Mythmaking in Dawson City: A Nepali Searches for Canadianness

September 7, 2012   •   By Manjushree Thapa

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ABOUT 350 MILES SOUTH OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, Dawson City was perched, improbably, on a bed of permafrost by the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. Despite its name, I saw that it was more of a small town than a city. It had been founded in the 1896 gold rush; and from Front Street on, its shops — named Gold Trail, Goldbottom, and Gold & Gifts — announced, loudly, that the romance of gold lived on here.

I had come here to work on a novel set in my homeland, Nepal. I was what is known as a 'New Canadian' — an immigrant at an early stage of acculturation to Canada’s vast, and largely uninhabited, land. Upon settling in Toronto I had noted that Canadians seemed very content in their Canadianness. I had not, myself, experienced much Canadianness. And so I had applied to the Writers' Trust of Canada, which every year dispatches four writers, for three months each, to Dawson City, to live and work in the childhood home of the Canadian historian Pierre Berton. My journey had taken a day-and-a-half on airplanes of diminishing size and security standards.

I was, I knew, the only Nepali in the Yukon. I settled in feeling conspicuously foreign, and spent a few weeks just taking in the town.

The romance of Front Street echoed through the rest of Dawson City's commercial hub, which consisted of three streets lined with hotels and pubs such as Klondike Kate's and Bombay Peggy's, memorializing post-gold rush ladies of leisure. Diamond Tooth Gerties, a gambling hall, put on can-can dances recalling the town's early aspiration to be the 'Paris of the North.' Parks Canada had renovated a theatre, a post office, a newspaper office, a blacksmith's shop, a bank, a courthouse, several official residences and even a mortuary of yore. I learned that in gold rush lingo, a sourdough was a miner who resourcefully survived the first winter of the gold rush and, like the bread that sustained him, rose again in the Spring thaw. The term cheechako referred to the opposite: a blundering newcomer. Sourdough Joe's Restaurant and Cheechakos Bake Shop kept this lingo — and the romance of gold — determinedly alive.

In the summer, the town swells with 50,000-odd gold rush themed tourists and tourism-industry workers. By mid-August, though, the 'summer people' have left, and by the end of September, when I got there, most of the businesses and many of the houses were boarded shut for the year. As the temperatures dropped to below zero in October, the community curled into itself for comfort. The town's winter population was 1,800 but felt more like 500.

Yet even the -25 centigrade days of watery blue sunlight conspired to romanticize.

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A block away from Pierre Berton’s house stood the reconstructed log cabin of the American writer Jack London, evocative under a fresh blanket of snow.

London was aged 21 in 1896, when news broke of the discovery of gold here. The following year, he became one of the 30,000-plus gold-seekers to stampede the place, and to overrun the sparse indigenous Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in population, who relied on the Klondike for salmon fishing.

Arriving just before the autumn freeze, London staked an unprofitable claim and spent the winter holed up in a cabin with three other miners, wasting away with scurvy. At the spring thaw they built a raft out of the cabin's logs and came to the new, rough-and-ready town of Dawson City. By this time miners had staked, speculated and fought over most of the area's rivers and creeks. Settling some confusion over whether the Yukon fell in America or British North America, the North-West Mounted Police had arrived even as pubs, dance halls and gambling dens and prostitutes' cribs had proliferated. The gold from London's claim yielded all of $4.50. He wisely left before the next autumn freeze.  

London was what the Canadian historian Charlotte Gray called a “mythmaker of the Klondike.” Another such mythmaker was Lancashire-born Robert Service, whose snow-covered cabin, near London's, sported antlers on the roof: of moose or caribou I could not say: the cabin looked poised to charge if provoked. Service worked as a banker in Dawson City from 1908-1912, and wrote flamboyant ballads that every Canadian schoolchild now memorize, internalizing Northern romance:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold....

Berton, too, was a mythmaker of the Klondike. Born in Dawson City in 1920, he poked gentle fun at post-WWII Canada's drive to forge a distinctive identity of its own; yet his lively histories, including The Great Klondike Gold Rush, aided in doing precisely this.

The Klondike gold rush lasted less than four years. When gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska, in 1899, a reverse stampede took place, and Dawson City emptied out as abruptly as it had been peopled.

