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Yukonomist: Why Alaska has 4 times more people than the Yukon, NWT, Nunavut and Greenland combined

Everyone knows about the population disparity, but do they know why?
Keith Halliday

Last week, I looked at Whitehorse’s role as the “moose in the room” when talking about the Yukon population. Almost 80 per cent of Yukoners live in what Statistics Canada charmingly calls the “Whitehorse Census Agglomeration.”

But if Whitehorse was in Alaska, it would only be the fifth largest borough. The Whitehorse agglomeration is significantly smaller than Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Fairbanks North Star Borough and Kenai Peninsula Borough. 

The Whitehorse blob is, however, now bigger than the Juneau borough (although Whitehorsians visiting Alaska’s capital never fail to point out that we still don’t have a Fred Meyer or Costco).

Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage, has almost 300,000 residents but is proportionately less dominant than Whitehorse. It has only 39 per cent of Alaska’s 737,000 people. Even if you include the sprawling neighbouring suburbs of Matanuska-Susitna, population 113,920, you only get to 55 per cent of Alaska’s population.

This may be almost twice the combined population of the Yukon, N.W.T., Nunavut and Greenland, but it also raises the question about why the rest of Alaska also has twice the population of those four places all together.

Alaska is both 3.5 times bigger than the Yukon geographically and 4.5 times more densely populated, on a population-per-square-kilometre basis.

It has many smaller towns in the 5,000 to 10,000 population range, such as Sitka, Ketchikan, Kenai, Bethel and Kodiak. The Yukon has none. Even Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, on the North Slope has 4,552 people. That’s more than double the Yukon’s second biggest town, Dawson City.

This raises an interesting question about the border: is Alaska more densely populated because of economic fundamentals, or do we run things in Canada in a way that discourages growth?

Put another way, back in 1901, if the American plotters in Dawson City behind the shadowy Order of the Midnight Sun had got their way, and detached the Yukon from Canada, how different would things be here?

Before the Gold Rush and things like the Order of the Midnight Sun prompted the Canadian government to pay attention to the Yukon, the border didn’t matter much. Neither the furry animals nor the people who trapped them paid much attention to lines on maps. Prospectors stampeded to wherever the gold was, largely indifferent to whose mining laws they were supposed to follow. Indigenous people were never consulted at international map negotiating sessions.

Things are very different now.

Let’s look at the impact of the border on population through five big drivers of the Yukon and Alaska economies: fish, mining, oil and gas, the military and transfer payments.

On fish, the economic fundamentals are clearly more important than the border. Alaska has more than 10,000 kilometres of coastline, much of which is in very rich fishing waters compared to the Yukon’s Arctic coast. Fishing is a huge contributor to jobs in sizable towns such as Kodiak, Homer and Dutch Harbor. Fishing is lumped in with forestry, agriculture and hunting in the statistics, but the numbers suggest Alaska’s total economic output for these sectors was $637 million in 2022. The figure for the Yukon was $9 million (all figures in Canadian dollars).

On mining, both the Yukon and Alaska have rich and often similar geology, although the Yukon scores slightly higher on the Mineral Potential Index of the Fraser Institute’s Annual Survey of Mining Companies. Alaska’s mining output was $2.9 billion, ten times more than the Yukon’s $281 million. Alaska is bigger and therefore has more rocks, but if you do the math, Alaska’s mining output per square kilometre is triple the Yukon’s.

The border plays a role here, since we have different regulatory regimes. According to the same survey’s Policy Perception Index, Alaska scores #19 out of 86 jurisdictions while the Yukon scores #28. For example, 90 per cent of Alaskan respondents said they got their exploration permits within ten months. Only 42 per cent of Yukon respondents said the same thing.

On oil and gas, there are clear policy differences. At various times since the 1970s, the Canadian and Yukon governments have discouraged offshore and onshore production, including the 2015 fracking ban. This is in contrast to Alaska where, for example, the 2023 approval of the massive Willow oil project garnered support from Republicans, many Democrats as well as some major Alaska Indigenous community and business groups.

Alaska’s oil and gas extraction industry generated $11.5 billion in economic output, almost quadruple the entire Yukon economy. Our output here was zero, although we import about 4,400 litres of fossil fuel per person per year.

Then there is the military. Alaska has an entire airborne division, an Arctic combat training centre plus world-class airbases at Anchorage and Fairbanks. Canada famously under-invests in its military. If the entire Canadian military ever had to fight the U.S. military based in Alaska, it would not go well.

Whatever you think of Canada’s defence stance in the North, this is a big economic difference. Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks shows up by itself in the census with 3,392 people, more than any place in the Yukon except Whitehorse.

U.S. government spending on the military contributes $3.8 billion to Alaska’s economy, a figure larger than the entire Yukon economy.

Partly making up for the military spending is federal transfers. The Yukon gets $29,585 per person from Ottawa, while Alaska gets a third as much at $10,325 per person from Washington. This contributes to population concentration, since we spend most of our federal money on government operations in Whitehorse while the U.S. military is spread across the state.

Alaska’s big private-sector and military industries also have positive ripples in terms of infrastructure and support industries. For example, Alaska’s manufacturing industry includes things like seafood processing and oil-and-gas equipment. It was worth $2.2 billion, a hundred times bigger than the Yukon equivalent. 

Such industries also spread economic opportunity around the state. Doyon is an example. The Alaska Native corporation for Interior Alaska owns a highly successful drilling operation with nine advanced rigs on the North Slope.

None of this is to say that Alaska has a better model than the Yukon. The state has some major issues, too. Few Yukoners regret that the Order of the Midnight Sun turned out to be just a historical footnote. But next time some naive Cheechako visits and asks you why 80 per cent of the population lives in one big government town, you can say it’s because of the fish … and the choices we made.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and the winner of the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist. His most recent book Moonshadows, a Yukon-noir thriller, is available in Yukon bookstores.