The late Ib Kristensen
Ib Kristensen: an interview and visit with Carla Ulrich, Kyle Napier and Richard Van Camp in January of 2015 in Ib's home.
R: Okay, Ib. Welcome, welcome, welcome! So, Ib, when were you born?
I: Oh, in 1934 just as the second war started. Yeah well, started in ’32 but, yeah, in June of 1934.
R: And where were you born?
I: In Copenhagen Denmark.
R: Oh …
I: Yeah, and uh … grew up there. My mother was a single parent and uh, it wasn’t easy times during the war of course. Although indirectly we weren’t affected but generally everything was rushing (?) you had poor living conditions and it wasn’t easy for a woman to bring up a child alone in those days and uh, yeah even my schooling was interrupted by the Germans in that towards the end of the war all the refugees from Germany that was bombed out by the allies they were sent to Denmark to recuperate from all the … they didn’t have any place to live. So they occupied the schools around Copenhagen and we were just, we didn’t have schooling for three years yeah. The schooling I went to was in a salvation army meeting room. (laughter) No books, no nothing no … so I’m surprised I can still read, yeah.
R: Yes! How did you end up in Fort Smith?
I: Oh there’s a good question I uh, let me go back and say my wife and I came to Canada in ’57. Immigrated to Canada and ended up in Vancouver worked there for some 8 years I think and then got hired by McGill University to come to Montreal to start up a pending facility for them which I enjoyed very, very much it was real fantastic yup. Spent about six years and we decided uh Montreal was not the place for us and the kids specifically uh we needed some more free environment then the big cities. So we uh, we had bought a farm in Ontario and had that one for a few years but decided that wasn’t what we wanted neither. So uh, we decided to uh, come to the Northwest Territories having no idea what we were getting into knowing that we were northern stock in the first place, we should be able to survive up here. And uh, in 1971 we arrived … April the first, 1971 we arrived with the kids and skies … (laughing) the rest of it is history!
R: Yes, yes! Did you fall in love with Fort Smith right away?
I: Absolutely yeah.
R: What was it about Fort Smith that you loved?
I: Um, just the solitude of not having to, to worry about traffic and people and the institution of McGill University where more people than lived in Fort Smith at that time as a workplace. Uh just the nature and we were very involved in skiing from the day one and together with Jean (?)(inaudible sounds like he’s mentioning someone’s name) of whom you mentioned earlier when you came uh we started up the ski club in Fort Smith and that’s going strong even today yeah. So that was uh, just the freedom, just to be able to move without rubbing shoulders with masses of people.
R: During your time in Fort Smith, how did you … what did you feel about Fort Smith. How did you change for the better? Cause you were a businessman you are a father …
I: Well, I never was in the business before uh … they uh, how we got into that was the fact that my wife as you know was a weaver of renown, even in Ontario and Quebec where we lived not even as … but she started her weaving as soon as we got here. The first thing we set up was a loom and I still have that upstairs. So and she just never stopped weaving and uh, in ’75 where we lived on King Street, as you remember …
I: That house burned down that’s where Field’s store is right now on that piece of property and uh, we lost just everything and uh, including a place to live the government was kind enough to help us to finding a place to live and oh a couple of years or so Lillian continued her weaving and did quite well but there was nothing for me much to do so I took a carpentry course at a war college now, at that time it was a vocational training centre. Adult vocational training and uh, they had a course of pre-employment carpentry was the name of it and uh, I graduated from there after a season, as a first immersion student that the first vocational training centre ever had. (laughter) It was very new at that time as you remember it was just in the process of being developed into what it is today. So that was uh … and then I did photography for the college after that I did the first calendar. Designed and did posters for the college promoting it and so on and so forth and it was just time to get into doing things myself. I couldn’t find a place, I didn’t want to be a carpenter and I didn’t know much about anything else so I decided that we should maybe find a place to start a business. And we weren’t allowed to uh, at that time, to work out of our home and be selling things. You had to have a business licence. And you couldn’t have a business licence unless you had a place of business. So anyways, long story short uh the buildings that the old medical clinic is where Raven business or whatever it’s called gift store is where we had our bookstore? It was up for sale that piece of property and uh we bid on the uh on the property. It was kind of a funny, it was a federal property the federal government didn’t want to have it. Uh, and they gave it to the town, no they gave it to the government, NWT, which wasn’t quite there yet but they didn’t want it so they gave that to the town and the town decided that they didn’t want to have it but they could put it up for sale so we bid on it and we won. We won, the bid so we had a place where we could start a business but nothing to put in it to sell. We didn’t have any money to buy anything so uh, at that time things were a little bit easier to get around with the government and so on and all the crafts and so on that the government they were willing to let us sell it on commission. And so we started selling crafts in that store and lived next door, we swear by the way (?) the old, the first library in town. Uh, the librarian at that time was Mary Darts. You remember the Darts family?
