Donna Clayson points to where a time capsule is locked in cement in front of the former vocational school. In 1973, she  worked there and was on hand to see art instructor Ted Harrison put it in place on July 15, 1973. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)

History Hunter: Time Capsule will reveal messages from 50 years ago

When human memory is gone, much of our history goes with it. That was what came to mind when Whitehorse resident Donna Clayson called me recently. Fifty years ago, she was working at the old vocational school. The building, which is the first structure you pass when crossing the Robert Campbell Bridge into Riverdale, no longer serves its original purpose.

Clayson worked in the administrative side of the school operation from 1971 to 1973. Among her duties were handing out the Canada Manpower cheques to the students and teaching hands-on skills to the students in the secretarial program. She remembers it as a positive collegial environment.

“Everybody was appreciated,” she told me.

Of course, Whitehorse was much smaller than it is today.

June 28, 1973 was a memorable date. That was when a sculpture was unveiled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the opening of the vocational school. Kluane MLA Hilda Watson, who was then the member of the territorial executive committee responsible for education, dedicated the sculpture in a ceremony that was held outdoors in front of the building.

In the 10 years since the school had opened, in 1963, it had grown from 100 students and 12 faculty to 54 full-time and 21 part-time instructional staff and 1,000 students.

The dedication ceremony appeared in the newspaper under the heading “Nameless Statue Unveiled”. The statue was dedicated at 10 a.m., after which Watson presented certificates to the graduates of the various programs offered by the school. The statue was the product of a collaboration between the arts and crafts as well as the drafting and welding instructors, who had settled upon the design, one of several that were offered for consideration two years earlier.

Bob McCowan, the welding instructor, suggested the piece be constructed of exotic Stelcoloy 50 weathering steel. The designers said that the shape of the sculpture could “represent the tree of knowledge or a crystal representing the many facets of education carried out at the vocational school.”

Ken Krocker, who was the electrical instructor at the time, calculated the complex angles of the 54 triangles that made up the completed sculpture. Konrad Domes’ drafting class created a 1/20th scale model from drawings they had prepared for final approval. Watson gave the green light and provided the funding. The welding students then assembled the 1,133-kilogram structure.

Ken Simpson, the carpentry instructor, put in the forms and poured the concrete that supported the new creation on a six-inch steel pipe. It was assumed that the piece would rust over the years, eventually taking on a blue-green colour, but perhaps because of the less polluted northern air, the piece today remains a rusty brown colour.

Fifteen years later the vocational school was relocated to the campus of the newly established Yukon College. The principal of the vocational school at the time, John Casey, had the sculpture removed from its base and sent to the scrap heap, but an 11th-hour intervention by the instructors saved it from oblivion and it now stands prominently on the lawn adjacent to the traffic circle at the centre of the Yukon University campus.

When the final preparations were being made to install the sculpture, which is referred to as the Tree of Knowledge these days, art instructor Ted Harrison gathered up contributions from various faculty members and added a 75th anniversary edition of the Whitehorse Star, all of which were sealed in a one-gallon glass jar. A newspaper photograph that appeared on June 15, 1973 shows Harrison carefully placing it into the base of the statue as the cement was being poured two weeks before the unveiling.

The intention was for the time capsule to be opened on the 50th anniversary of its unveiling and that date is quickly approaching.

Clayson is wearing out her fingers contacting various government departments to make the arrangements for the opening of the time capsule on June 28, but she can’t recall what her original contribution was to the contents. Tom Lownie, who was principal at the Yukon Vocational and Technical and Training Centre (YVTTC) when the sculpture was unveiled, wants to be here when the time capsule is opened.

Lownie remembered that “the vocational school went out of its way to serve and meet the needs of the territory for workers in business, in the heavy equipment, mechanical, welding and road building industries of the Yukon.”

He goes on to add that “all training at YVTTC was hands-on and as realistic as possible. The bulk of student graduates were hired for work in their area of specialty, often prior to completing their training.”

Lownie said that the school provided specialized training upon request, including waiter/waitress and bartending for the hospitality industry and wrangling, outfitting and camp cooking for the Yukon Game and Guide Outfitters Association.

“On one occasion we developed and delivered a horse logging program … upon request and utilized the logs from the program to provide materials for the first log house built by the carpentry class and sold in the Riverdale subdivision of Whitehorse.”

It is difficult to imagine a future if you cannot at the same time see the past. It is only in that way that we can appreciate the remarkable changes that have transformed our world, especially here in the territory. This statue symbolizes that transition from a small vocational school to northern Canada’s first accredited university. The concrete base that supported the statue for 15 years and still holds the glass container with its messages from the past remains in remarkably good shape all these years later at the original site of the statue.

I can’t help but wonder what we will find when the time capsule is opened. Will there be statements of hope and optimism for the future of the program? Will personal animosities be exposed for the first time in public after five decades? Will they reveal the attitudes and social context of a different time? Will the documents be covered with mold and illegible or will they be in the same state of preservation when they were first buried in concrete?

I, for one, hope to be on site when the container is removed from its cement grave and its contents see the light of day after being hidden away for so long. I want to know what Clayson’s contribution to the time capsule said!

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at