On EDGE | Opinion
When nature calls, my reading of choice is the New Yorker. Sutherland’s Drugs does not carry Charlie Hebdo and I’m too French for Mad. So except for the odd Ballbots or something by Alison McCreesh or Marvic Adecer, it’s the most cartoon-heavy publication I can find in town. Being a Woodyard inhabitant and all, on a recent trip to the honeybucket I was naturally drawn to this piece, where Alec Wilkinson stresses that tiny houses ”aren’t shacks.” (Spoiler: they’re totally shacks.)
The original tiny house was essentially a caboose on a trailer, a variation on the skid-shack, but the term is now abused for all sorts of small habitations: hobbit houses, converted shipping containers, tree-houses, yurts, “Earthships,” or converted schoolbuses. This classic Woodyard shack or these notorious Yellowknife Bay shack-boats would make a killing on reddit’s r/tinyhouses.
But yeah, shack: it’s a dirty word.
Over in the Yukon, meanwhile, they play it cool with the cabin, a term full of adventurous colonial sex-appeal. A bloke in a cabin is immensely more heroic than the slacker in his shack. Plus he likely burns sage, listens to oldies on vinyl, competes in tantric marathons and can butcher a bear in under ten minutes. Shacktards? Not so sure.
Last year, pushing the euphemism game up a notch, the City of Yellowknife enacted a by-law governing detached secondary suites, which roughly covers men-dens and Airbnb sheds. So, after decades of underground stardom, your Yellowknife shack can now officially come out of the closet. But – get this – you must own a full-size house first.
It’s a good thing we don’t live in a town where the average two-bedroom is $1600/month and the homeless population is the highest ratio of all Canadian capitals, because that would be just be silly. Except we do live in that town.
I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that liberalizing shacks and squatting would be a culturally sensitive way of addressing the housing crisis, but I just did. Can you imagine? Turning the current Tin Can Hill tarp encampments into funky caravan ’hoods? A fishing-shack winter camp off Negus?
It’s not even all that crazy, Victoria is considering it.
Indeed when a similar project but minus the homelessness component was pitched to City Hall under the tiny house neighbourhood brand in September, the media salivated, and council was all over the idea. It was just the right sort of smart gentrification that gets you re-elected in jump-on-every-trend Yellowknife.
I mean, tiny houses, they’re cool, right? They have them in Oregon. Just take the informal out of informal settlements and voilà! The same councillors who okayed the Harbour Plan and the acquisition of the Willow Flats “water lot” are now big eco-village advocates.
Amongst other award-winning community dislocation initiatives, the Harbour Plan suggests that existing Woodyard shacks – Yellowknife’s historic small habitation community and, according to the Globe and Mail, “arguably the quirkiest neighbourhood in Canada” – be progressively shuttered and the neighbourhood be turned into “medium density” shack-like boutiques alongside a generic, sanitized boardwalk: the perfect spot to get an I Heart YK shirt while enjoying your stroll in this super-expensive-to-get-to and now character-gutted northern town.
In EDGEYK’s own words: “It’s the kind of gentrified scene that makes tourism officials salivate”.
In times where alternative lifestyle is a million dollar buzz-phrase, Yellowknife is blessed with its own historic, genuine shacktown – and the consultants’ vision seems to be: tear it down to make room for visitors’ facilities?
Every day, tourists, Yellowknifers with visiting families in tow, dog-owners and teenagers on a date drop by the Woodyard. They photograph the shanties and improbable, dump-sourced arrangements that give the place its charm and soul. It’s alive and so are they. They’re somewhere else. Somewhere authentic.
As a Woodyard resident – one who has learned to enjoy visitors taking turns being photographed holding my axe – I’m not convinced that replacing real shacks with fake ones is the smartest growth avenue. Can you picture the disappointment of the tourist who flew thousands of miles to see a real Yellowknife shack just like on TV when the kid at the Visitors’ Centre informs her that it’s been bulldozed to make room for a cotton-candy stand? Smart growth, indeed.
In the name of ‘revitalization,’ the last few councils have been busy taming the anarchic groove of the various Yellowknife neighbourhoods. Even pretty-in-junk Kam Lake is under pressure to conform to suburb-dom, not to mention that both our mine shafts are going or gone. (And, dare I say, the dump.)
The famous character of this town is increasingly becoming an urban legend. Just look at what they did with the park on Ingraham Drive to give you an idea of the City’s commitment to boring and soulless. Somewhere at a blackjack table on a houseboat on the river Styx, Alphonse “Frenchie” Cyr is getting perpetual twos and threes and his whisky cup is pierced.
It’s worse than gentrification; it’s gentrification without flair or memory.
We have identity issues. We are easily the shack capital of Canada, yet we absolutely refuse to be seen as endorsing shack living. I think it’s high time we accept that shacks are a defining Yellowknife feature and that shack-friendliness is a Yellowknife value. It’s time to become shack proud.
To be shack proud, the welcoming of the new generation of tiny houses should be mirrored with the preservation of the old ones. Rather than shutter plywood palaces when they are vacated – the City’s de facto shack policy – why not upscale them to tiny house standard? How many Stan the Man’s can we afford to lose before we get it?
But firstly, to be shack proud, we should avoid trendy nomenclature and call these authentic, genuine tiny homes by the name we’ve always used for them. Shacks. It’s a Yellowknife word.