Mining continued here, however, and became lucrative again with the rise of the price of gold in the 1990’s. There was in fact something of a gold rush going on right now, I learned as I got to know residents of Dawson City. There were banners declaring “This business supports mining” on many of the town's shop-fronts, and advertisements for seminars such as “The New Yukon Gold Rush Investor Forum” in Yukon News. Resource World, a magazine to boost mining, went so far as to brag: "There is definite excitement in the air as more claims are staked, more holes are drilled and more companies join in the second Yukon Gold Rush."

Because all the mines were located outside of town, it was difficult to learn much about the present-day gold rush, except from the occasional tired and happy miner, having come into his year's payment of about CA $60,000, buying rounds for the house at a ramshackle pub affectionately called The Pit. Even they grew scarce as the winter set in, as much of the mining halted with the autumn freeze. Most miners left town till the spring thaw.

One of the miners, a European national, said that the real gold rush was taking place elsewhere in the Yukon Territory, and mainly in quartz, or hard rock, mining. Hard rock mining entailed large-scale tunneling or stripping, and it used cyanide to process the gold. Such mines were typically owned by large multinational companies, and they hired up to three hundred workers — that is, if they actually did any mining. Most claims were mainly for speculation: "Companies staking small claims, and buying and selling — it's mostly penny stocks," the miner said.

The mines around Dawson City were instead individual- and family-owned placer mines. This type of mining could be done only in alluvial beds that had been spared by glaciation in the last ice age, where gold dust and nuggets lay mixed in with gravel. It used only water to separate the gold, and though it deposited silt into the rivers and streams, it was less environmentally intrusive. It was placer mining that built Dawson City.

The miner told me he had started off as a hobbyist, panning for gold all over Europe on the weekends. Now he owned a one-man company here. Showing me some of the gold he had found on his claim this year, he spilled the contents of a plastic medicine bottle onto his kitchen table: and out tumbled a pile of tiny nuggets. He would sell a few of the nuggets to local jewelers; but most of it would go to a metals bank in Toronto after buyers in Dawson City assayed it, he said.

I stared at the pile, which was worth tens of thousands of dollars, and asked: was there any romance for him in gold?

"Oh, I don't have gold fever," he said emphatically. "I suppose there's a bit of intrigue." He shrugged. "But most of it goes on paying the bills."

I, too, didn't quite feel the romance of gold, even though, as a Nepali woman, I was supposed to covet it. My parents had given me gold jewelry, as Nepali parents do to their daughters. I just found it gaudy. And mining felt very masculine, very alien to me.

It was, however, at the heart of Canadianness, I knew. More than half of this country's wealth derived from the extraction of one natural resource or another: lumber and water, oil and natural gas, gemstones and precious metals. I wanted to understand mining. My curiosity was also piqued by the whiff of dissemblance around the present gold rush. Nearly 100 hard rock mining companies were registered in the Yukon Territory, I learned, but many were only involved in land speculation. "A staking rush," was the term that miner-turned-businessman Greg Hakonson used to describe it. Little of the money made came to Dawson City, he said. A few residents had cashed in big on soil sampling: but the majority of the employees of hard rock mines were outsiders — from the rest of Canada, and also from abroad. They took their income home with them at year's end. "The community," he said, "isn't seeing much economic development from it."

While placer mining brought money into Dawson City, it was very hard work. Less than five percent of placer miners succeeded, said Hakonson. Around the time he quit mining — "When the price was only around five hundred" — a successful placer miner could make half a million dollars a year. But that kind of income was rare even at today's high prices, he said, saying: "Ninety-five percent of miners fail. We’ve been losing ten percent of the mining community annually for nearly two decades."

One of Dawson City's more successful placer miners was Marty Knutson, an affable man with a striking resemblance to George Clooney. Over coffee at his capacious log-cabin home, he told me he had come north from British Columbia and "bumped into the Klondike" 30 years ago. He stayed on after striking gold on his very first attempt at panning. Mining through booms and busts, he now owned Tatra Ventures, which mined two claims with eight employees. Knutson’s wife Maryanne, a Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in national, named the company: 'Tatra' means raven in her mother tongue, Hän.

