Yukon News

Of rum and military canteens

Roxanne Stasyszyn Friday February 24, 2012

Ian Stewart/Yukon News

LIFEcanteen2

Whitehorse's Barney Roberge served in the Royal Canadian Navy from 1940 to 1964.

Barney Roberge still remembers the “tot” time bugle call that filled Canadian naval ships every morning at 11:30 a.m.

The 88-year-old fans his fingers from the thumbs at his lips as he sings out the entire riff, decorating it with gruff laughter.

Roberge, who is best known as the manager of Whitehorse’s 98 Hotel, sits at his desk in the squat motel-room-turned-office/liquor cabinet behind the bar.

It’s not yet quitting time, but even with his resonating replication of the bugle, noisy roars from the nearby bar make it almost impossible to hear him.

Long before he arrived at the infamous watering hole in 1986, Roberge was a Navy man.

From 1940 to 1964, he plied Canada’s western waters, first on a minesweeper, then on a corvette, until the end of the war, and finally on an aircraft carrier.

He was only 16 when he first signed up. His pay: 50 cents per day. A year later that was raised to $1.25, but he had to be 20 before he could line up for his 11:30 a.m. tot of rum.

A tot is half a jill, or two and a half ounces, Roberge says with a grin.

And it wasn’t just any rum, he says. It was Navy rum, like the bottles of Pusser’s lined up on the shelf across the room - that he went to great lengths to bring to the Yukon.

As a young tailor aboard ship, Roberge says he would do almost anything, like hem pants, and that he was always paid in Pusser’s.

For the nearly 25 years that Roberge served in the Navy, he spent just over 16 on the water.

“We spent so little time in port and we were off and running again,” he says.

But even with the little time spent docked, Roberge remembers the infamous canteens.

“They were pretty standard equipment,” he says matter-of-factly.

Military canteens were (and still are) beer parlours.

“Basically it was a place you could buy beer on shore,” says Roberge, noting that the sailors called them “wet” canteens because the canteens on board didn’t typically sell alcohol.

“But in the barracks ... they were a big beer parlour, basically.”

Although he’s been to many canteens, Roberge is not sure he’s ever attended a canteen show like the one being organized to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Alaska Highway this weekend at Rendezvous.

And because Roberge served in the Canadian Navy, that would make sense.

“The canteen show is a part of American Army tradition,” says Doris Wurfbaum, one of the event’s organizers. “You know, like the USO show.”

The society put on a similar show at the 1992 Rendezvous festival when the highway was turning 50, Wurfbaum says.

This weekend’s show is meant to commemorate the 10,000 American army engineers and civilians who were commissioned to “put a road through Canada’s northern wilderness,” says Wurfbaum.

“So this is just us celebrating those valiant souls who fought bad weather, cold, mosquitoes, mud, drowned heavy equipment.”

Dog tags will be made for people who come to the show. There will also be a women’s make-up parlour and a photo booth for people to capture their 1940s look.

Although it won’t have shoe-shine boys and cigarette girls, it will have the Yukon’s Big Band to belt out music from that era. It will be joined for a set by the RCAF band and Rendezvous favourites such as

Gillian Campbell, the Snowshoe Shufflers and the Can Can Dancers.

The American canteen shows were long gone by the time Roberge arrived in the Yukon in the mid-1960s to become the director of a mining company.

The highway was there but it was gravel and “still pretty rough,” Roberge says.

Before moving to the 98 Hotel in the ‘80s, Roberge ran a pool hall on Main Street for a few years.

It was only supposed to be temporary, he says.

He remembers how he and his wife slept on an air mattress in their Riverdale apartment, “without a pot or pan to (their) names.”

But it quickly became clear that Roberge had a knack for running bustling beer joints.

The noise coming into his small office from the booming 98 bar on this afternoon is still proof of that.

“I’ll have to retire when I get old,” he says.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

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