- in Whitehorse, Yukon –
For a self-consciously northern people, few of us ever get to the real north. My home on Wolfe Island, in the St. Lawrence River, is at 44 degrees latitude, which means I live farther south than Paris, itself hardly the northern hinterland. But the Whitehorse is north, on the 60th parallel. Most Canadians know the geographical anomaly of having to drive north across the river to go from Windsor to Detroit; fewer are likely aware that the drive from Alaska’s capital, Juneau, to the Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, is a northward trek of several hours.
My first visit to Canada’s territories, and the farthest north I have ever travelled, made many impressions. The vastness of the land, and its beauty, is the most striking. It is easy to understand (in summer!) why people speak of being captured by the Yukon — people who once came to visit and decided to stay. Even though I grew up in Calgary, near the Rocky Mountains, the Yukon ranges were something new for me, given that Whitehorse sits amidst them, rather than in the foothills.
The enormity of the land is contrasted with the smallness of the population, only some 35,000 total residents, of which almost three quarters live in Whitehorse. Canada is vast and largely empty; the Yukon all the more so.
There are contrasts aplenty. It is a land of pioneers and frontiersmen, but today the Yukon is government. There are some 8,000 public sector workers, out of a labour force of 18,000 — and many of the others are in services that depend upon the government payroll. The premier observes that everyone either works for the government or is married to someone who does. A land first conquered by hardy aboriginal peoples and the most ruggedly independent prospectors and missionaries is not self-sufficient today — well over half of the territorial budget comes from Ottawa.
The economy is doing fairly well, benefitting from the worldwide mining boom. Almost impossible to believe in a land so large and sparsely populated, there is a housing crunch. Rentals are hard to find, and houses are too expensive for young families to buy. The housing stock is not sufficient, and any influx of workers drives up the price of the present flow of real estate listings.
Nevertheless, Whitehorse is attracting its share of newcomers, including a Filipino community of some 1,000. Canadian Tire and Tim Hortons in the Yukon may be as pure Canadiana as it gets, and nearly all the staff are new Canadians. It is an apparently happy situation, and another testament to how much immigrants contribute to our country.
I was fascinated to learn of the history of the Alaska Highway, which is 10 years older that Her Majesty’s reign this year, having been completed in 1942. The highway traverses the Yukon, connecting Dawson Creek in northern British Columbia to Delta Junction in Alaska, the purpose being to facilitate overland travel to Alaska from the contiguous United States. It was a marvel of engineering and industry, with the U.S. military completing 2,700 km of highway from March to October in 1942. Why such an enormous commitment of personnel and money at the height of the Second World War? After Pearl Harbor, there were fears of the Japanese mounting an attack on largely undefended Alaska, fears that became reality when Japan took two of the remote islands on the Aleutian chain, Kiska and Attu. The completion of the route also linked up the northern airfields used to transport lend-lease aircraft from the United States to Russia. It’s an instructive episode for today — exploration and development of the north driven by strategic and security considerations.
A visitor from the south is reminded in the Yukon that he is indeed from the south, even if those of us in eastern Ontario live north of what our neighbours across the St. Lawrence in New York State endearingly call the “north country.” Geography is relative for the most part, but here is it absolute. This the north, pure and simple.
It is remarkable to travel so far north and west and still be in the same country. Perhaps that is the greatest gift of coming to the Yukon, that one discovers anew something about Canada, and a richer sense that one is, in fact, Canadian.