On a bitter winter’s day, with the midday sun just barely skimming the horizon, we drove around his claims on Hunker Creek, 15 kilometers from town. The claims were lined with pricey excavators, bulldozers, loaders, earth movers, draglines and trucks — and pumps, generators, engines, spare parts, and bits of old, disused sluices — all transported here at great cost. The ability to fix heavy machinery, said Knutson, was a miner's key skill. "You've got a hundred days," he said, referring to the brief Northern summers, when his crew had to work 11 hours a day, six days a week. "If something breaks down and you lose ten days, then, well..." Mining, he said, was like farming: "You're always rushing that time factor."

At the center of his main claim he showed me a 40-foot deep cut with the 'pay dirt' exposed at the bottom. To reach the pay dirt, his crew had used excavators, tractors, trucks and pumps to dig through the permafrost, strip away the black muck and drain out all the water just before the Autumn freeze. Come spring, they would dewater the cut, then excavate the pay dirt and sluice it in a trommel. The leftover gravel would fall in evenly ribbed piles, or 'tailings.' The silt would be channeled back into the creek. And the gold, or 'cleanup,' would collect in catch trays.

Knutson measured his cleanup every day, to report it to the landlords from whom he leased his claims. He paid ten percent of the cleanup as rent. He showed me a photograph of a cleanup: gold dust shimmered wetly on a metal tray. "About 35 or 40 ounces," he said. "That's a good day."

When his crew finished excavating and sluicing the pay dirt in this cut, they would dig a new cut, and then repeat the process, over and over, till they exhausted all the virgin land in the claim. This could take a season or two, or sometimes a mere few weeks, Knutson explained: "It all depends on the claim."

This kind of physical labor — which Knutson referred to as "shoving that dirt around" — was only part of a placer miner's work. He spent his winters on repairs, bookkeeping, scoping out new claims and, most importantly, chasing paperwork. With each new claim he had to obtain permits from the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, as well as from the Water Board in Dawson City.

Each claim's water license dictated its mining plan, which, to ensure conservation, stipulated that the land be reclaimed at the end. "If it's planned and thought out, it isn't that big a deal," Knutson said, mentioning Tatra Ventures' past reclamation awards. "You take an area that got a little bit disturbed," he said, choosing his words carefully, "and you turn it into nice rolling hills. And then little ponds, and ducks and moose, come in."

As unlikely as this sounded, all of Hunker Creek was, indeed, covered with evenly ribbed tailings; and brush and birch saplings were cropping up in delicate patches. To me these reclaimed mines resembled a moonscape, but people here were unfazed by them. Some reclaimed mines even served as residential subdivisions for Dawson City.

I told Knutson that placer mining seemed like dreary, backbreaking work. He laughed and admitted it was "a lifestyle," yet he hoped his children would take it up one day.

"Look, with the price of gold where it's at, it's not hard to figure out why you're doing this," he said, denying that there was any romance in what he did. His wife, though, did enjoy melting their gold into doré bars at the end of the year. He smiled as he mentioned this. "It's a competition between Maryann and me to see who makes the prettier bar. I guess that's always sort of fun," he said.

The road back to Dawson City was hemmed in on both sides by reclaimed mines: the horizon was shaped by ribbed tailings. According to the town's Mining Recorders Office, there were thousands of stakes for placer mines around Dawson City, and thousands more for the hard rock mines beyond view.

Interestingly, all these mines fell in the traditional territory of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation. Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in was a particularly tiny nation: "One thousand and forty citizens worldwide," as some of its nationals were given to saying, mentioning one person who had emigrated to New Zealand.

That the nation existed at all was impressive. A sparse nomadic community of traders, hunters and gatherers at the time of the first gold rush, the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in had since been subjected to repeated humiliation: displacement, housing restrictions, curfews, alcohol bans, curtailed voting rights, and state-enforced residential schooling.

The nation’s Chiefs had been particularly foresighted. Over time they had adopted several survival strategies, and, in consultation with other First Nations, they came to focus on land claims. In 1973, this and 12 other Yukon First Nations presented Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau with the first land claim of its kind in Canada. It took till 1998 — and over million dollars in compensation for an existing mine claim — before the Crown recognized Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in’s right to traditional land and self-government.

