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True North: The Yukon and Northwest Territories

Iram Khan

part of a six-volume series "The Illustrated History of Canada", True North: The Yukon and Northwest Territories is a comprehensive introduction to the social history of a region that remains to be a fantasy in many Canadians' imaginations.

true north This book takes readers on a wild ride from when "The North's" first peoples arrived thousands of years ago searching for resources, to the present where the population has fallen back again to being mostly First Nations. Ironically, searching for resources thousands of years later seems to have been a major influence in the development of northern Canada.

Men and women made the dangerous journey upwards motivated by fame and fortune. At first the elusive Northwest Passage tempted many, and then many explorers, wanted to be the first to cross the Atlantic and to reach the North Pole. Ill equipped for the brutal and the unpredictable conditions of the Arctic, too many voyages ended in turning back or death. For example, the most famous explorer of Northern Canada, Sir John Franklin, and his crew disappeared on an expedition to Lancaster Sound and the Northwest Passage in 1845. This was mostly due to the fact that Franklin, as many other explorers, refused to borrow even the simplest Inuit survival techniques of dressing in caribou skin and eating seal meat; to do so "would have been an act of race betrayal." Nevertheless, Franklin's ship became locked in pack ice and the crew went mad from the cold and the toxic lead in the food cans. Morrison does an excellent job describing the fate of this crew as well as the other crews that ventured into the Arctic.

Morrison then takes us through the whirlwind of the Klondike gold rush, which reached its peak in the Yukon from 1896-1899. Prospectors, in fact were in the area beginning in 1872 and there are still a few there now. This event was an exciting time for the Yukon. It lead to development and settlement. When gold deposits diminished, it was quite a drastic change for the area. People moved back down south and the "white population" decreased. Along with the people went also the saloons, merchants, and the general hustle and bustle. The North had to wait for this kind of atmosphere until World War II. Morrison, quite appropriately calls this time between 1900-1940, "The Quiet Years." Not much happened during this time save a few mines opening up the Northwest Territories.

During World War II the United States, once again, moved right in. There was a true fear of a possible attack from northern Canada. The United States did not waste much time developing a strong military presence in the area. This is why the Alaska highway was built, which encouraged the populations of towns like Whitehorse to explode and for towns that were missed by the highway, like Dawson City to decrease dramatically. After the war the threat of attack did not disappear. Beginning in 1952, a series of radar stations were built by the United States to protect North America from the Cold War threat of long range airplanes and nuclear bombs. The Distance Early Warning Line (DEW Line), as the accomplishment was named, brought dramatic changes to the Arctic Coast of Canada. Landing strips and service stations had be built, and nearly 20,000 workers including many Inuit families were attracted to work on the project. In the 1960's, though, the stations were abandoned. The U.S. decided to spend more of there energies manning the stations they had within their own borders. Unfortunately for the environment, the dismantling and the clean-up around the areas of the DEW Line has only just begun, at the expense of Canadian dollars.

During the last chapters, Morrison spends a great deal discussing the life of the First Nations Peoples. Before the war, the Federal Government took on a view that it was hopeless to try to integrate them into Canadian society, mostly due to the high majority of their population in the area. After the war, though, the First Nations became wrapped up in the Federal Governments plans to make "life better for everyone." Mothers' Allowance, northern schools, health care, housing, adult education, cultural programs, wildlife conservation , economic development arrived to the North. This also resulted in the high population of both seasonal and full time federal employees in the area. Unfortunately, this time proved not to make the First Nations' lives better. Families were separated, migration routes of animals were destroyed, cultural traditions were forgotten, and the First Nations peoples of the North were forced into a sedentary existence.

I was pleased to see that Morrison takes us to the "True North" of the present day. First Nations groups, such as the Inuvialuit, and the Inuit of the central and eastern Arctic have fought and settled land claims which has resulted in preserving their traditional activities as well as their cultural identity. They also now have a strong voice in the development and preservation of the area. Other First Nations groups, such as the Dene, continue to fight and will not give up the fight for the same rights. In general "the North has truly become, in the words of the Berger report 'A Northern Homeland' for First Nations."

All of this is just a sampling of the colourful social history of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Morrison, along with the beautiful illustrations and photographs, provides readers with a book that captures the many events that shaped northern Canada. True North: The Yukon and Northwest Territories is a refreshing, exciting alternative to the traditional history texts, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested an introduction to Canada's "True North."

published by oxford university press
ISBN 0-19-541045-9

Iram Khan is a frequent correspondent on educational issues.

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