Voices Influencing Change. Jack Bogaard knows what it’s like to live with homelessness and addictions. “The problem with people with addictions is that we’re always being judged,” says Bogaard. “Even though I haven’t drank in years. I go to the hospital and ask for help, and they think it’s Jack the drunk, he’s back. I’m just asking for help here.”
Bogaard is a driving force behind Voices Influencing Change. Hosted by the Yukon Anti Poverty Coalition, the project helps empower people with lived experiences of homelessness, addictions and vulnerabilities to speak their truths. “There’s a huge difference in that person, from when they walk in, when they’re really scared, when they have to open up like a flower,” says Bogaard. “You can say as much as you want or as little as you want. You’re not going to be judged.”
There’s a forum for Voices Influencing Change coming up, and Bogaard says it’s time for the street community in Whitehorse to give decision-makers a wake up call. “I’m really thinking I’m going to march them all in there, every one of them, the ones with the mental health, the ones that are homeless, every one of them,” Bogaard says. “The government and everybody else ain’t ready for that. There’s going to be rows and rows and rows of homeless and vulnerable people there. How [are government types] going to feel when they have to say no to their faces? You’re going to see their tears drop onto the floor. That’s going to be a sad day, but this community needs to see reality.”
Photo: Jack Bogaard (hand visible) speaks at a Voices Influencing Change meeting at the Yukon Anti Poverty Coalition.
Food security and the Porcupine caribou herd. The Porcupine caribou herd is integral to the culture, and food security of Gwich’in communities across the north, where a bag of apples can cost $17 and two litres of milk $8. Caribou are critical to food sharing networks too, with thousands of kilograms of caribou meat shared with friends and relatives in communities like Whitehorse every year.
The Gwich’in have “taken the bull by the horns,” says Joe Tetlichi, chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB). In the early 2000s, when people feared the herd was in decline, the Gwich’in voluntarily took on additional conservation measures. The PCMB has plans in place should the Porcupine caribou herd sharply decline, implementing subsistence allocations or more stringent measures.
There’s a tense history between game enforcement officers and Indigenous peoples. Tetlichi recalls that as a child, whenever he saw a game warden’s boat approaching his family’s camp, he’d run to hide all sign of duck feathers — for fear wardens would charge his parents for practicing subsistence. Tetlichi says messages about proactive hunting practices, like letting leaders pass or taking only bulls, are much better received when they come from groups like the PCMB or Renewable Resource Councils, not conservation officers.
Joe Tetlichi stresses that Aboriginal hunting rights also come with the responsibility to look after the health of herds. While other barren-ground caribou herds across the Arctic have collapsed, some by over 95%, the Porcupine caribou herd still thrives.
Photo: a bull caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Koyotes. If you’re skiing through the snowy forests behind Whitehorse you may come across koyotes. Gary Bailie runs the Kwanlin Koyotes Ski Club, exposing young people — especially Indigenous youth, to the world of cross country skiing.
In the 1970s Gary Bailie was a competitive junior skier at a national level, at a time when Canada’s national team was entirely Indigenous. His skiing mentors were survivors of residential schools. “Getting out [skiing] was an escape from that,” Bailie says. “I liken it to a journey of rediscovery, rediscovering our culture, and a sense of our identity — and feeling proud of ourselves.“
For the last twenty years Bailie has been knocking down barriers to young people skiing. Bailie built and maintains the network of Kwanlin Koyote trails. The benefits of the club go well beyond learning how to glide through the trees. Breathing in crisp winter air is immensely therapeutic, positive to well-being on every level. At the same time Bailie believes getting young people outside is critical to empowering new generations of environmental champions. “When you’re out on the land you learn to love the land, and you’ll fight to defend what you love.”
The ski club’s logo is a howling coyote. “I tell the kids, the coyote is calling to you,” Gary Bailie says. “What’s he saying? He’s telling you come back, come back to the land. This is your home, this is where you belong.”
Photo: Gary Bailie inside Koyote Cabin.
The Targeted Initiative for Older Workers. “A woman who could run four businesses and raise a child at the same time could probably have a better future than being a Walmart greeter,” says Mary Cheney. She had owned and run Rivendell farms for years, but found herself unemployed, going through a divorce, unable to access EI and struggling to transition to a new line of work. Many older workers face similar challenges — whether it be age-related disabilities that prevent them from continuing their jobs, being new to town, or recovering from addictions.