R: A little bit.
I: Yeah, okay. And uh, we set up our living quarters in that place and had the shop and worked it into a bookstore: “The biggest little bookstore in the north.”
R: Yes. It was a great bookstore.
K: So, Richard had asked you earlier how many different languages you have with the books here. You said maybe a few. I’m wondering what languages you speak?
I: Well, Danish, French and as well as English, of course. There are some books in… there are some Cree books. I have a collection of some educational material in Chipewyan and that I just treasure because it’s just beautifully done. Things like that. But nothing very, well what would I say, unusual? (laughter)
K: I mean to ask, in the forty five years you’ve spent in the South Slave and really embracing this community….I wondering… what you’ve learned about the languages here or how people interact with the sense of community that you get in Smith that maybe you don’t get anywhere else?
I: Well that’s an interesting question. Of course you realize that coming to Canada in 1957as we did, we didn’t speak a word of English (laughter). I was busy for all these years trying to learn to speak English and I’m still learning and never mind other languages. That’s true: I speak Norwegian and I speak as well some Swedish, of course, and a little German. German was compulsory in school because of the war and you just hang onto one; you know, you just never forget it entirely. But, again, just being able to communicate in the language in the place where I live has been a challenge so all these years …
K: So I’m wondering: you must have gone, on all these years, real adventures and the time that you’ve spent here. I’m wondering if you have any stories of any trips that you’ve been on whether it was hunting or fishing.
I: Well, yeah, that’s another interesting question… in March coming up it is…1975 there was a big to-do in town to create a road to Fort McMurray. A winter road as a start at least. There were no roads at that time. So three people: myself, my oldest boy ____ and another person I guess what was his name? We decided to promote that road by skiing cross country from Fort Smith to Fort McMurray, cross country. There was no road, no nothing. It was just bush and the river and we managed to do it and, interestingly enough, the people that were involved outside our own group, at this time are setting up an anniversary for this event, next here in March in Edmonton. Everyone wants to celebrate that road that we did, paved sort to speak. But it was a beautiful trip because. We met a lot of people; we met some of the natives on the way, like the Snowshoe family. Snowbird I mean, family down by the Athabasca River and Leana Horn from the shop. She had a little store down there. And things like that, you know, and slept in cabins that you could find on the way. We had no, well, when we needed a place we could find it. Yeah. Tribals cabins left a little ‘thank you very much note’ and people never had locks on their cabins and you can always just open the door and just use it. You know, that was a way of life. You were asking me a way of life compared to what it is today.
I: You could do that sort of stuff at that time you could just walk in and say ‘here’.
K: What can you tell us about Snowbird Garden?
I: Really not much; they were well known. They were known to TV. There was a film company at the time doing a story on the family. We just stayed a night with them and knew them just from information through the media. Nothing else than that. No, they were just kind to us. They gave us food and shelter and send us away the next morning.
I: I don’t know. These things can happen again this day today with the right conditions and so on but maybe not as much in the early days.
K: So you, being as immersed in the community as you have been, you’ve seen it change, of course. You’ve seen all the shifts whether it’s been buildings or the expansion of the town and you were here when Fort Smith was the capital of the Northwest Territories.
