Are you getting bored of Canada Day barbecues? Is it always the same-old same-old? You know, beer, burgers and losing a debate about Sir John A. and the Charlottetown Conference to some guy from the Executive Council Office?
This year, dazzle them with your knowledge of the Yukon’s constitutional history.
First of all, remind them that while July 1, 1867 is a very nice holiday, it’s not as important as July 15, 1870. That’s when the Yukon and Canada joined together to create the wonderful country we love so much.
Strictly speaking, this was the day when the Dominion of Canada purchased the Yukon as part of the “North-Western Territory” from the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The old North-Western Territory differed in important ways from today’s Northwest Territories, and not just because it had a hyphen, an extra capital “W” and no “s” at the end. It was, as the name suggests, the bit of territory northwest of the better known Rupert’s Land, which was defined as the land where the rivers drained into Hudson’s Bay. The N-W T, if I can call it that, was the land where the rivers flowed into the Arctic Ocean or Bering Strait. And neither territory included the “British Arctic Territories.” The “BAT” was all the islands in the Arctic except, as everyone knows, the islands in Hudson’s Bay which were part of Rupert’s Land.
Think of the North-Western Territory as today’s Yukon plus the western N.W.T. and the northern bits of British Columbia and Alberta.
Now we get to go way back in history, even before the Plains of Abraham and all that stuff that fills up history books written in Toronto. Back in 1670, some entrepreneurs talked King Charles II into giving them the trading rights for the lands whose rivers drained into Hudson’s Bay. Thus Rupert’s Land and the Hudson’s Bay Company were born.
Then what seems to have happened was that the Bay’s traders kept roving further from the shores of Hudson’s Bay. Soon they crossed the continental divide and were in lands whose rivers ran away from Hudson’s Bay; i.e., the land that would eventually be called the North-Western Territory. As far as I can tell, the Bay’s legal basis for doing this was sketchy. But no one cared. Even Wikipedia doesn’t have an opinion about when the North-Western Territory (and thus today’s Yukon) fell under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company and eventually the British Empire.
It seems to have just happened.
Fast forward to the 1820s. The vague British sphere of influence in northwestern North America is beginning to run into the vague Russian sphere of influence in Alaska. Hudson’s Bay traders are beginning to bump into traders from its Russian counterpart, the Russian-American Company.
It was the age of Empires. The obvious solution, at the time, was to find some Russian and British diplomats who had never been to Alaska or the Yukon, give them some fantastical maps, and have them start drawing lines. This happened in 1825 in Saint Petersburg, capital of Russia at the time.
According to some accounts of the negotiations, at one point the dividing line between Russian America and British America was going to be the 135th meridian. This permits some fanciful historical scenarios. For example, had the border actually been set on the 135th, and had Russia not sold Alaska to the Americans, then the border between the Soviet Union and Canada during the Cold War would have run through the Chinese restaurant at McCrae. (Riverdale would have been a bastion of freedom, and Copper Ridge some kind of drab Soviet housing development.)
But negotiations continued and, perhaps after the soup course and before the beef stroganoff, the British traded deftly and got the land up to the current border on the 141st meridian. Little did they know, but they had just acquired the Klondike gold fields.
The future Yukon was now safely in the British Empire.
But don’t let your friends get back to their Canada Day chit chat just yet. There’s more!
Forward the tape now to 1861 and the Stikine gold rush. So many Americans arrived in the Stikine country that James Douglas, governor of the colony of British Columbia, began to get nervous. He didn’t want any repeat of how an influx of American settlers eventually separated Texas from Mexico. So the “Stickeen Territories” were carved out of the North-Western Territory for some firm and focused British administration.
This included Northern B.C. and – get this – up to 62 degrees North. Which means that what is now Whitehorse was in the “Stickeen Territories.”
Fortunately this absurd state of affairs lasted only a year, when the Stickeen Territories south of 60 degrees were added to British Columbia and the zone from 60 to 62 was tossed back into the North-Western Territory.
Just to make this even more confusing, I should go back to Captain Vancouver and point out that around 1794 he sailed past the Lynn Canal and declared that the land on the other side of the mountains (i.e., the Yukon) should be called “New Norfolk.”
But no one paid any attention and we can return to our narrative. It is now 1870 and the new Dominion of Canada is keen to buy Rupert’s Land, just like the history books say. However, and this is often left out of the history books, the Hudson’s Bay Company was having a sale and threw in the North-Western Territory too.
So for a sum of 300,000 pounds the Canadian government bought the Yukon and various other chunks of land the size of major European countries and renamed them the Northwest Territories.
A few years later, the Klondike gold rush happened and the Yukon was created as a separate territory on June 13, 1898.
Now you can let your friends get back to their barbecue. If they’re mad at you for boring them, perhaps you can invite them to your place on July 15 for a “North-Western Territory Purchase Day” party.
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