Disco era insights on the Yukon economy

Whitehorse "no longer is a city of pioneers working with their hands.

Whitehorse “no longer is a city of pioneers working with their hands. Mining engineers, professional men, government employees, businessmen make up a large percentage of the population and many of these men are married to women who are university graduates.”

You’re right, that’s not from the latest Yukon government promotional website. It’s from the May 1974 edition of Trade and Commerce magazine, which did a special edition on the Yukon economy.

The edition is full of retro gems, and I’m not talking only about the spectacular plaid sport coats and monster sideburns displayed by the Whitehorse business community.

The profile of Whitehorse marvels that “Fashion from the pages of Vogue are in demand, stereo components are displayed in store windows along with massive color TV sets, many of the homes in residential Riverdale subdivision will have a cabin cruiser powerboat stored under canvas in the back garden during the winter months.”

The ads are mostly from the “real” economy: shirtless General Enterprises men laying concrete, Trans North choppers slinging gear into camp, Clinton Creek’s aerial tramway carrying asbestos fibre to the mill for shipment to Whitehorse, and so on.

Perhaps the most retro thing about the magazine is its unswerving confidence in the future of the Yukon. Pretty much every chart shows unrelenting growth: mining production, population, tourism, electricity generation, salaries and wages paid and booze sales. Forest production is the only chart that breaks the pattern; some things never change I suppose.

Government is also getting ready to support the growth. Northern Canada Power Commission’s ad says “First … find your mine anywhere in Northern Canada, then call the power people at NCPC.” There’s also a photo of the architect’s model for the new Yukon government building, including its never-built 11-storey tower that would have provided office space for 800 officials. The Yukon’s Department of Industrial Development also has a full-page ad encouraging investors to put down roots here.

The bar for mineral production in 1973 goes right off the page, but is over $120 million. That’s over $500 million in today’s dollars. There were five operating mines: lead and zinc at Faro, asbestos at Clinton Creek, copper at Whitehorse Copper, silver and lead at United Keno Hill, and tungsten at Cantung. The asbestos mine at Cassiar, B.C. also contributed strongly to the Yukon economy. The magazine reports promising copper exploration near Minto as well as other minerals near Howard Pass, McMillan Pass and the Bonnet Plume.

To put that in perspective, let’s look at some data from the current Department of Economic Development (heirs to the 1974 Department of Industrial Development mentioned above). Mineral production almost hit the $500 million figure in the last few years, but still remains below 1973 levels in inflation-adjusted terms. From 2000-07 it was even lower, never topping $100 million.

So what can we learn today from Trade and Commerce magazine? One lesson is how prone humans are to extrapolate recent trends into the future. The Yukon’s population had gone up from 15,000 in 1964 to 21,000 a decade later. People in their twenties and thirties had only known rapid growth.

But remember the date of the magazine: May 1974. The Arab oil embargo following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war had just ended in March, and oil had quadrupled in price from $3 per barrel to $12. The magazine gives the impression that no one in the Yukon was much worried about it, but the crisis was about to whack the global economy in a big way. For the rest of the seventies, the headlines would be about unemployment, stagflation and spiralling government deficits.

The economic mayhem of the 1970s had a profound impact on the Yukon. Although there is a copper mine at Minto now, most of the exploration properties mentioned above are still not in production. A lot of money must have been lost on projects that didn’t pan out.

It’s a salutary lesson if you’re making a big decision today, whether that’s a big mining investment or buying a house. Behind every decision are a bunch of usually unspoken assumptions about things like interest rates, future house prices, population growth and so on. Those things can fundamentally change faster than we usually think.

The other remarkable thing is how much the Yukon has changed socially in just 40 years. If women are mentioned at all, it is as marriage prospects or secretaries. Of the 53 people pictured in the magazine, just four are women. One is a tourist. Another is a secretary. The only two businesswomen pictured aren’t actually Yukoners, but are part of a visiting Hong Kong delegation. Aboriginal people are barely mentioned. (One of the few times is when Charlie Taylor of Taylor & Drury cuts short his “Man of the Month” interview with Trade and Commerce to go downstairs and personally serve a long-standing First Nations client from Teslin who has come into the store.)

Nowadays, young Yukoners can see female role models in prominent private and public leadership roles, and meetings with aboriginal CEOs and development-corporation chairs are a routine part of business in the Yukon.

It’s a very positive development for our economy.

I wonder what our economy will look like 40 years in the future. Will we be using Google Telepath to find out how the Yukon First Nation asteroid-mining joint venture is going? Or will they still be writing hopeful articles about mining properties in Howard Pass? Will the Department of Economic Development have another new name, and still be working on diversifying the economy?

And, most importantly, will sideburns and plaid be back in style?

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith