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Crossing the line in Carcross, come hell or high water

Waist-deep snowdrifts surround the Carcross Visitor Information Centre, reminding residents of their short-lived summer tourist season. But last week, on closer inspection, locals might have noticed several sets of footprints.


Waist-deep snowdrifts surround the Carcross Visitor Information Centre, reminding residents of their short-lived summer tourist season.

But last week, on closer inspection, locals might have noticed several sets of footprints plowing through the snow to the centre, defying winter’s desolation.

Inside, sitting around a projector throwing sketches of cabins onto two sheets of white paper taped to the wall, a group of businessmen were plotting Carcross’ future.

There was a B.C. builder, a Whitehorse outdoors expert, a wood and metal designer, a Yukon government housing specialist, a business adviser and Justin Ferbey, the CEO of the Carcross/Tagish Development Corporation and the man behind the meeting.

“This is about building Carcross’ economy,” Ferbey tells the group. “It’s about articulating our vision.”

This vision is grand.

Ferbey sees huts - like the ones projected onto the visitor centre’s wall - with oil stoves, bunks and spectacular views, scattered in the mountains around Carcross, attracting hikers and skiers.

And he envisions a retail village - nine two-storey buildings, with space on the ground floor for shops, bars and restaurants and residential condos and small-business space above - surrounding the visitor centre.

Ferbey wants to make his tiny Yukon community “a destination.” And he wants to build a year-round economy so Carcross youth stay there.

It’s a vision shared by young locals Niko Helm, 19, and Shane Wally, 21.

“There’s nothing to do here,” says Helm. “There’s no jobs, no activities - just drinking.”

Both Helm and Wally managed to escape at lot of partying by working with local visionary Wayne Roberts, creating world-class mountain biking trails on Montana Mountain over the past five years.

The trails have been featured in biking magazines as far away as Japan and earned an International Mountain Biking Association award last year.

The work also landed Helm a job with Parks Canada this summer, maintaining trails and bridges on the historic Chilkoot Trail.

But this is seasonal work too, he says.

“We need year-round employment because there are lots of kids with nothing to do. A retail village might motivate and employ a lot of people from the community.”

Wally already has plans for the village.

He’s going to open an Indian taco stand.

“A lot of tourists are really into First Nation culture,” he says. “So they’ll see an Indian-style taco and want to check it out.”

Ferbey’s been helping Wally create a business plan, but it’s largely dependent on the success of the retail village.

Wally envisions taking tourists on hikes or bikes on the mountain trails he helped to build, then bringing them back for tacos and shopping at the village.

“And they could go over and look at the carving studio,” he says. “That’s a good market attractor.”

* * *

There’s a well-worn path through the snow to the carving studio, tucked behind the visitor centre on the waterfront.

The brainchild of Ferbey when he was still working as a senior official with the First Nation, the studio is home to carver Keith Wolfe Smarch.

Smarch is inside, standing by a pile of cedar shavings, beside two big totem poles that will eventually stand just across the way, at the Skookum Jim House.

Smarch has been mentoring three local youth, whose carvings will be for sale at the Skookum Jim House, once it becomes a shop and museum this summer.

But Smarch doesn’t want to talk about Ferbey’s development plans.

The community’s just too divided.

“People are arguing about it because they have nothing else to do,” says Wayne Roberts, who is sitting in the studio chatting with Smarch.

“No matter what you do here there’s going to be opposition.”

Roberts knows from experience. When he started developing his mountain bike trails on Montana Mountain, people were afraid the trails were going to interfere with hunting and the wildlife, he says. “Most people were against it.”

Now, more than seven years later, Roberts has these same people coming up and asking if there’s room on his trail crew for their kids. “And suddenly I’m seeing older people riding around town on mountain bikes,” he says.

But it took time.

“People here are tired of change,” adds Roberts.

“Carcross has seen the gold rush come through, then the military, and two years ago Google was mapping our streets. It’s been nothing but change, change, change.

“Meanwhile we still have people living here who were born at Mile 32 in a blueberry patch. We’re living with that kind of heritage.”

* * *

Louise Johns was born at Conrad, now just a patch of scrub and trees on the Skagway Road. Her older brother was born at Burwash Landing, another was born on the shores of Bennett Lake, her sister was born across the river and another brother arrived at Racine Falls.

