An Arctic Arab, or, the story of Peter Baker, free trader

I wanted to read this book from the moment I saw its cover. Who was this man and what was he doing in the Arctic? 

I love fish out of water stories. I love the strange forces that push the most unlikely people into remote corners of northern Canada. I heard there was once a flamenco dancer living in Igloolik. Or was it Iqaluit? Years ago, I read the memoir of Tété-Michel Kpomassie, titled An African in Greenland, which is obviously fascinating (and still in print!).

“I, Peter Baker, known as the Arctic Arab, came from Lebanon during the Turkish conquest,” begins this 1976 memoir. 

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It gets better: Baker became one of the few northern-elected members of the N.W.T. Council (the precursor to the legislature) and thereby one of Canada’s first Muslim politicians. In addition to a great story, this memoir is politically significant. 

Baker was born Bedouin Ferran in Lebanon in 1887. He left his hometown on horseback at age twenty to avoid being conscripted into the Turkish army. He got a new name almost upon arrival in the West. “I’ll call you Peter,” said a prospective employer, before asking Ferran to translate his last name into English.

All this Baker gets out of the way in the first few chapters, which outline the early jobs and boarding houses that made up his first year in the west. 

Baker starts off in the U.S., largely because the line to see an American doctor was shorter than that for a Canadian one when his ship landed in Halifax. When he decides to move to Edmonton to join a friend, he has no difficulty. “‘Yes certainly,’ said the Canadian immigration agent,” Baker writes. “There was no red tape. He asked some questions and got all the particulars concerning my affairs and then issued a certificate to qualify me.”

On the suggestion of his friend and business partner, Baker makes arrangements to haul a soda fountain and other goods by rail, “stone boat” and sternwheeler-driven barge to Fort Fitzgerald, then horse-drawn carriage to Fort Smith. The idea was to sell goods to the thousands of oil prospectors on their way to Fort Norman (now Tulita). “I am of the belief that we can make a killing and quit,” Baker’s friend told him.

Early on, though, there are signs that northern life agrees with Baker. “I fixed myself a place by putting up some spruce boughs on which to sleep, and cooked my meals on an open fire.”

Baker stays north for the winter, traveling to Fort Resolution for Treaty Day (he makes $800 in one day; later he’ll take in $1,500 of $2,000 handed out on this annual event) and eventually setting up shop in Fort Smith. But he loves to be on the move. Through twenty years of northern trading, Baker will travel most of the southern N.W.T. (though never above the treeline, in spite of his catchy nickname), taking up dog sledding in winter as the most efficient means of reaching remote outposts and homesteads, many now lost to history.

I learned several interesting things from reading this book. One, Fort Smith once had a bank that gave out five dollar bills stamped with “NORTHWEST TERRITORY.” (“Having a bank for the first time and the flexibility of money circulating certainly amazed and delighted the people,” Baker writes.)

Another: the fur trade in Fort Resolution used to be worth about half a million dollars a year. “This is not an exaggerated figure.”

Three: this lucrative trade brought with it not just dozens of white trappers but also large numbers of traders who often fought amongst themselves for the catch.

From the beginning, Baker faced an unusual degree of opposition, chiefly from Willy Lyall in Fort Smith (Baker names names with relish). “Before Lyall came to Smith I had never heard anybody mention such a word as ‘Jew.’ At one time there was a group of women in my store, and every once in a while they would talk to each other in French saying ‘Le Juif,’ referring to me as ‘Jew.’ In those days, whenever anybody was called a ‘Jew’ it meant outcast and despised.”

Later on, in 1926, Baker learns of a change to the fur trading and trafficking laws that ban traders from going among the trappers’ camps to buy furs. Seeing this, correctly, as the end to his business, Baker takes it up personally with the Minister of the Interior, Charlie Stewart, asking for a one-year extension to collect on debts from his previous year’s trade. 

“The minister was quite sympathetic. He said, ‘It wouldn’t be necessary for the new rule if it wasn’t for those damned Syrians and Jews going around fooling poor Indians.’ I said, ‘That is all. Goodbye, Mr. Minister.’”

At one point, Baker is charged by police for buying stolen goods (Baker believes the police were put up to this charge by competitors). During his trial, police inspector Fred Fletcher asks, “‘Didn’t you feel suspicious when you bought such an amount of tobacco from an Indian?’ I replied, ‘I did not buy from an Indian. I bought from a businessman.’”

Baker never meets a person without a name (still a wonderful thing about the North, or parts of it). Even incidental characters are named in full. “While out hunting Baptiste came across a young half-breed, Frank Champagne.” Even the children are named. (“George, Billie, John, James, Alex, Tommy, Colin, Lora and Edith,” he writes of Peter Loutit’s family. “These are the ones I’m aware of, there may have been others.”)

Baker was one of the first people to sell fish commercially out of Great Slave Lake. He met John Hornby and felt saddened by his needless death by starvation. He sold flour and lard and gold rings and new pants and those little colourful scarves older women still tie over their hair. 

His last trading post was at Fort Rae (now Behchokǫ̀). In 1964, he was elected to the N.W.T. Council to represent Mackenzie North, a huge district, including Yellowknife, Fort Providence, Kugluktuk and Port Radium on Great Bear Lake. Baker settled in Old Town in 1966 in a house across the street from Weaver and Devore (since torn down). He died in 1973 at age 86. Friends recall Commissioner Stu Hodgson attending the funeral. 

There are few conclusions in this memoir, and little reflection, perhaps because this book was put together posthumously, based on the serial version published in News of the North (now News/North) while Baker was still living. 

But several times, Baker mentions that the life of a free trader was the only life for him. Early on, he recounts a job digging a basement in a small American city. When the man who hired him fails to make him a decent breakfast, Baker has second thoughts, and a simple solution. 

“It occurred to my mind to take a stroll, thinking probably I would find a suitable job. I kept walking away until I was out away from the city limits.” 

This review was originally written for Edge Yk magazine, long may it last. 

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