I: It was indeed, yeah. (laughing)
R: For how long? How long was it the capital for those people who don’t know?
I: It was an installation centre. It was a capital for Mayor Kaeser at that time. That was his big thing. He wanted to see Fort Smith as a capital and it was the administration centre for the Northwest Territories before Yellowknife already encroached on that part of administration. But things were happening in Yellowknife, of course, even before we came--arrived in the Northwest Territories but more or less the things were done out of Fort Smith at the time. So Fort Smith may have become a capital which were a good thing (laughing) as far as I’m concerned. Fort Smith is still a place to be, I think, a beautiful place.
K: You mentioned earlier that it’s the freedom that it grants you. You walk out and it’s all that fresh air. Just you can walk in any direction.
I: No, it’s that kind of a feeling that you know all the neighbours, everybody. People look after the elders in this community
I: Well people will come and say, “Well here’s some cookies or here’s some bread. It’s wonderful. It’s like one big family and I love it here. Which you don’t do in the big city you don’t even know your next door neighbour kind of a thing. No I love it. I shall be very sad the day I have to move out of here. I know that day will come, I will assume. It’s just a … a nice feeling. You can trust people. That’s all you need, really. You need the love from other people you can have that kind of a feeling. Love thy neighbour.
K: And do you think that Fort Smith accepted you readily and willingly and right away? Was it like a warm …
I: I’ve never had a problem with anybody that I can think of.
C: Did you ever use to go to those dances they had? My granny told me that they used to have dances, I think at the church.
C: Did you ever used to go to those?
I: No never. No. It was just a personal… what would I say? Decision that we made we were not prone to … partying was not our thing. That way we may have been anonymous--I don’t know but we knew what was going on, of course, but never partook in that just uh … we never belonged much to any particular church. We did go to different churches and we knew all the ministers and so on like Bishops Piche. He was Bishop when you were just a little (to you Richard) and… and mostly corresponding with Birminghams was where our family from Britain that came and ministered in the Anglican church and left many many years ago and I still get letters from him, from England. Yeah … that’s nice. Yeah it’s family. But we never did really belong to any particular church so…
K: The community has been really warm and welcoming and embrace you.
I: Anytime yeah, yeah.
R: Can you tell us briefly for the people who don’t know. There’s a very important book that’s very near and dear to everybody’s heart in Fort Smith it’s called ‘On The Banks of the Slave.’
R: Can you just tell us how that book came to be?
I: Yes, I can do that… that happened in 1974. 1974 was the Centennial Year for Fort Smith and the … Centennial, a hundred years. The Hudson’s Bay came here in 1874 and settled here in Fort Smith and hence the capital. Yellowknife didn’t even, well it did exist but (laughing) and anyways during the celebrations people were talking how nice it would be to have a book on celebrating the occasion and at the time I had the bookstore, and I was aware of this eager attempt to do something for the town. The elementary school grade 6 did a project collecting stories and photographs from the collection, from the Brown collection in Edmonton and so on. Boyle institute and so on. They collected photographs of the early days of Fort Smith and stories and the year went by and the next summer, this would be now in 75 now. The teacher that was in charge of this came to my store with a box of papers and photographs and so on, left it on the counter and said, “You do it.” (laughing). Meaning that he was leaving and he wasn’t going to do anything to this. So I took up the challenge and I negotiated a contract with the government to edit and to not as much as editing as designing and do the actual layout of the book and arrange for the printing of the pay stubs and so forth. Which I did and had a great time doing it. Didn’t make any money doing it--very little anyways but the result was the book, yeah. (laughing) It was really neat. Books are…it’s been my life, my trade from the old country I learned. I worked in the publishing company, at the publishing place in Copenhagen. And books were to me, all my life, even as a youngster, I spent all my time in libraries and went to books and read everything I could about the Arctic. You asked me earlier about my interest in the Northwest Territories. Well I knew: I read everything there was to read about the Arctic. There was just for some reason a specialty among and, so, yeah, what is it they say? The rest of it is history? The book was a success and several printings and it’s still a pleasure to own that book if you can find one.
