Dec. 29, 2022

9. Awakening in the Northwest Territories

9. Awakening in the Northwest Territories

If you’ve retired, are nearing retirement or have ever considered what life looks like after work, you may want to listen in. Alastair Henry provides an alternative to seeing out your days cutting grass and playing golf.  And if you haven’t contemplated any of this, well listen in anyway. It’s a charming story.

Thank you Alastair for providing me with a smile and an insight into life well north of the 49th parallel.  It's been a pleasure to listen in.

Connect with Alastair

Book: Awakening in the Northwest Territories

(disclosure: Batting the Breeze receives a small commission from a sale of "Awakening in the Northwest Territories)



Last week's episode

[Episode 8] From Belarus with Love - At the last count, 221 million people have migrated, ie moved from their “country of usual residence”; that’s 3.5% of the world’s population. Of these, just short of 80 million were forcibly moved from their homes as refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced. But there are many that move to join their families, to study or to seek a new life.  I was lucky enough to catch up with one such person seeking a new life.  She’s a gem. 

Next week's episode

[Episode 10] A Holotropic Journey - In the 50’s and 60’s, a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland released the psychedelic drug LSD to encourage research of possible beneficial effects for psychological struggles or psychiatric illness. Psychedelic drugs were subsequently outlawed. Most people don’t realise that there is a legal, much safer option to achieve non-ordinary states of consciousness today. Neil Harris explains.

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alastair_henry: [00:00:00] I saw people being happy and I thought, "Well, how can you be so happy, you have nothing?" So I realize happiness isn't about what you have, it's how you see the world, how you perceive things and how you appreciate.

Early life

Steve: Alistair Henry was born three days after D-Day in 1944 [00:01:00] in Glasgow. His parents had moved temporarily from the Channel Islands to escape the occupying Germans and then...

alastair_henry: in 1949, I moved to Bolton Lancashire. That's where I grew up. That's where I picked up my accent.

Alastair Henry

Move to Canada

alastair_henry: When I was 19, I emigrated to Canada. I followed my girlfriend here, it was love. But I just went home and announced, "I'm going to Canada." My parents were devastated. They really never did get over it.

Steve: So Alistair lived in the suburbs of London, Ontario, had children, was ambitious and worked hard in the corporate world up to an early retirement.

alastair_henry: I retired when I was 57, and I moved up north to Grey County in Canada, in Ontario, and I bought myself an idyllic retreat there, 50 acres. It was perfect.

House in Grey County, Ontario, Canada

Decision to go outside comfort zone

alastair_henry: Now, I had this deck overlooking the Saugeen River and I was watching the ice coming down the river, melting and disappearing. Ice [00:02:00] is so fleeting, it's here one minute and then it's not. And that's what really prompted me to seriously think about what did I really want to do.

You know, I spent all my life acquiring these skills and expertise and because now I chose to retire and just cut grass, I'd never used them again. And I thought, what a waste. So I found a job using my business skills, and I found it in Canada's Northwest Territories.


Northwest Territories

alastair_henry: It's a huge territory. And Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories and it's only got 17,000 people. And when you get to Yellowknife, that's it. No more roads. That's the end of the tree line. Between there and the North Pole is called the Barren Lands. And big animals live there. And bears, wolverines, muskox. And you just think, wow, nature is awesome.

Lutsel K'e


The job

Steve: [00:03:00] Okay, so back to the job.

alastair_henry: So I found this job. It was the general manager of the development corporations for a small band in a little community called Lutsel K'e. There's nothing between Yellowknife and Lutsel K'e and it's 300 Chipewyan Dene inhabitants.

And it was a really interesting job because it meant negotiating with De Beers about some diamond mines.


Frozen Lake Lutsel K'e


Steve: Diamonds. Tell me about diamonds, Alastair.

alastair_henry: There were diamonds discovered in... Canada's North in the 1990s. The diamond mines are.... over lakes. The diamonds are in a... it's called a "kimberlight pipe". It came up from the core of the earth, almost like a volcano and... solidified. It's like a great big pipe up to the surface. So the top of the surface is ground off with the glaciers and... filled up with water. So the top of the diamonds are always, it's always water, [00:04:00] always a lake.

Steve: And when you have diamond mines in remote, frozen places, you also have the ice roads.

alastair_henry: In the winter, they build an ice road from Yellowknife basically for the diamond mines, for Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. Huge ice road, huge trucks taking all sorts of equipment because in the summer when everything is melted, there are no roads to the diamond mines. Everything is just flatland and puddles, lakes, small lakes.

Ice Roads to Yellowknife


 People of North West Territories

Steve: Canada recognizes three main indigenous groups: First Nations, the largest and most varied of the groups; Métis, who are the descendants of First Nations and European settlers; and the Inuit who are essentially a maritime people with homeland stretching from Greenland and even as far as Siberia. For Alastair, he would be spending his time integrating with one of the 630 First [00:05:00] Nations communities.

alastair_henry: There's 50 different languages. So they're not homogeneous. Every Nation has got different songs, culture, dances, because they've lived these isolated nomadic lives for thousands of years.

First Nations canoeing

Lutzel Ke people

Steve: And somewhere within those 630 communities, on the edge of the Great Slave Lake was Lutsel K'e.

alastair_henry: They were nomadic up until I think about 1940. And then the government said, "Hey, you guys can't keep roaming the land like this. I mean, we're gonna be bringing people in to settle". So they built this community called Lutsel K'e, which means " Lands of the Little Fishes".


