1979, the Yellowknife Daycare of 51st Street, still standing today.
by Camilla MacEachern
I was born and raised in Yellowknife. When people learn this, nine times out of ten they get very excited. Something lights up inside them, and then I wait for it, the inevitable question: “What was it like growing up in Yellowknife?”
I don’t mind this question at all. In fact, I encourage it. Unfortunately, it is usually asked at very inconvenient times, like at a party with all of its distractions, or during a 15-minute coffee break. It’s a tough question to answer on the fly, and anyone who knows me and my storytelling knows that I don’t like to give half-assed, rushed interpretations. So for those of you who have ever asked, or will ask, here is my 1,000-word answer.
I was born in the old Stanton Yellowknife Hospital in 1978, which from my recollection was a single storey “super-trailer” located where the Avens Senior Centre now resides. At that time there were no official labour and delivery rooms, so my mother tells me I made my appearance in the operating room (classy).
For any kid in Yellowknife, playing outside was a huge pastime and in the summer there was no shortage of daylight hours or places to wander. I loved being in nature. If I wasn’t camping with my family, I was playing in the bush with friends. Being surrounded by never-ending wilderness provided endless exploring and fort location options. It also presented new discoveries. It seemed you couldn’t go anywhere without finding someone’s stash of “adult magazines.” I guess you could say I had my first official anatomy lesson on the rocks behind the Racquet Club.
In winter, we closed down our forts in exchange for warmer activities such as swimming and skating. Recreational facilities were somewhat rustic but we made due. Our swimming pool was located in the bottom of an apartment complex (Fraser Towers). There was no shallow end for children, so the powers that be created one for us simply by placing tables at the bottom of one end of the pool.
Our ice rink (the old Gerry Murphy arena) also had a lot of character. It was like a big old woody barn, and it wasn’t uncommon for brown clumps to fall from the ceiling and settle on the ice. We would just skate over them. It wasn’t a surprise when they opted to build a new arena rather than tackle repairs.
School was never cancelled and “snow day” was a foreign term only used in movies. Just like other school children across the country, we were still expected to go outside for recess but the difference between those children and us was about negative 30 degrees. Like little herds of muskox on the tundra, my school pals and I would stand around in pockets, slowly shuffling through the schoolyard with only our eyeballs exposed. My ambitious friends would attempt to play games to keep warm. I would often play mental games with myself to take my mind off my frozen toes and eyeballs.
There were no franchise stores, with the exception of The Hudson’s Bay (the Bay). We shopped at places that usually started with someone’s name, like Joan’s Fashions or Norm’s Stationary; or stated the obvious, like Shoes n’ Things. My family relied heavily on Sears mail orders. That catalogue was my bible, especially the ‘Christmas Wish Book’. That glorious publication would be tattered and worn by the end of the year after so much page-turning and sibling tug-o-wars.
Toy Land, located in the basement of The Bay, was a kid’s utopia. In retrospect, I recognize it was likely a few shelves of mix-matched toys. I grew up in the era of My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake and Cabbage Patch Kids. Although stores did a great job of carrying these hot items, there was always a limited supply. My mom recently reminded me of “The Great North of 60 Cabbage Patch Incident,” where she was tipped off that a shipment of Cabbage Patch dolls was arriving in town. I longed for one. On the big day, my mom, and many other moms, lined up outside of Toy Land. I can just imagine the “Good, the Bad and the Ugly” theme song playing in the background as they stood there, sweating in their parkas and Sorels, waiting anxiously for the door to open. When it did, like roller derby girls, each raced to the doll section. Some used excessive force, some used strong words. My mom was one of the lucky ones and walked away with her prize. The moral of the story, if you wanted something in this town, you needed to stay on top of things.
Buying fresh foods was another challenge. Frozen vegetable medley was never a stranger at the dinner table, although I desperately wished that it was. When the ferry was out, it was really out. Shelves remained bare for weeks at a time, and when the going got tough my parents relied on powdered milk, our caribou or moose supply and frozen or canned veggies, to get us through.
There was no need to fret though because there were plenty of restaurants — Papa’s Pizza, Mr. Mikes and Netties Perogies to name a few. But my favourite was The Lunch Box (LB). It was the social hub of the town, had the best fries and gravy and blue swizzle chairs that would help me entertain myself while my parents talked to everybody. It was located in the lower level of the YK Centre across from Northern Flair hair salon. There was something comforting about the aroma of hamburgers, cigarette smoke and perm solution that would drift from that basement. I recently learned from an old LB employee that the fries were so tasty because they allegedly only changed their grease trap every three months.
When the ferry or the ice road were operating, driving was my family’s mode of vacation transportation (flights to Edmonton cost a minimum $1,000). Packed in the Bronco with my parents, brother and sister —Steve Miller cranked in the tape deck — all that would get me through that gruelling gravel-road journey was my pink Walkman and the anticipation of being in the big city, going to shopping malls and eating fresh McDonalds. Yeah, you heard me, I say fresh because it wasn’t uncommon to place a Big Mac order with a friend who was going to be “down south.” We even placed bulk orders through our middle school, William McDonald.
As a child I was in awe of skyscrapers, dark summer nights and the people who lived “down south”. How they would dress, things they would eat and the cool things that they would get to do, like ride escalators! I’m still a little bit in awe of those things (truthfully, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I seamlessly mastered how to get on and off of escalators), but now I can appreciate why so many people are in awe of my childhood here. Because it was truly that — awesome.