Eyes wide open

It’s hard for me to say which memories of our just-ended trip to Yukon will stay with me the longest. When my friend’s mother – who has lived here for more than 50 years –asked me what I had liked best, I couldn’t come up with a specific place or event.

It might be the sky. It’s just such so huge, and it’s constantly changing. Both sunrises and sunsets are stunning. The cloud formations are different from any I have seen anywhere else, and they shift throughout the day. While we did not see any spectacular northern lights, we saw shades of them — and we also saw enormous night skies filled with bright stars. A few times, we saw the Milky Way galaxy spilled out across the whole night sky.

I don’t know how my eyes (or soul) will cope with the tiny skyscapes that are the reality of where I live now that I am home.

Alpine beauty

Or, maybe it’s the varied geography that I like best. For a space that is half the size of Ontario – 482,443 compared to just over one million square kilometres – Yukon packs in a lot of very different landscapes and vistas. I’m neither a geographer nor a geologist, but I have done a bit of reading while I have been here to learn some of the basics about this beautiful place. In real-people language, Yukon is a mixture of mountains, plateaus and valleys. There are mountains with rounded tops and others – in the west – that have jagged, permanently snow-covered peaks (what my friend calls porno-star mountains). Yukon is home to Canada’s highest mountain: Mount Logan, which is also the world’s largest non-volcanic mountain.

There are lakes, many with emerald blue water, and rivers everywhere.

There is even a desert – apparently, the world’s smallest – at Carcross.

White spruce, lodgepole pine and trembling aspen, along with some willows, make up the boreal forests that cover 57% of the land.

There are more than 200 species of wildflowers, as well as countless edible (and no doubt, non-edible) berries.

While we saw no wildlife, there is lots of it around: Dall sheep, wolves, coyotes, black and grizzly bears, moose, caribou and elk. Ravens rule the skies, in both urban and rural areas.

Truth and reconciliation

Twenty-five percent of the Yukon population is Indigenous. There are 14 First Nations, 11 of which have settled land claims.

For decades, learning the history of Indigenous peoples and the colonization of those cultures has been a mandatory part of school curriculum. As a result, most people who grew up here know a lot about the first peoples to inhabit this land. I have been inspired by the number of non-Indigenous people I have met who not only know this history but respect and honour Indigenous cultures in their everyday lives and work consciously to try to offset some of the impacts of colonization.

Indigenous peoples are visible in a way they are not in many other parts of the country. They are simply present: on the streets, in the grocery store, in restaurants, in workplaces. They are represented on the territorial government and Whitehorse city council. The eight main languages, each of which has several dialects, are spoken widely, at least by comparison to the situation in the south. We heard people speaking Tlingit in the Whitehorse grocery store, and heard other languages as we travelled to different parts of the territory. Signs often appear in English and the Indigenous language of the community. Land acknowledgements feel very different here.

This is not to say that life for Indigenous folks here is anything approaching perfect. As we were reminded at the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation ceremony at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, the long-term impacts of residential schools and colonization more generally are many and continue to profoundly and painfully affect the lives of many Indigenous peoples throughout Yukon.

Ta’an Kwach’an Chief Amanda Leas called on us to use the word genocide to describe the residential schools system. She reminded us that, in 1948, the United Nations created an independent crime of genocide, which included the commission of any of the five following acts:

  • Killing members of the targeted group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intending to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children from the group to another group

Seems a pretty accurate way to describe colonization and, in particular, the residential schools system.

From behind my tear-marked sunglasses, I took to heart the words of Kwanlin Dun Elder Dianne Smith, who told us:

“It’s okay to cry – tears are for the words we cannot say.”

One thought on “Eyes wide open

  1. Thank you for this heart felt post.

    I have a friend who lived in the Yukon for over 25 years (btw…her high realism paintings of the North are stunning). Helene has lived in Gatineau for the past 5 years but her heart remains in the North. She misses so much of what you described.

    I agree with Chief Amanda Leas call to us.

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