Even cheechakos can sometimes be right

"Meddlin' southerners. Here I was, an old-time Yukoner minding my own business, when an influx of buzz-kills from Ontario showed up wanting to control every bit of my life." Yukoner's are likely familiar with this line of thinking.

“Meddlin’ southerners. Here I was, an old-time Yukoner minding my own business, when an influx of buzz-kills from Ontario showed up wanting to control every bit of my life.” Yukoner’s are likely familiar with this line of thinking. It regularly creeps up in casual discussions and online forums – such as comments section of this newspaper, and the Facebook pages of Yukon politicians.

You see it employed in debates over issues like restrictions on the use of offroad vehicles and shooting grizzly bears from the roadside. But it is not really an “argument” in the true sense of the word, because it doesn’t actually go to the heart of the issues, but rather serves as a convenient rallying tool.

I prefer to call it a “meme,” which Wikipedia defines as “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Like most memes, there is a grain of truth to the caricature of the meddling southerner. It is certainly true that the Yukon has become a heavily bureaucratized place and sadly has lost a lot of its “frontier” character – even in my relatively short lifetime.

My family first came to the Yukon in the early 1970s. At that time my parents were able to secure a parcel of land near remote Frederick Lakes (between Kusawa and Dezdeash Lake) with relatively little fuss. These days, with land claims and a bloated government bureaucracy, the same acquisition would require various approvals and consultations, if it would be possible at all.

It is also true that the territory has a large professional civil service, much of which is formed of migrants from the south, many of whom who prefer skis and bicycles to snowmobiles and quads. This brings them into inevitable conflict with what my dad likes to call “highly mechanized” Yukoners, both old and new.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether various outdoor activities impart significant enough “harm” to justify restrictions. There are arguments both for and against roadside hunting, the unrestricted use of off road vehicles and other issues that are beyond the scope of this column. But the meme must be challenged nonetheless.

First and foremost, it is parochial and xenophobic. A person’s place of origin has as much bearing on an argument as the colour of their hair or their musical tastes.

People have a fundamental right to migrate and to have a say in their new community. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that every Canadian citizen has the right to “move to and take up residence in any province (or territory),” to “freedom of expression” and “to vote in an election of members… of a legislative assembly”.

Each person is entitled to one vote – whether that person just moved here from Ontario or has lived in the territory for 50 years.

There is also a “slippery slope” tone to the meme. There seems to be a genuine fear that limiting ATV use to trails, or forcing hunters to move a few hundred feet off the highway to take their kill, will eventually lead to the complete banning of hunting and offroad vehicles in the territory.

These fears show a profound misreading of the political culture of the Yukon. Supporters of such complete bans represent a fringe constituency in the territory and any such proposal would be political suicide for its boosters.

The meme of the meddling southerner also ignores a history of environmental sensitivity in the territory. I can recall as a young child that commercial highway signs that were routinely spray painted with the acronym “Y.L.F.” or “Yukon Liberation Front” – a “group” (surely in the loosest sense of the word) dedicated to eliminating what it saw as the blight of highway advertisements on the landscape.

I’d also note that the names of the various members of the Trails Only Yukon Association – an organization devoted to increased regulation of off road vehicles in the territory – are immediately recognizable as long-term residents of the territory. Many of them have been here longer than many of those complaining about southern influence have been.

Environmentally focused people have been in the Yukon for some time.

Finally, there is the reality that the Yukon has changed. The population has by no means exploded, but our choices in recreational activities have certainly changed.

When I was a child a family may have one snowmobile or perhaps a quad. Today they are ubiquitous. The best illustration of this new reality is the Skagway summit – a place that was relatively quiet in the 1980s – whereas now, on any given winter day, it is chock-full of people ripping around the mountainside.

I’m not criticizing this activity. I’m simply saying the impetus for various regulatory changes is not migration but changed circumstances. There is a push for more regulation of these activities because they are far more prevalent today than in the past, and consequently have more impact.

So by all means make your case why we should reject new regulations, and maintain (or even restore) the frontier Yukon of the 20th century. It is your right to do so, and the public debate is improved by your participation in it. But do so without demonizing fictitious caricatures like the migrants from the south who want to control your life.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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