There’s a program at the Yukon College designed for people like Cheney — the Targeted Initiative for Older Workers (TIOW). The 19-week program helps people between the ages of 50-70 who are unemployed and facing barriers to work learn critical new skills. The program offers a stipend to participants, giving financial breathing room to allow people to go back to school.
There’s an enormous amount of experiences and diversity in the classroom says George Green, the initiative’s founder and an instructor with the program. “We have to find a way for all this great knowledge and experience to be shared.” There’s a massive need for such programming, but it’s presently at capacity, TIOW must turn away two applicants for every person admitted.
“[TIOW] gave me a pile of new skills that I didn’t have, and helped me gain self-confidence,” Mary Cheney says. Shortly after graduating she landed a dream job — working with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations to teach about greenhouses and gardening.
Photo: Mary Cheney and George Green.
Ending Conversion Therapy. “Conversion therapy has been a really dark part of North America’s past,” says Whitehorse high school student Mercedes Bacon Traplin. Conversion therapy is a psychiatric pseudoscience, where practitioners attempt to ‘cure’ people of homosexuality. Forms of it have even included showing patients photos of people of their same sex while administering electric shocks. Bacon-Traplin was researching the date that conversion therapy was banned in the Yukon — and was shocked to learn it still hasn’t been outlawed.
“I was welcomed [when coming out as bisexual] because my parents are gay themselves,” says Bacon-Traplin. “But there are people I know, if they were to come out would not be accepted. I want to make sure that those people are protected and safe. I can imagine what it would be like if my parents hadn’t been accepting of who I am. It’s possible that my parents could have sent me off to conversion therapy.”
Bacon-Traplin and members of Gender and Sexuality Alliances from Porter Creek and F.H. Collins high schools spearheaded a petition calling on the Yukon government to outlaw conversion therapy, and prevent parents from sending their children out of the territory for conversion procedures. Students submitted their petition, with 401 signatures, to the Yukon legislature this month. “We found a huge, overwhelming positive reaction from the community,” says Bacon-Traplin. “Everyone here wants to change it today.”
Photo: Mercedes Bacon-Traplin speaking to reporters outside the Yukon Legislature.
Underwater songbirds. “Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells.” - John Muir
American dippers, or water ouzels, are the world’s only aquatic songbirds. Even as temperatures sink below minus forty, dippers still plunge into the frigid Yukon River in pursuit of tiny invertebrates along the riverbed. In the summers the charcoal-grey birds breed along the Yukon’s alpine streams, and move to lower elevations in the winter to seek open water. Dippers are an indicator of clean water and healthy creeks. Hearing a dipper’s voice rising above the pounding water reminds us how fortunate the Yukon is to still have clean water in abundance.
Photo: An American dipper springing from the Yukon River.
Time and energy. Cody Reaume puts lots of energy into energy. By day Reaume is the Yukon Conservation Society’s Energy Analyst, advocating and educating on sustainable energy policies and solutions. Reaume is an inventor by night, developing intelligent ventilation controls that reduce energy consumption and improve indoor air quality.
“One of the Yukon’s biggest challenges is to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels for space heating and transportation,” says Reaume. One tool to replace fossil fuels with lower impact renewable energies is to invest in energy storage solutions. Reaume says seasonal energy storage such as pumped hydro could help the Yukon’s grid accommodate intermittent energy sources like wind and solar — by banking excess power during the summer and releasing it during the winter.
Photo: Cody Reaume inspecting an HRV monitor at YuKonstruct.
The Alpine Bakery. The Alpine Bakery has been a beloved part of Whitehorse for thirty five years, where you can breathe in the aroma of freshly-baked bread and feel warmth radiating from the brick oven. The bakery champions sustainability and social justice on many levels, like offering a fully-organic menu, helping local food producers survive by placing orders for produce far in advance, and paying decent wages to its employees.
Labour justice advocates across North America are campaigning for a 15$/hr minimum wage.* While some business have pushed back against paying fair wages, the Alpine Bakery makes it work. “It’s all in the priorities,” says Marjolene Gauthier, co-manager at the bakery. “The moment when you really care about your employees, you’re able to cut somewhere else.” Wages at the Alpine Bakery start at 15$/hr, in addition to paid lunch hours, vacation time, complimentary meals and weekly produce bags. If profits rise, the bakery intends to share them among its team.