Way of Llife - hunting & fishing

alastair_henry: There's a huge herd of caribou, couple of hundred thousand. So a lot of them go hunting, they go trapping, and even the little bird, [00:06:00] it's a little plump white bird called the ptarmigan, very plump and very tasty. They use the hides, the moose and the bear and the caribou to make clothing, moccasins and things.

Drying caribou skins

Great Slave Lake

Steve: Just rewind a little to that mention of the Great Slave Lake. When I was at school, this just existed as an exam question. It was just a small patch on a map. To hear about real communities that lived here and how they lived was exciting and it played a big part in Alastair's life while he was there.

alastair_henry: When in Rome you do as a Romans do. So I bought this snowmobile and I went from Lutsel K'e to Yellowknife... every month to get groceries. It's a five hour drive. It was amazing. I was out there on the Great Slave Lake. It just like a billiard table. So I was going like 100, 110 kilometers an hour. Every once in a while you could see the ridge in your headlights. So you just slow down to [00:07:00] go over the ridge and then you get going again.

Snowmobiling to Yellowknife


First impressions of Lutsel Ke

Steve: I asked Alistair to summarize his early impressions of Lutsel K'e.

alastair_henry: When you've only got 300 people, it's one great big community and mostly everybody's related anyway... a lot of inter-marrying goes on, there's this thing about keeping the bloodlines pure.

 One big thing is the spiritual gathering. It's at another place called Fort Reliance. There's nothing there. It's a beach on the extreme arm of Great Slave Lake.

The whole community goes there for 10 days and they put up their tents. There's... they have sweats, they have lots of dancing, lots of ceremonies, lots of food, lots of feasting.

Sweats Lutsel K'e


Steve: And what about education?

alastair_henry: There is a school, but it goes to grade eight and then after that the kids have to go to somewhere on the mainland in Alberta.[00:08:00] Children are separated from their families. The really bright ones that show a lot of promise, there's really no jobs for them back in Lutsel K'e, so they go on to Edmonton or Vancouver or Toronto.

Sometimes they get into trouble down in Vancouver and the judge says, "What do you want to do? Go to jail or go back to Lutsel K'e? So they... they go home.



Steve: When Alistair arrived, he had a house. The problem is it wasn't yet built.

alastair_henry: I saw my house in 10 crates at the building site. There's no plumbers, no electricians, there's nobody.

in the meantime I... had to live with other people in the community. And one of the guys I... lived with, Stefan, he built his home from materials he found at the landfill. There was no indoor toilet. Just on the porch, it was a bucket with a garbage bag. So you had to do your business in the cold. So one time he said to me,  "You know Al, you can't [00:09:00] pee in the honey bucket"... it was called a honey bucket. You have to go in the bushes same as me. And that was brutal because it meant putting on every piece of clothing you had in the middle of the night to go outside to take a pee in the bushes. So I stopped drinking and that's what, that was my solution.  

Houses in Lutsel K'e


Experience trapping

Steve: Alistair told me about a time he went with his boss, Vince, trapping marten; that's like a little weasel or an ermine. As Alistair was taking it easy, enjoying the scenery, he suddenly noticed Vince waving.

alastair_henry: ...and his hand was caught in the trap, and.... he wanted me to go to his snow machine to get the toolbox. So I grabbed that, brought it over, picked up the great big pliers and that's what we used to open up the trap.

But I said to him, "What would you have done if I hadn't have been here Vince?" He said, I don't know. They just say goodbye to the family and they go, and they don't know when they're gonna come back. So life up there is very [00:10:00] precarious.

Snowmobiles parked for hunting

Cultural differences

Steve: Alistair then went on to elaborate on cultural differences.

alastair_henry: They live in the moment, and a lot of times I would say, "You wanna work on Friday?" They say, "Oh yeah." But Friday, there was no sight of them. Because it was a nice day, they just decided to do something else.

 So from then on, I just realized if Jim is hungover, well he's hungover. He can't do his best today. So I just have to accept that at least he, he's here.

They have this... affinity with nature. They just see the Creator like the universe. They're all connected and they love this interconnectedness. It's very real for them. We feel superior to nature, but they just feel part of it.

Sunset Lutsel K'e

Time to go home

Steve: Alistair had been there for two years and had benefited from an unforgettable lifestyle and experiences. Was there any question of him staying?

alastair_henry: Even though I was there for two years, I felt like I'd been there all my life. [00:11:00] But I also realized, you know, I'm not Dene. I don't belong here. So I decided to leave.

 I saw people being happy and I thought, "Well, how can you be so happy, you have nothing?" So I realize happiness isn't about what you have, it's how you see the world, how you perceive things and how you appreciate.

Alastair's book: Awakening in the Northwest Territories

Final Message

Steve: Alastair's first post-retirement adventure wasn't the only first. It left such an impression with him that he decided to write about it.

Awakening in the Northwest Territories is a memoir from childhood through to those extraordinary two years in Lutsel K'e. Alastair describes in detail how his encounter with the Chipewyan changed his view of the world and inspired a whole new way of living.

It seems that retirement can be a beginning rather than an end. When I suggested to Alastair that his particular redirection in life may require quite a bit of courage, [00:12:00] he put me straight.

Portrait: Alastair Henry

alastair_henry: It's just a question of saying, "Yes", instead of saying, "No". When you say, "No", you close the door. When you say, "Yes", you open the door and then you can go through and see what's beyond.