Arts & Culture Opinion

The Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous and the celebration of colonization

As Northerners encounter the peak of the winter festival season across the territories, it is important to celebrate Northern culture with critical mindfulness of what is being celebrated, and why. With the goal of seasonal celebrations aimed at bringing a community together during difficult winters, having only settler culture and history at the forefront of community celebrations impedes the ability to achieve that goal.

Modernly referred to as the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous, the largest Yukon Territory winter festival began in 1945. The post-war era created a need to celebrate and solidify a national and Northern identity, and a wintertime celebration further solved the need to break up the monotony of the cold and dark months.

While the identity and mandate of the festival has evolved during the second half of the last century, it notably takes place in the middle of winter when temperatures range from -10C to -40C. The wide range of events commemorate the fashion, entertainment, and athleticism of Yukon’s historic gold rush. The overarching theme for the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous festival is commemoration of the history and struggle of settlers.

In an era where the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee are at the forefront of social consciousness, the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous has an opportunity to grow and increase the Indigenous inclusivity of the event.

Cultural festivals are regionally developed for a multitude of reasons. Usually, there is a central cultural or historical characteristic that a community collectively wishes to share. With the planning and development of a cultural festival, there is a significant opportunity to have a positive impact on the host community. This is especially true for festivals that take place in rural communities. In 2011, the Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development department of the Government of Alberta identified potential positive impacts of community festivals to include: an increase in civic pride or community solidarity, increased community standard of living, improved destination awareness, the strengthening of regional values, increased visitor expenditure in the region, and increased awareness of the region as a travel/tourism destination.

“It is a gathering of Northern people to let off steam generated during the long, dark days of winter,” festival chairperson Flight Sergeant H. Kane described the 1962 festival. “It is a preamble to the busy days of spring and summer. It is a time for remembering this territory’s history and the strength of its pioneer people. It is a salute to the past and a bright eye on the future. The Sourdough Rendezvous is a gathering of the community’s talent and skill. An assembly of the area’s high spirits.”

By only telling the story of Northern settlers in such a romanticized fashion, the detrimental impacts the gold rush era had, and continues to have, on Indigenous people in the North fails to be demonstrated.

His words capture how the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous festival has both positive and negative impacts on the community. It is successful at encouraging large public engagement, entertainment, and an atmosphere of celebration that is important during the difficulties of a Northern winter. However, the core theme is the celebration of settler history and the colonization of the North. By only telling the story of Northern settlers in such a romanticized fashion, the detrimental impacts the gold rush era had, and continues to have, on Indigenous people in the North fails to be demonstrated.

Canadian society, including the North, has yet to reach a postcolonial era. Contemporary issues surrounding land claims, racism, and the high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women are all evidence demonstrating that the impacts of colonial attitudes are still a relevant issue. If a cultural festival has the opportunity to strengthen regional values and increase civic pride, it is obligated to include all members of the community, and ensure that community spirit is based on ideas of empowerment.

In an era where the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee are at the forefront of social consciousness, the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous has an opportunity to grow and increase the Indigenous inclusivity of the event.

The additions to the 2016 festival demonstrated an understanding of these critiques and an effort to develop a more inclusive event. The board of directors completed a consultation with First Nations groups and has made increasing First Nations involvement a prominent part of its strategic plan. For the first year, a Cultural Craft Fair was included in the list of events, which prominently featured the independent works of First Nations artists and artisans from across the territory.

With the call for increased inclusion of First Nations in the festival, it is important to ensure that the involved First Nations are also included in the monetary benefits of the festival. If traditional Indigenous culture is going to be celebrated and displayed for the enjoyment of locals and tourists, they must be compensated appropriately for inclusivity to truly be achieved.

“Rendezvous’ mandate is to consistently work towards increasing the inclusivity of the event,” commented Jenna Paton, vice president and public relations officer for the festival. “150 of the 185 events [that take place during] Rendezvous are free, with the intention of making the festival as family friendly as possible. As a board of directors, we’re working towards for First Nation involvements.”

Northern communities have a lot to celebrate. The regionalism and colourful characters that decorate the history and culture of the Yukon are unique and representative of Northern identity. However, it is important to be conscious that the history of the Yukon is not without transgression. To give weight and celebration to the ideas of colonization impedes the ability to evolve as a society and tarnishes the very goal of the festival: to bring the community together.◉


Photo credit: istockphoto/Travelingjones

You Might Also Like