by Joan Champ
The Prince Albert Winter Festival is the major event of the year in our city. The Winter Festival honours the early history of Prince Albert’s days as a fur trading post and centre of a thriving logging industry. As in those days, lumberjacks, trappers, and fur traders rub shoulders in the city during the festival. The sled dog race is perhaps the most important event of all.
I remember the days when many of the events were held on a mile-long site on the ice of the North Saskatchewan River near downtown. The Boy Scouts and soldiers from the North Saskatchewan Regiment (B Company) set up camps on the river ice. As a member of the PA Lions Band during the early 1970s, I worked a shift or two in the band’s fundraising concession on the river, flipping burgers and serving hot chocolate. The ice under our feet would melt as the hours went by, but nobody seemed too worried about breaking through.
The Prince Albert Winter Festival was originally held in the 1920s, but ended in 1929. It was revived in 1965 after almost 40 years. The kick-off event that revival year was the Trappers’ Party, part of the annual trappers’ convention in the city. The program for the Trappers’ Party that first year included competitions in wildlife calls (wolf, lynx, goose, and moose), pelt preparation, jigging, and fish-eating. This eventually became the King Trapper Contest which has always been popular with visitors to the Winter Festival. This event gives spectators a glimpse into some of the daily challenges faced by trappers on their northern traplines. The competitions, including the power saw contest, the log chopping contest, the canoe portage race, and the flour-packing contest (in which the trappers carry bags of flour on their backs weighing up to 1,000 pounds), were gruelling tests of strength, stamina and skill.
Other Winter Festival events over the years have included snowmobile races, variety shows, hockey games, parades, dances, cabarets, fashion shows, the list goes on and on. There was also the Winter Festival Queen pageant.
When the Festival was revived in 1965, the organizing committee had a problem. There was no reigning Queen to crown the winner of the pageant. This problem was solved when the committee realized there was “royalty” almost at Prince Albert’s doorstep. Irene Seeseequasis of Duck Lake had been named Indian Princess of Canada that year. Miss Seeseequasis made arrangements with her employers, the Indian Agency in Duck Lake, to be in the city for a major part of the festival, missing only a few days due to her work. The Prince Albert Daily Herald wrote that it was a “veritable touch of genius” to secure the services of Irene Seeseequis as the Honourary Queen of the Winter Festival. “The personable (and highly photogenic) Duck Lake girl literally ‘threw’ herself into her demanding task and, in the process, made innumerable friends,” an editorial stated. “Acting as Queen of the Festival was not a ‘soft touch’ for Miss Seeseequasis. On several occasions, she performed her normal day’s duties with the Indian Agency in Duck Lake and then hopped on a bus or train for the trip to the city for appearances at one place or another in the evening. In short, Miss Irene Seeseequasis was a ‘real queen’ and the Festival gained a great deal from her participation.” Irene Seeseequasis went on to become President of the Indian Women of Saskatchewan in 1971. She received her Masters in Social Work and taught at the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology. She was married to actor Gordon Tootoosis of the Poundmaker Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan.
In 1972, the city’s police chief, Reg Brooman, urged the Winter Festival Society to move the site from its traditional place on the North Saskatchewan River to the exhibition grounds. “The present site, while it may be fine for sentimental reasons, is impractical when it comes to efficient control,” the police chief said. “The area is much too large for the show we have been having, and the problem of traffic control to and from the site is pure hell.” In addition, Brooman cited safety concerns. There were three deep and swift channels running beneath the festival site, “and if anything happened it would eliminate the winter festival forevermore,” he said.
The main disadvantage of holding the annual event on the river ice was, of course, uncertain weather and ice conditions. There was very little protection from frigid winds, so it times it could be pretty darn cold out there. It was also a costly location and thus contributed to the high costs of the festival. In 1971, ice preparation costs alone ate up $4,000 of the society’s $32,700 budget.
The Prince Albert Winter Festival celebrates its 54th year in 2018. The popular events like the King Trapper competition and the sled dog races are on the program along with some newer events like a comedy show and a rock show. There is no longer a Winter Festival Queen pageant.