“There were no doctors or nurses in those days, and my parents were trappers so we travelled all over the place, even when my mother was pregnant,” says Johns.

The Carcross/Tagish elder has seen a lot change in the community, an hour’s drive south of Whitehorse, over the years.

“People aren’t as closely connected as they were when I was growing up,” she says. “Before when someone got a moose we’d share it with the whole community - that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Johns was raised on the family trapline. “We were hardly ever in Carcross,” she says. And even when she and her siblings ended up in residential school, they still spent summers in the bush, tanning skins and drying fish and berries.

“There was alcohol around back then,” says Johns. “But you didn’t see it. And the youth were kept busy working in the bush, they didn’t get into mischief.

“Today, the young people are into video games and partying instead of living off the land.”

Johns’ house is starting to smell like the apple tarts that are bubbling in the oven. She’s cooking lunch for the crew over at Ferbey’s brainstorming session.

“I want to do a cooking course for youth in the next while,” says Johns. “People don’t eat healthy here and there’s lots of diabetes.”

Johns’ grandchildren know how to cook, set and run nets, fillet fish and dry them. “But the majority of kids don’t,” she says.

Johns has also run some sewing classes, teaching the next generation how to make ceremonial button blankets. But she doesn’t plan to sell her work at Ferbey’s proposed retail village.

“When the summer season starts, I leave,” she says.

At 72, Johns still heads out to mining camps every summer to work as a cook.

Work here is seasonal, she says. “Most people either work in mining camps or for White Pass.”

While Johns agrees the community needs some sort of economic development, she’s not sure about the retail village. “What’s the purpose behind those buildings?” she says. “Who’s going to be able to afford to live in them?”

Ferbey’s “idea is really big,” says Johns. “But when you do something like that, you have to start small and work your way up.”

“Instead of saying, ‘Here’s my big plans,’ this should have been done in little steps,” agrees Roberts, who’s heading over to join Ferbey’s brainstorming session and enjoy Johns’ home cooking.

“This is a small, rustic town with no credibility behind its business ventures,” he says.

Time and again, development has been planned and sold to the community and then nothing happens, says Roberts.

“There’s a billboard on the highway advertising a potlatch house, promising completion in 2011,” he says.

“But they haven’t even dug the hole yet.”

And decades ago, there was a marina planned. The First Nation even bought the logs “which sat there for years,” he says.

“Finally Harold took them and used them to build his house.”

* * *

Harold Gatensby’s house is tucked in a bay off Nares Lake on the plot of land where the Carcross residential school once sat.

“I’ve lived here for 30 years and raised 13 children here,” he says, sitting in his kitchen, with light streaming in off the frozen lake.

“We really need to decide our own future as a community.

“But how do we do that with ambitious people making a Klondike theme park out of Carcross?

“Our history doesn’t start with the gold rush,” says Gatensby. “It’s tucked away behind sheep blinds that we built on those mountains more than 10,000 years ago, and in the trails up there that were so well used you can still see the grooves in the rock.”

The gold rush wasn’t a blessing, says Gatensby. “It was a curse, and we don’t want to glorify it and cover up our real history.”

Carcross was named by the superintendent of residential schools who derived it from Caribou Crossing, adds Gatensby. “And this community has a lot of healing to do.

“To become healthier, we need to gain ownership of our community,” he says.

This means sitting down together and making decisions about things like the proposed retail village, says Gatensby.

“But we never had that chance,” he says. “Instead, I open the newspaper and see that Carcross is set to become ‘a destination.’ Well, it always was for me - I live here.

“Whoever came up with that can’t live here.”

* * *

Ferbey credits Gatensby for his return to Carcross.

The men first met when Ferbey came back to his home community to help ratify the Carcross/Tagish final agreement in 2005. Back then, Ferbey was living in Vancouver working for the federal government.

After graduating from F.H. Collins, the young Tlingit/Tagish man earned a degree in neuropsychology from the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta. “I wanted to work with youth at risk,” he says.

To get teaching experience, Ferbey headed to Asia, and didn’t return for 10 years.

In that time, Ferbey earned a black belt in tae kwon do and karate and became fluent in both Korean and Japanese - the mother tongue of his great grandfather, who, in the early 20th-century moved to the Yukon and married a Tlingit/Tagish women from Carcross before eventually disappearing in an internment camp.

