I’m just happy the knife’s there.

This relatively large sub-arctic town represents the midway point for my trip north. While it’s actually fairly far up at latitude 62°N , Yellowknife’s (summer) climate is fairly mild when compared to other areas of Canada’s North. It’s governed by a more ‘continental’ type climate as opposed to an ‘oceanic’ type, and so has more extreme winter lows and summer highs. “Oceanic” climates tend to have warmer winters, but colder summers, as the surrounding ocean heavily moderates seasonal air temperature change by acting as a heat sink/source. ‘Continental’ climates are surrounded by large landmasses and don’t have as large a heat sink/source, so this is where winters dip crazy cold, but summers can reach a balmy high. This phenomena caused by large bodies of water actually explains why the Antarctic is so much colder than the Arctic – the Arctic is a frozen ocean surrounded by land, whereas the Antarctic is a frozen continent surrounded by the ocean. So the interior Antarctic gets MUCH colder than the interior Arctic. But either way you slice it it’s miserably cold here in winter. But summers are lovely.

10 hours to Yellowknife, then 8 hours to Eureka. Canada’s a big country.

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.

My dream home.

My dream home.

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.

View of Yellowknife’s high-rises from across the lake.

Arctic hustle and bustle.

Arctic hustle and bustle.

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.


2 thoughts on “Yellowknife

  1. Michael, I will send you an article about the Canadian army’s massacre of sled dogs belonging to aboriginal communities back in the 1950’s. Only one small illustration of the lack of respect and understanding between the two cultures. I am so happy you are writing again! Take care of yourself and come back safe.

    • I think there might be another armnegut for a University of the North. Education is a human right. I understand that we usually see the right as referring only to elementary and secondary school. However, in today’s global knowledge economy, for those that are capable, a university degree is a minimum standard. We should include tertiary education in our definition of basic. With the state of technology today, it should be feasible to create campuses in remote locations. Look at Scotland’s University of the Highlands and Islands. When you consider colleges, research centres, and learning centres there are over 63 locations students can study as well as online courses. Our northern citizens should have the right to higher education without having to remove themselves from their communities. Of course, the decision where to study should be theirs.

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