Whitehorse and Yellowknife: True North
CBC News Online | August 20, 2004
LISTEN: Richard Gleeson full documentary (runs 16:07)
Reporter: Richard Gleeson
Producers: Alan Guettel, Margaret Daly
Florence Whyard is a retired journalist and former mayor of Whitehorse. She remembers back in the 1950s, when she was first elected:
"I’d only been mayor for two weeks when the mine closed, the railway stopped running, and we had a major flood – cold – winter time. And I’m sloshing around down there in rubber boots in the ice and water.
"And somebody said, ‘Stop the flood!’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how! I’ve only been mayor for two weeks!’
"But there were people who knew what caused it. And they weren’t on city staff. They were old-timers who came to a meeting I called to tell us what to do about it."
Flo Whyard is an old-timer herself now. And during the intervening years Whitehorse, and neighbouring Yellowknife – they’re 800 km apart but that’s neighbouring in the Canadian North – have evolved from free?and?easy little frontier towns to small but bustling modern cities.
Northern cities have traditionally been at the mercy of boom-and-bust cycles – dependent on mining and resources development.
Carolyn England, a Yellowknife resident for 58 years, can chart the ups and downs of her family hardware store by those booms and busts: “We went through the gold boom of the ’40s, then that petered out� The ’50s were pretty tough here – but then they were putting in the DEW line [Distant Early Warning radar installation] and that helped us a bit; we sold a bit of merchandise for that. Then in the ’60s the government came in, and that made the big difference.”
Government continues to be a buffer for Yellowknife and Whitehorse (this is Canada, after all) against the booms and busts of freewheeling resource industries. They’re capital cities, and that generates civil-service jobs. The territorial governments are the largest employer in both cities – followed by the federal government.
As for municipal government, big Canadian cities to the south would be envious of the extent to which senior governments pick up the costs of municipal services – infrastructure, water and sewage, policing, schools, even libraries – meaning two of the lowest city property tax rates in the country.
But municipal politics face a complication their southern counterparts don’t: First Nations land and self-government claims. The Yellowknives Dene and Kwanlin Dun claim prime land within the two capital cities; those claims remain unsettled.
And as Yukon MP Larry Bagnell points out, a sewer pipe doesn’t suddenly stop because it has crossed into First-Nation land. That’s led to what he calls “some very creative and co-operative” solutions that the rest of the country could learn from.
But the biggest tensions in both northern capitals are between the old-timers and the surges of newcomers who profess to embrace the northern lifestyle but bring their “down south” community attitudes with them. That’s led to a raft of new bylaws – to control smoking, regulate garbage disposal, leash household pets, and so on – and a raft of the neighbourhood squabbles so familiar to big-city residents in the south.
But the North is still the North, says Yellowknife Mayor Gord van Tighem thankfully, as he watches the floatplanes land on Great Slave Lake outside his office window. After all, what city down south issues traffic tickets to snowmobiles? ^ TOP