Back in Vancouver, Ferbey enrolled in a commerce program with the Institute of Indigenous Government, which landed him the job with Indian and Northern Affairs.

That’s how he ended up in Carcross, helping his community ratify a contentious final agreement.

After the vote, Gatensby walked up to Ferbey.

“You got your glory,” he said. “Now you’re just going to leave.”

Gatensby’s words struck a chord.

“I was a full-time federal employee living in downtown Vancouver, and I left it all to live in a mouldy house in Carcross,” says Ferbey with a laugh.

* * *

Standing in the Skookum Jim House, on a plywood floor covered in drywall dust, Ferbey is one step closer to his dream.

He moved the old shell of a building to its current location, next to the visitor centre and carving studio, and is turning it into an art store and museum, in partnership with McBride Museum in Whitehorse.

Ferbey hopes it will become the centre-piece of the retail village.

There is a lot of history here, he says, mentioning a little hardware store set up on Bennett Lake during the gold rush, run by one Fred Trump, the great grandfather of today’s famous billionaire, Donald.

“I want to get the Trumps to come back to Carcross as part of a 100-year legacy deal,” says Ferbey with a grin.

Right now the only industry in Carcross is an old store and shuttered hotel, says Ken Grant, the contractor retrofitting the Skookum Jim House. But people are opposed to change, he says, fitting a window frame.

In fact, a petition has been circulating in the community in an attempt to stop development of the retail village.

Ferbey’s got a copy.

And he’s been calling everyone who signed it.

The vast majority are non-native.

“I wanted to know what their concerns were,” he says. “Because no one’s coming up and talking to me about it.”

But so far, Ferbey hasn’t been able to pin down the community’s fears.

Some people simply argue it’s not going to work, he says. Others were concerned that Carcross doesn’t have a central water system - Ferbey just shakes his head.

While others have argued the First Nation’s development corporation should be buying airlines or construction companies, rather than trying to do business in Carcross.

This is a challenge Ferbey is ready for.

He went back to school, earning a master’s degree in business from the University of Liverpool just for this.

“Very few communities have been able to make transformational change and raise the socio-economic status of their people,” he says. “And I need to make Carcross cross that line.

“Every success has one person, who, come hell or high water, made it happen.”

Ferbey’s planning to build the retail village’s first condo/store this summer, and he’s not worried about the community’s initial reaction.

“We’ve been asking people about this for the past 30 years,” he says, throwing a typewritten booklet on his desk.

Laid out on off-white paper, in brown ink, is an economic vision for Carcross, called the Streetscape Project, that looks almost identical to Ferbey’s retail village proposal.

The plan for restaurants, shops and museums is even laid out on the same tract of land - only this plan was devised in 1986.

When Ferbey developed his retail village vision, he knew nothing about the Streetscape Project.

“One day (former chief) Mark Wedge turned to me and said, ‘You know we’ve been talking about this for 30 years,’” says Ferbey.

He was floored.

“So don’t tell me there hasn’t been ample evidence of community consultation,” says Ferbey. “We need to cross this line and put this development to the ground.

“Is this too speedy?

“It couldn’t be any slower.”

Over the last 20 to 30 years, basically, nothing has happened here, says deputy chief Danny Cresswell. “There’s been a whole bunch of ideas and every time a new chief and council take over, they start all over again from scratch.”

Then Ferbey came home, says Cresswell. “And with the development corp he’s shown that it’s not just about making money, it’s about what you do with the money to help the people.”

Cresswell is behind Ferbey’s economic vision.

“We need to start training our young entrepreneurs,” he says, waving a hand toward Helm who wandered over to the visitor centre to enjoy Johns’ home cooking and apple tarts.

“Look at Niko,” says Cresswell. “He wasn’t doing a whole hell of a lot, then he started hanging around with Justin and now he wants to do something.”

There will always be “push back” when it comes to change, adds Cresswell.

“But don’t tell me you don’t have dreams for something bigger and better.”

* * *

When Ferbey gets stressed out he buys lottery tickets.

“I’ve been buying them about once a month these days,” he says with a laugh.

“But I’m going to make this happen.

“And five years from now, when we’re all milling around on Carcross’ Main Street, people are going to be thinking, ‘Why didn’t we do this in 1986?’”

Contact Genesee Keevil at