John Elmer “Jack” Decker: Friend. Father. Explorer. Generous. Born April 15, 1923, in Hubbard, Sask.; died Jan. 12, 2021, in Grande Prairie, Alta., of COVID-19; aged 97.
John Elmer Decker, always known as Jack, was born the fourth of six siblings to immigrants, his father from Austria and his mother from Ukraine. He grew up in a one-room house on the Prairies during the Depression. In the winters, he put rabbit skins in his boots to keep his feet warm while walking many miles to school. These hard beginnings no doubt taught lessons to help him persevere in the North.
During the Second World War, Jack served with the Canadian army in the artillery. In 1945, he was on the first troopship back from England and was in the first RCMP platoon to train after the war. Initially, he wore his army uniform (since the RCMP had none to give him).
In 1947, Jack was sent to Lake Harbour, Baffin Island (now Kimmirut), where eight people lived, including Jack. Mildred Edith Steele of Findlater, Sask., arrived a year later to open the first nursing station. Jack had met Mildred in Regina at a dance but it was a fluke that they met again. He was smitten and jumped across ice floes to visit her on the other side of the bay.
He had wonderful stories about the Arctic. During a 36-hour dog-sled trip from Frobisher Bay to Lake Harbour, he travelled all night under the Northern Lights that hissed and crackled like “frying bacon.” Jack became fluent in Inuktitut and patrolled with dog sled teams throughout the winter and a 48-foot Peterhead fishing boat in the summer. In the fall, month-long walrus hunts for essential dog food filled the boat with 22 animals.
In 1950, he was transferred to Vancouver where he married Mildred in 1951. Their first two children, Bob and John, soon followed, and in 1953 the family moved to a Northern Quebec posting in Port Harrison (now Inukjuak). On the ship’s journey north, Jack learned how to administer rudimentary dental work since a dentist came only once a year.
During four years in Inukjuak, their sons spoke Inuktitut and Mildred was sent south to Yorkton, Sask., to give birth to their third son, Tom. Jack liked to tell his kids if they ate their canned carrots (the only ones available), they could see the marine weather station in the distance. They did not realize that he could not see it either! Better meals were had with local food: Jack’s favourite was seal meat (seal liver was a delicacy), rabbits, ptarmigan, bannock and muktuk.
Wanting to see the entirety of his policing area, Jack and Special Constable Willya undertook a seven-week long patrol with a sled team of 21 dogs. They travelled from Inukjuak around the northern tip of Quebec to Wakeham Bay (now Kangiqsujuaq). The sea ice made travel so difficult that Jack decided not to return the same way. He set out across land to Inukjuak and dead reckoned the navigation as compasses were unreliable at that latitude. The men were caught in a blizzard for a week, ran out of food and had to lead the dogs to coax them to keep going. This was the first recorded dogsled crossing of that region.
New RCMP postings in Gibson’s Landing (their youngest son Mike was born in Vancouver), Nanaimo, B.C., and in Fort Smith, NWT, were less remote. But the North stuck with Jack in strange ways – he would wrap himself in blankets and pretend he was a polar bear to play with his children.
When Jack retired from the RCMP, he began a new business. In 1967, the family moved to Yellowknife and ran Imperial Oil Esso’s largest bulk fuel agency in Canada. In their next adventure, Jack and Mildred moved to Grande Prairie, Alta., where they had an oil field trucking business. Here he loved being on the land and helping his son Mike farm.
Later, like so many people from the North, Mildred and Jack moved to enjoy the warmer temperatures in Kelowna, B.C. Mildred died in 2006 and Jack moved to a retirement home in Hinton, Alta., in 2012 to be near family. Jack was an attentive grandfather. He gave the biggest hugs and made each feel special.
Jack loved sharing his many adventures and even enjoyed the virtual parties during COVID lockdowns. He lived a truly Canadian life and leaves a wonderful legacy for his family.
Leni Keough is Jack’s daughter-in-law.
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