* The Yukon’s current minimum wage is $12.71/hr. In 2016 the Yukon Anti Poverty Coalition estimated the living wage in Whitehorse at $19.12/hr.
Photo: Erica Moesli removing loaves from Alpine Bakery’s brick oven.
YuKonstruct. If you’re a Yukoner who is prototyping an intelligent cross-country ski pole or designing cold-climate greenhouses, chances are you’re familiar with YuKonstruct. “People are always doing really crazy projects here,” says Laird Herbert, Makerspace Director at YuKonstruct — a co-space for carpenters, welders, inventors and entrepreneurs. Membership provides access to 3D printers, laser cutters and other professional-grade welding and carpentry equipment that would be inaccessible to most. “The joy of this space is that it’s brought together a really neat group of people, who are maybe somewhat eccentric and creative,” says Herbert. It’s part of the spirit of the place.”
YuKonstruct is still a barebones non-profit, says Herbert. They’re working hard to reduce their dependence on government funding, through strategies like expanding programming within the space. But, like maker’s spaces everywhere, they’re swimming against the current. “There can be this tragedy of the commons thing that happens if you let it,” says Herbert. “Somebody can buy a monthly membership, then destroy a $4,000 dollar machine.”
Photo: Rick Yargason welding in YuKonstruct’s metal shop.
BYTE: Empowering Youth is based out of a modest flat in downtown Whitehorse — but has an impact that’s felt in communities across the Yukon. It’s a nonprofit run by youth, for youth. “We’re able to provide a non-judgmental space for young people to talk about the issues that are important to them,” says Shelby Maunder, Executive Director at BYTE. “It can be really hard in a school setting to talk about a lousy relationship that you’re in, or a crazy bush party you went to on the weekend.”
Maunder hears a lot of concerns about housing, substance abuse and mental health. Although BYTE can’t take on the role of crisis supporters, they do train youth in northern communities to be suicide alert helpers. Three staff members with BYTE are certified to offer safeTALK workshops — training people to recognize warning signs and direct those in need to counsellors or elders for support.
In the end, Maunder says positive mental health isn’t only about adequate supports and services. “We need to take a step back and ask, is there a hockey arena? Is there somebody in the community who’s able to run a hockey team? In the end a lot of our mental health can come from having access to opportunities.”
Photo: Shelby Maunder and a mural painted by youth on an exchange through BYTE.
Farm to table, Yukon style. In 2011, long-time farmer Mary Cheney told friends that one bad wildfire or flood was all it would take to wake up Yukoners to just how fragile our food system is. The very next year her prediction came true. Flooding washed away sections of the Alaska Highway, severing the Yukon from the processions of transport trucks that stock our grocery aisles. Days later, produce shelves across the territory had gone empty.
Food travels astronomical distances to reach our plates — avocados from Michoacán, rice from Guizhou, peanut butter from Georgia. The Yukon’s food system is unsustainable on many levels, from the greenhouse gas emissions from trucking groceries thousands of kilometers north, to our reliance on food exports from places that are already struggling with the impacts of climate change. Strengthening local food systems in the Yukon could help address a lot of problems at once: cutting our carbon footprint, increasing our resiliency to the impacts of climate change, strengthening local economies and improving access to healthy and fresh food.
Photo: The distances some foods travel to reach Whitehorse.
Mt. Lorne Transfer Station. If you’re looking to salvage old truck gears for a micro-hydro set up, find scrap wood, score a pizza stone or refresh your wardrobe, the Mt. Lorne Transfer Station is your spot. Whitehorse is short on thrift stores, making Mt. Lorne’s free store and dump even more important. The transfer station also happens to be home to a 50 kw solar energy installation, the largest in the Yukon, along with one of the territory’s first electric car charging stations.
Photo: Sunlight filters into the Mt. Lorne free store.
Tiny homes, giant need. Finding housing in Whitehorse can be
insurmountably difficult. Some landlords request that prospective tenants fill out exhaustive application forms — detailing everything from their income and employment status to the make and model of their car. Many rental units come with additional discrimination, like turning away tenants with children. Rent is another barrier. According to the Yukon Bureau of Statistics, median rent is Whitehorse is $1,000/month with a vacancy rate of 1.7%.
