Which brings me to my wonderfully summery stay in Yellowknife. I was lucky enough to have a one-day layover to wait for my baggage to come up, so I took the opportunity to tour the town and see the sites. And what a town it is. This speck up north is the administrative capital of the Northwest Territories. When I first heard the name Yellowknife and saw it on a map, I imagined igloos, ice, and a desolate little village. It’s anything but. Yellowknife sits comfortably at a population of over 19,000 (and growing) and has high-rises, asphalt roads, and a well-developed downtown. Rush-hour (if you could call it that) even gets so busy that the main drag is littered with traffic lights. The town itself is divided into Oldtown and Downtown. Oldtown is a collection of old buildings and residences, some dating to the original exploration of the north. These are beautifully positioned onto or next to Great Slave Lake – the deepest lake in North America and the ninth largest lake (by volume) in the world. This is where I chose to stay and enjoy the peace and quiet provided by a lakeside B & B.
The Downtown is the exact opposite of Oldtown, it’s bustling, busy, and provides all the trappings that you would expect of any major city. You have your chain grocery stores, your fastfood shops, and plenty of government administrative buildings. Driving nearly all of this success in the north is the insatiable urge that southerners have for diamonds. Yes. The major industry of the Northwest Territories is diamond mining. The minerals are so abundant and plentiful that it puts Canada as the third largest producer of diamonds world-wide. This economic boom has attracted people from all corners of Canada. Indeed, when I asked people in town what the hell would bring them all the way up here, the number one answer was work, and that work is industry. But in order to support all this development, a lot of civilian infrastructure goes in place and those jobs need to be filled, which helps to explain my newly immigrated Chinese taxi driver, the Somali grocer, and the other wonderful diversity this far north.
But despite the wonderful attractiveness of this city in summer, and despite the economic boom it’s undergoing, there are huge social problems that exist just beneath its service. When walking through the downtown or the myriad of gorgeous park trails that surround the city, it becomes abundantly clear that Canada’s aboriginal population hasn’t experienced the same good fortune as the rest. There’s a palpable division between the First Nations aboriginal groups and the other, mainly white, Canadians. I had a good conversation with a few locals that helped put these things in context:
I had been walking around an 8km trail next to a nearby lake and had stopped to enjoy the sun. After a short while, a group of First Nations people (they were from different tribes) came up and sat with me. They were the first people to make an effort to talk to me and we got to chatting about Yellowknife. After 40 minutes, I was blown away with the normalcy with which they talked about drug abuse, alcohol abuse, arson, rape, and other things that mainly plagued the city’s aboriginal population. Being in southern Canada you always hear about the high level of social problems up north. But it was utterly depressing to hear people talk about it as normal. The people that stopped to talk to me were wonderful and (content aside) pretty damn hilarious. As they went to leave they told me “you’re not so bad for a white guy,” which leads me to believe that there’s not much positive interaction between the two main groups in the city. I’m not a historian, and not being a Canadian myself, I’m not fully aware of the history or social contexts in which these societal discrepancies exist. But what I do know is that the racial undertones in town were so thick you could cut it with a knife.