Chief Isaac (Yukon Archives, Cluade and Mary Tidd fonds, #7238/Submitted)

Chief Isaac (Yukon Archives, Cluade and Mary Tidd fonds, #7238/Submitted)

What would Chief Isaac have said had he been invited to speak on Discovery Day?

This is a modified version of the reading given at the Commissioner’s picnic in Dawson City, Aug.14.

The first Discovery Day celebration took place on August 17, 1911. On June 13th of the following year, the territorial assembly made the event an official holiday.

The 1912 celebration began at noon with a parade led by two men carrying enormous Union Jacks down Front Street to Minto Park. Then came the Mounted Police on spirited horses and the brass band, followed by several floats, sponsored by local businesses.

The Fraternal Order of Eagles walked two by two, followed by Dawson school children, and finally the Pioneers, carrying their magnificent Pioneer banner. When they arrived at Minto Park, George Black, the commissioner of the Yukon, gave a speech, and then the games began.

The afternoon was filled with fierce competition in various categories: there were boys’ and girls’ foot races, bicycle races, and sack races. There was a potato race, a boot and shoe race, an Eagles’ Race, a Pioneers’ race, and a fat man’s race. There were so many races, it was hard to keep track of them all.

After the field events were concluded, refreshments were served to the children. Then, Edwards and Victor, proprietors of the Orpheum Theatre, offered them free moving pictures and candy. Later, in the evening, more moving pictures were presented for the children, this time at the Family Theatre in the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association building. Meanwhile, the adults attended a Discovery Day ball that went late into the evening.

We celebrate our territorial holiday in much the same fashion today.

Commissioner George Black, in his speech at Minto Park, praised the Yukon Order of Pioneers for instigating the celebration, and for influencing the government to make it an official holiday.

In the decades that followed, his speech affirmed the arrival of the white traders and prospectors in the years before the gold rush. Black told the crowd that the early pioneers were men who “…braved the dangers of the pass, and, taking their lives in their hands, made their way fearlessly into this vast wilderness of unknown forest and rivers … whose dauntless spirit led to the wonderful discovery [of gold] in 1896…The upright conduct and fair dealing of the pioneers has served as a model and example to those who came after … [and] has marked the conduct of the great majority of the people who came to call Yukon their home.”

Both George Black, and his wife Martha, gave similar speeches at Discovery Day celebrations for the next 30 years.

During the Great War, from 1914 to 1918, the narrative of these speeches changed to draw attention to the war effort. The Huns were “…barbarians turned loose to ravish, murder and plunder the peace-loving people of the world,” and had to be stopped. Those who had not volunteered to serve, and were not actively mining were exhorted to sign up for military service.

Martha Black, in her speeches delivered after the Great War, emphasized important events in northern colonization, including: the purchase of Alaska by America from the Russians, the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the arrival of the first prospectors, and the role of the North West Mounted Police.

Discovery Day was not only a day to celebrate and have fun, it was also a time when community leaders like the Blacks defined and confirmed that the discovery of gold on Rabbit Creek and the creation of the territory were keystones in the Yukon narrative.

It was also the day that the first nation way of life began to disappear.

Present at these events was a member of the Moosehide people, the modern-day Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. He was witness to the dramatic changes brought with the gold rush. He was Chief Isaac, and he walked with the Pioneers in the parade. Upon his head he wore a derby hat, “artistically adorned with feathers.” He was dressed in suit, shirt and tie, with a button blanket draped over his shoulders, and an ornately beaded sash across his chest. His apparel conveyed the message that he had one foot on the side of his First Nation traditions, the other in the camp of British civilization.

Chief Isaac was the spokesman who intervened on behalf of First Nation people convicted of minor offenses, and he represented them when petitioning for jobs or seeking assistance from the government. He was actively involved in the business of the Anglican Church in Moosehide, but maintained a careful balancing act with traditional spiritual beliefs. He did this with great diplomacy and patience.

The core message that he repeated at every opportunity was that it was his people’s land onto which the newcomers were welcomed. They were even welcome to the gold, but they should leave the fishing and hunting to his people. Sadly, it didn’t happen that way. Chief Isaac was not invited onto the podium to speak at these celebrations, but if he had been, here is what he likely would have said. It was a message that he often repeated in interviews with local newspapers, like this one from the Klondike Nugget in 1901:

“Long time ago before the white man come along Yukon Indian was happy. Indian had plenty game, no trouble and was fat. White man comes and Indian go out and kill meat to feed him. Indian give white man clothes to wear and warm him by Indian fire. Byemby … million white man come and cut down Indian’s wood, kill Indian’s game, take Indian’s gold out of ground, give Indian nothing. Game all gone, wood all gone, Indian cold and hungry, white man no care”

The messages delivered by officials at Discovery Day celebrations reinforced the discovery of Klondike gold as the event that transformed the Yukon. Over the years, they addressed topics that were seen to be important: celebrating British colonization of the Canadian north-west, politics, and involvement in global affairs.

Today, things have changed, and the old narratives seem less relevant. The Yukon is no longer an extension of the British Empire; it is part of the sovereign nation of Canada. Land claims negotiated between Canada and Yukon First Nations over three decades, have given back to First Nations some of their lands, self-determination of their personal affairs, and a greater voice within the territory.

Times have changed, and along with it, so must the narrative. While we enjoyed the holiday, let’s remember that the story of the Yukon did not begin with the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company, or the discovery of Klondike gold 125 years ago, but countless generations before.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. He is the author of six books of Yukon history. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at