R: Yes, that’s true.
K: So it seems like you have a rich balance with trees like an appreciation not only in how they’ve helped with like publishing books and everything but also how you built your house around you. Like this is wonderful this is beautiful.
I: Well thank you. Well, yeah I … it’s living within nature, with-in nature, yeah. I have it all around me 24/7.
R: Mmhmm yeah.
I: I’ve three acres of land yeah and I just love it.
K: What did you first notice about the culture and identity in Fort Smith and the people who are here and everyone? What’s …
I: Well it wasn’t about anything that I looked for. It was just a happening. It was just there and you absorbed it. My kids live with and play with the native kids. Got beaten up by the natives, and went to school and graduated in the school in the community and did well. I had no big learning forces; it just happened. I could walk into town from King street from where we lived, and I had to walk by Billy Schaefer’s place on the corner where the Christmas tree is now and I would walk by there and go in and say, “Hi, Billy, how are things today?” kind of a thing. He would be sitting outside of his house. I just loved going by there and say, “Hi, how are you doing?” He was sitting. He was sitting on the chair every morning in the summertime, of course, and watching people getting late to work (laughing). He knew all the names he would say, “Oh, he’s late for work now.” (laughing) So you know, little things. Elizabeth, his wife, Elizabeth I treasured as a person, yeah, made an awesome tea, yeah. It just happened. I didn’t look for it particularly. It was just there.
R: What’s it like to watch a town grow up? ‘Cause you’ve seen many generations get older, you know the families …
I: Yeah, it’s a little difficult. I served on the town council for some, a few years, I think, as a town councilor and looked at the town grow from that point of view… it was still, Kaeser was still mayor. The council met in the fire hall that we have now in the basement there. Later on…we met in the library basement and now, of course, we have a Town Hall kind of a thing. It’s development. Little by little, things have changed, of course, and you absorb that and you don’t really think of it but it much, and it shows. It’ll show you in the years you grew up. And I don’t, I don’t think there’s no miracle in it. It’s just a happening. I suppose to some people it could … it could be a miracle. As you know. Well, is it you have yourself a miracle in your own life in having experienced that from Fort Smith from a different point of view and here you are. A renowned author … so (laughing). I don’t have much else to come up with. I have travelled a lot in my life, experienced other places in the world. For some years I worked with a mission out of Toronto; it was a Pentecostal mission and Tribal trips in the summertime and building schools in different countries. Like I went to Indonesia Youngia twice and Guatemala--I’ve been there a couple times and three times! And I told my wife to come along one year just to help people outside our own country. Went on seven missions or so, different countries. Very satisfactory to go and help somebody. I’ve received, Eve’s received, my wife and I have received so much help and we’re just giving back what we could to help other people.
K: And that’s what we’ve been noticing a lot in our conversations, what it is to share and to make sure that those around you are taken care of too.
I: Yeah, sharing is a good word. Yeah, that’s what we need to do, to share our blessings. That’s what, that’s what it is
R: Mahsi! Yes! Ib, thank you!
E: Oh thank you.
R: What a pleasure eh?
I: If there’s a little I could help you with.
R: Yes well your words are wise, yeah.
I: (laughing) But I wish you all a very successful challenge.
K: Thank you so much! You given me … oh the stories that we’re working on to help share. All the different ways we’re on thank you so much for …
I: You’re still very much in communication with Liam Peterson? Our president for the seniors?
K: Yeah occasionally. Well, Richard and I have been invited to drop by for the Senior’s Dinner on Friday but I’m not sure if we’ll be able to make it. It’ll all depend on how that day goes.
I: No, no you’re busy, you have a schedule (laughing).
R: Yeah sometimes you think a storyteller is about ready to finish, they remember and they keep going yeah.
I: Yeah that’s true.
R: We’ve had to be very flexible and …
I: Yeah, I commented when you were meeting with us, that everybody has a story…
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