“Housing is a crisis, a black mark on our communities,” says Jack Bogaard, a long-time advocate for homeless people in Whitehorse. “Not every street person here is asking for a million dollars. All they’re asking for is a roof over their head.” The Yukon Government is constructing a 15-unit ‘housing first’ complex on Wood St, slated to open this summer. “Lord behold that’s a good start,” Bogart says. “But we need three times that or four times that to house all these people they keep putting into hotels. Paying $1400 a month for a hotel room? Come on people. This is getting absurd.”
The nonprofit Blood Ties Four Directions is leading another important project — the Steve Cardiff Tiny House Community (pictured). There, five units provide a people facing discrimination in Whitehorse’s housing market with long-term and stable low-barrier housing.
Tiny houses require fewer resources to build, less energy to heat, and have the fraction of the carbon footprint of conventional houses. In addition to providing critical low-barrier housing, projects like the Steve Cardiff Tiny House Community can help combat climate change and enhance the sustainability of northern communities.
Photo: The Steve Cardiff tiny house community.
Making waves. A group of Whitehorse paddlers dream of engineering exciting new features in the Yukon River. The “Rock the River” project would involve building a series of artificial ridges along the riverbed to create waves in the current above. Yukon paddler Lawrence Brennan believes creating world-class freestyle kayaking facilities in Whitehorse could grow the Yukon’s paddling community and bring new young people into the sport. Brennan, a biology graduate, envisions a second component to the project: building salmon spawning habitat along some of the river’s quieter braids.
From the Peel Watershed to the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers, canoers and kayakers have been instrumental in river conservation. Helping people fall in love with rivers and whitewater is critical to ensuring the health of rivers across the north.
Photo: Olivier Roy-Jauvin surfs a wave on the Yukon River.
WildWise. In Whitehorse, bears are never far away. “We tend to set up our communities where we have close access to fish and berries and other resources that animals depend on,” says Heather Ashthorn, Executive Director of WildWise Yukon. Living in such a wild landscape can cause trouble, especially for bears that discover garbage, backyard chicken coops or bird feeders. In 2018 a record high 267 human bear conflicts were reported in the Yukon, resulting in conservation officers shooting 33 bears.
WildWise is working to fix the Yukon’s bear attractant problem. Ashthorn is testing several prototypes of bear-resistant garbage containers in her backyard. Finding a prototype suited to the Yukon’s climate is one challenge; another is to convince the City of Whitehorse and the general public to buy in. It’s on us to fix this problem, says Ashthorn. “Bears are bears. We don’t seem to be able to draw together a council of bears and convince them to change what they’re doing. It comes down to human behaviour.”
Photo: A willow-woven bear unable to break into a bear-proof garbage bin.
Many rivers, few solutions. Whitehorse and several other Yukon
communities have been short of critical mental health services for months. First, counsellors with Many Rivers were locked out for 11 weeks by the society’s board. The strike ended in January, only for staff to receive layoff notices a month later. The saga is complex on many levels, and simplifications don’t do the story justice. Still, one thing is clear, mental health supports do not receive the priority they deserve.
“If this crisis was about the public or medical health of Yukoners, there would have been a clear and immediate response from government, public and media,” says Wendy Morrison, a non-profit administrator who has provided support for staff at Many Rivers. “But the crisis is a mental health one, so it has remained a largely silent one. A sad reflection of the silent struggle facing many individuals in the Yukon.”
Photo: Nightfall over Many Rivers.
Saving the Porcupine caribou herd. Late in 2017 Donald Trump approved sweeping tax reforms, including a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The refuge is the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, a place called Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit by the Gwich’in, the sacred place where life begins. Now the U.S. Government is racing to complete an environmental review to authorize selling leases to oil companies.
An incredible alliance is forming to protect the Porcupine caribou herd: the Vuntut Gwitchin and Gwich’in Steering Committee along with other Indigenous governments and councils, the governments of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, the Government of Canada, scientists, photographers and civil society groups across Canada and the United States.
Efforts to protect the Arctic Refuge are gaining momentum. Last summer, investors controlling over 2.5 trillion in assets called on oil companies to leave the Arctic Refuge alone. Scientists, governments and environmental groups submitted thousands of pages of evidence critiquing the U.S. Government’s environmental review. Over a million people expressed their opposition to drilling in the most recent public comment period. Last month Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation testified before the U.S. Congress alongside Gwich’in leaders from across the north — in support of legislation that would restore protections to the Arctic Refuge and the Porcupine caribou herd.
Photo: Yukoners gather to watch films about the Porcupine caribou herd.