“What do you picture when I say I live in Yellowknife?”
“Big snow suits, igloos, polar bears, a lot of snow,” replies Brett Milne. We’re sitting on a bench in the polished halls of the Rideau Centre shopping mall in Ottawa. With its spluttering pop music and snappily dressed teenagers, it’s the least Yellowknife place I could think of to start my assignment: “Talking to Southerners.”
“Ok, and I promise this isn’t a quiz, but where abouts is Yellowknife?”
“I think it’s more towards the west. In the Yukon?”
Hmm. Not off to a great start, Ottawans.
To be fair, it’s not exactly a fair line of questioning coming from someone who moved to Yellowknife this time last year and used to mix up Whitehorse and Yellowknife with the best of them. It’s pretty much a given that for most people south of 60, the North is a vast ellipsis – Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Iqaluit – and little else. Inuit people live up there somewhere. There’s that big river running to the Arctic Ocean and the northern spine of the Rockies stretching to Alaska. But people, languages, towns, history? Nope. Blank.
But here I am, a year later and a wee bit wiser, asking the denizens of the capital what they know about Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories.
The second guy I chat with is a well-dressed fellow who works at the University of Ottawa.
“I think of wildlife, great scenery, not a lot of sunlight for a lot of the year. I think of bears and moose, fish, lakes, forests of pine.”
“That’s pretty spot-on. And what kind of geography do you picture?”
“It’s pretty big so I’m sure it’s somewhat diverse. If you go completely north it’s probably no trees and tundra, perhaps in the south it’s pines.”
Ok! So some Ottawans have a decent sense of the NWT.
Over the next few hours I wander from the mall, across the Plaza Bridge, down the pedestrian-only Sparks Street and up to Parliament Hill.
“The RCMP or CSIS isn’t going to get ahold of this for being unpatriotic, right?” quips one mischievous old fellow who expressed zero interest in travelling to Yellowknife.
“Don’t worry I’m not secretly running around getting people under Bill C-51,” I reply.
The most knowledgeable person I run into is a man named Glenn, sitting on a fold-out lawn chair under a sun umbrella on the grassy slice of Parliament Hill reserved for protesters.
“I’ve been to Yellowknife hundreds of times,” says the wild-eyed preacher from Alberta. “I used to work in the Arctic, moving rigs and working on the DEW line.”
Between extolling the evils of Islam and recommending castration for every couple after they have their first child, he reminisces about crossing the Fort Providence ice bridge and flying in and out of Yellowknife for various jobs in the North.
“If I ever wanted to go back and make another million dollars I’d go there. People up there are always industrious, always trying to make a dollar,” he says admiringly, before returning to his refrain: “God is speaking to you through me, and that’s why Jesus his son was incarnate and brought here.”
I smile and excuse myself.
All told I speak with about 20 people hanging around downtown Ottawa, some tourists wielding hefty cameras, some government workers in spiffy suits, some bored students doing the mandatory romp through the nation’s halls of governance. My sample size could hardly be called representative of Ottawans writ large. But the number of people with at least some experience of the North was actually quite surprising. One woman had vacationed in Whitehorse. Another was friends with the former editor of the Whitehorse Star. A thoughtful government worker in his 60s grew up next to three brothers who all moved to Yellowknife. He’d ridden his motorcycle across Northern Alberta, almost to the NWT border: “I’d probably go North on a motorcycle if I wanted to visit.”
Wandering down Sparks Street around lunchtime I meet Yves Pinette, an Innu guy from Southern Quebec who had spent five years living in Schefferville, Northern Quebec.
“I met a girl, of course, who was from there,” he says with a wink. “I worked here and there but that was kind of an isolated place. At that time, the mine closed so it was a bit of village fantôme. But it didn’t take me too long to get used to the northern life. It was so good. It was smaller, but so good for fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, four-wheelers. It’s totally different from urban life.
“It’s been 20 years since I’ve been up North,” he continues wistfully. “I miss the caribou, I miss the big lakes, but mostly I miss the friends. They’re not like urban friends, village friends are totally different.”
By the national war memorial I sit down with Amanda Keenan from Whitehorse, who’s been living in Ottawa for ten years selling ads for the Hill Times newspaper. She’s having a bite of lunch with a friend and enjoying the sun’s warmth after a few rainy days.
“I miss the 24-hour sunlight in the summer, I miss the mountains, but I like the city,” she tells me. “Though people always ask, do you miss living in an igloo? Did you take a dogsled to school? Most of them are joking, but most still get confused about where it is. Most think it’s Yellowhorse or Whiteknife, sometimes they say it’s in Alaska.”
There’s no doubt, many of the people I talked to were on the clueless side of the spectrum: roughly half didn’t know what territory Yellowknife was in and most seemed to think Yellowknife was in the mountains. I think my favourite response came from pharmacy student Sarah Blyth: “I’m pretty sure my mom has a shirt with some crows on it that says Yellowknife, so I think she’s been there, or someone went there and brought back the shirt. You mention Yellowknife and all I think of is that shirt with three crows.”
Crows, ravens, Yellowhorse, whatever… It was heartening at least, how many people expressed interest in visiting the North. Though, sorry, NWT Tourism, most were more interested in the Yukon or Alaska.
I finish my day on Parliament Hill, feeling a little sheepish at playing Rick Mercer when a year ago I myself was fantasizing about a mythical North. Case in point – an embarrassing excerpt from my journal written on my first flight to Yellowknife last May:
“It’s as if I’m pushing off into the Pacific, setting my sails past Race Rocks and cruising out the Strait of Juan de Fuca with absolutely no destination in mind… Yellowknife is itself my Pacific. A small barren Pacific, no doubt, but a place of vastness as well.”
But hey, the North isn’t the only place people misunderstand and mythologize.
“People always have wrong perceptions,” says Reno Diotte, a friendly francophone government worker. “When people think of New Brunswick they still think we have horses and drive around in buggies.”
Next installment: A Day With Dennis: Hanging out with our man in Ottawa and finding out what the NWT MP gets up to.
Note: Air North provided the flight to make this story possible. While we’re incredibly thankful for their contribution, the company did not influence the story’s content.