, I could go deaf.”
His reply, “Better than dead, you are too close. Besides we have to go back into town. The Chief wants to see you.”
“What does the Chief want?”
“Those blasts had nothing to stop the energy, the concussions were felt very strong in town. It is scaring the animals and the elders. Everyone is calling the radio station asking who is shaking their homes. The Chief has been on the radio station telling people that he will get the RCMP to investigate. He’s been trying to find you.”
“ Geeze Oscar, why didn’t you tell me that earlier,” I asked with a bit of frustration.
“I was curious,” he replied.