With an elected Chief and a growing government, this sovereign nation now dealt with Canada as an equal, using, among others, an American, Tim Gerberding. Gerberding described himself to me as a "hippie and Vietnam war protestor" and lived for decades as a fisher and trapper in the Yukon wilderness, before being hired by the nation to help implement its agreements with the Canadian and Yukon governments.

The nation sought to control mining through an array of intricate — and evolving — land use plans. At present there were some disputes on Category B land, he said, explaining: while the nation held both surface and subsurface rights on Category A land, it held only surface rights on Category B land. Until a few years ago, there were no new claims on Category B land. But now, with the rush, new stakes were going in every week, he said: "It's frightening." The nation lacked the capacity to monitor these new claims; and the politically conservative Yukon government, which governed all mining on category B land, was likely to have a lax interpretation of the regulations, he said.

In addition, the nation wanted an absolute ban on mining in heritage sites. Gerberding named the Tombstone Territorial Park and the Peel River Watershed as examples of such sites, over which the nation had made common cause with environmentalists.

From our conversation I learned that the relationship between the nation and the Canadian government was evolving constantly. As the nation negotiated, and litigated, over these and other matters, it gained in capacity and in confidence, Gerberding said. He had seen it at its weakest, when residential schooling had torn apart families and ended an entire way of life. Only three fluent Hän speakers remained in town, and they were all over the age of 70. But the land claim victory, he said, had started the process of healing: "There's pride in being Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in now. That's new."

Indeed, to me the romance of Dawson City lay not in its gold rushes, past or present, but in the 350-odd Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in nationals who lived here, mingling — without apparent historical grudge — with the outsiders who so outnumbered them.

On Front Street, an elegant, modern teepee-shaped building, the nation's Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre welcomed visitors with the motto: "We have a story to tell." The story was the history of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, with hard truths that revealed the jaggedness and dysfunction behind the founding of Canada.

Kylie Van Every, who worked at the Center, told me she was 19 when the nation won its land claim. Since then, she had seen the nation strengthen, and even — gently — assert itself.

"In general, people live together and get along in Dawson City," she said, though she added, "There is anger when we remember the emotions, and the sadness." Her father, from whom she had inherited her nationality, lost his family bonds, traditional skills, and fluency in the Hän language in residential school. He died when she was ten; and she grew up deracinated and yet also discriminated against, even by schoolteachers: "We weren't encouraged to pursue our studies, the way the other kids were," she said.

Her six-year-old son was growing up in very different environment. He had gone to a daycare center run by the nation, and was learning the Hän language in school. In time he would attend First Hunt and First Fish, and other classes on the traditional arts that the nation organized for schoolchildren. He would also grow up attending cultural shows and fairs and open houses, including the nation's biannual gathering at a nearby village called Moosehide.

I found it moving, and inspiring, to see the nation rebuilding itself, and compelling the Canadian government to devolve and share power. There was, obviously, much space for conflict — on land use, mining and resource extraction, self-governance, the environment, and identity. Yet it seemed to me that the tiny nation of Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in had launched a huge experiment: an experiment in what it meant to be Canadian.

This finally made Dawson City interesting: and not just to me. By the end of my three-month stay I had met a number of residents — including a disproportionate number of German immigrants — who chose emulate the traditional Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in lifestyle. They built their own cabins, and lived off the grid, without electricity or running water. They hunted and fished and trapped to get by, and used dogsleds for transportation in the winter. Scattered in their midst were artists and musicians, dreamers and dopers, hippies and handymen. They gave the town its distinctly romantic spirit, as they attempted to live out the myths spun by Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton.

I had experienced enough of the traditional lifestyle back in Nepal. I was not tempted to do so here.

But I was tempted to take part in a Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in open house banquet following the year’s First Hunt. A moose had been shot. It would be served up at the banquet. Everyone I asked told me that moose was delicious; I had to try the moose.

I had never eaten moose. It seemed a very, very Canadian thing to do.

And so on the evening of the open house I made my way to the nation’s community hall. There I saw schoolteachers and miners, trappers and government employees, dog mushers and writers — immigrants, First Nations nationals and Canadians — dining together.

It occurred to me, that evening, that I no longer felt conspicuously foreign. The community hall was warm. The company was convivial. The food ran out before I could try any moose.


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