Social Policy

Transient North: A history of colonial turnover

This three-part series examines the impacts of a highly transient population in the North. Parts 1 and 2 considered the adverse effects on the Yukon’s labour market and dating culture, respectively. The following concluding piece broadens the scope of impact and considers the historical and cultural aspects of a transient population trend on the community as a whole.

The effects of transience on Northern community members, at least as they pertain to the labour market and interpersonal relationships, tend to be overwhelmingly negative. But what is commonly forgotten is that most modern Yukon communities are ones that were built as a result of highly transient Klondike miners in the late 19th Century. The historic flood of young, white, southern men and women to Dawson City forever changed the landscape of the Yukon society. Though some of the miners and entrepreneurs stayed to build a life and community in the Canadian North, the vast majority left after one or two years.

While some Northern cities like Whitehorse experienced investment from the economic boom in the Klondike, most who made their fortune took the natural resource and revenue from the Yukon and invested it in southern communities. But more importantly, the thousands of southerners who suddenly arrived in the Klondike gold fields resulted in the displacement of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (Hän), whose traditional territory is the modern Dawson City. The almost overnight population boom forced the First Nation to relocate further down the Yukon River. As time went on, and the North saw an increased influx of southerners and industry, Indigenous society and power in the community continued to be altered.

The pre-existing communities and social structures of Northern First Nations have consistently been altered by an influx white southerners arriving in the Yukon for increasingly short periods of time.

While southerners tend to talk about colonization as an ancient chapter in Canada’s history, in which it is difficult to comprehend the landscape prior to white influence, the Yukon Territory’s colonial history is only a few generations old. Throughout this short period, First Nations communities have faced the most significant impacts of transient populations. Southern teachers moving in and out of residential schools; transients being the first priority hire for government positions; doctors with no connection to the North coming in and out of the community to fulfil their internships and hours before moving on to big city hospitals — the list goes on.

Before an honest and holistic conversation around the impacts of the highly transient population in the North can be had, the depth of the scope of that impact must be understood. The pre-existing communities and social structures of Northern First Nations have consistently been altered by an influx white southerners arriving in the Yukon for increasingly short periods of time. This is a contemporary trend as much as an historic one.

One one hand, modern Yukoners complain about these trends, and make correct and important observations about the adverse effects they continue to have. But within the same breath, Dawson City just celebrated a festival dedicated to Jack London. The famed novelist only lived in the Klondike for about a year.

What’s interesting about the history of high population turnover in the North is that it never really went away. While the influx of students, artists, and hospitality workers that head to Dawson City in the summer may not be as dramatic as the Klondike miners of the 19th Century, the trend remains the same. Even throughout the last hundred years, the pattern of southerners arriving in the North for work, and leaving after roughly three years, has been ongoing.

With such a consistent trend, and no clear solution on how to limit the amount of turnover, a conversation around addressing the observable impact must be discussed in its entirety. But before the North can truly address this trend, it must first alter the conversation around the scope of impact, and consider how the community that is most affected by an influx of southerners is not necessarily the one that put down its roots in 1897.

This series was unable to rely on formal data, as very little comprehensive research has been conducted on the subject matter. While formal studies have been conducted, such as the community profile on Unalaska, Alaska, little similarity between Northern communities means it is difficult to draw consistent conclusions. Instead, this series is a report on the atmosphere and trends witnessed in the Yukon community, by a community member. Further interviews were conducted among a wide demographic of Yukoners, in order to broaden the understanding of the influence of the trend, and further support pre-existing ideas about the impact that high population turnover has on the North.

Photo: Group of men standing in front of cashier’s window with shipment of gold. Caption on image: “One and one half tons of gold, bricks and dust, scene in Alaska Commercial Co.’s store in Dawson. June 9, 1901” Original image in Hegg Album 26, page 20 . Original photograph by Eric A. Hegg 1174; copied by Webster and Stevens 341.A . Klondike Gold Rush

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