Northern reflections

One of the aspects of my work I like the most is that I have so many opportunities to meet women doing fantastic work and, often, to travel to places I would not otherwise get to see. Most of my work-related travel is in Ontario, which has plenty to offer in the way of interesting geography and culture, with occasional forays to places like Vancouver or Halifax to speak at conference, where I often never even leave the hotel.

In October, I met Aja Mason at a sexual assault forum in Toronto. We struck up a conversation about the advocate case review project she is working on in Whitehorse. A few days later, she emailed to ask if I would be willing to come north to do some work with her.

Always up for an adventure and never having travelled to Yukon, I immediately said yes.Within a matter of minutes, Aja had my flight booked and had found me somewhere to stay.

Embarrassing as it is, I have to admit that, before this trip, I had never had a lot of interest in travelling in northern Canada, despite my partner’s keen enthusiasm, for most of the 30+ years of our relationship, for us to do so. With much humility, and huge apologies to him and to Yukon itself for my previous ignorance, I can say now that I have fallen in love with this place.

Inspiring women

Aja and I spent our workdays in the tiny Yukon Status of Women Council office in the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre, where we could overhear the conversations of very vulnerable women as they dropped in to the centre for a hot meal, clothing, to use the computer, to talk to a counsellor or just to hang out in a warm, friendly and safe space.

Two friends of mine in the south were among the women who established the women’s centre when they lived in Whitehorse in the 1970s. I had heard lots about their work to create the Yukon Women’s Mini-Bus Society, Whitehorse’s first modern transit system and on this trip I had the change to see how their work has grown and continues to grow in directions they probably never even imagined.

I was honoured to speak at the December 6th vigil, held at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre on the banks of the Yukon River, where politicians, young women engineers and activists of all ages came together for a very moving ceremony.

Over the course of the week, I was struck again and again by how many of the community’s social justice organizations are headed by young women. The energy, passion and vision these women bring to their work was inspiring. They are not afraid to think outside the box; but they are also very connected to the older women who have led this work for so long. That mutual intergenerational respect is something I don’t see so much in the south.

A complex city

Whitehorse’s population of approximately 24,000 makes up about three-quarters of Yukon’s entire population, but it is, at heart, a small and frontier-like town. The largest employer is the public service, which means there is a lot of infrastructure for a city of its size, including big, modern buildings that seem somewhat ill at ease in their mountain valley setting.

A centre for tourism, especially in the spring and summer, Whitehorse has a lot to offer for those of us who come here with money to spend, including galleries filled with the work of local artists and restaurants offering a wide array of cuisines, including some based on locally produced food.

Mining for gold is on the increase, and the influx of miners brings with it both positives (those miners spend money while they are here) and negatives (increased sexualized violence, as is common in rural work camps).

Beautiful as the setting is, Whitehorse is not free from social concerns that include poverty and a serious shortage of affordable and safe housing, both of which, of course, contribute to other problems such as violence against women. Food, especially fresh produce, is expensive.

Getting out of town

I wanted to see more than the city of Whitehorse during my stay and, fortunately for me, Aja is a proud and generous Yukoner, who was delighted to be my tour guide.

While I came prepared for cold, snowy weather, it did not materialize. In fact, some days it was warmer in Whitehorse than it was at home. The impact of climate change was all too apparent and hit home for me in a way it had not in the south.

Aja and I spent a magical day driving along the South Klondike Highway, surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of mountains and lakes in the dazzling sunlight. That sunshine quickly turned into a blizzard before we made it to the summit that was our original destination, so we turned back and settled for hot chocolate in Carcross instead.

Six days was not enough for me to get more than a tiny taste—an amuse-bouche, really – of what Yukon holds. As I bid farewell to this wonderful place, I was already planning my next trip.

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